TOKYO, 1 Nov - As he prepares for a Rugby World Cup final which will be a truly global spectacle watched by millions, the great New Zealand winger Sir John Kirwan can reflect with a smile on just how far the tournament has come since that dank Auckland afternoon when he first sparked it into life 32 years ago.
"It was so low-key, you wouldn’t believe," he laughs, when he remembers the very first match of the very first World Cup in 1987 as the All Blacks took on Italy at Eden Park at the start of an event which was considered just a bit of a curio.
"The interesting thing for me was that it was on a Friday afternoon and there were only 13,000 people there in a 50,000 stadium, so there wasn't much of an atmosphere," recalled Kirwan.
"A few guys might have taken the afternoon off work for a bit of fun. No one could possibly have imagined back then what the tournament was to go on to become."
#OnThisDay in 1987, the very first Rugby World Cup game took place at Eden Park.— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) May 22, 2019
John Kirwan capped the occasion by scoring one of the greatest tries we've seen in the 32 years since 😲 pic.twitter.com/zYplWSfl8n
Yet there were 15 seconds of magic in that opener on 22 May, 1987 which did more than anything to launch this new competition into the public consciousness - and they were conjured up by 'JK', the fleet-footed 22-year-old local lad who worked in his dad's butcher's shop.
With the All Blacks already comfortably beating the Italians, captain David Kirk collected a kick-off, passed inside to Grant Fox who then unleashed the blond bombshell Kirwan well inside his own 22 to embark on his wondrous, weaving 80-metre solo run that saw him beat six Italian defenders and go over for a score that, even today, many still consider to be the greatest World Cup try of them all.
In an instant, with the crowd now roaring, the tournament had been given lift-off, and things were never to be quite the same for global rugby ever again.
"I don't like to say that it was my try that did it but but we certainly did launch the World Cup that day," said Kirwan. "We were doing new things that rugby hadn't seen, experiments, counter-attacking deep from kick-off, trying to change the game.
"From no one really giving a hoot about that first game, by the time we came out of the hotel a few weeks later for our final (against France, in which he also scored a memorable try) we had helicopters and the world's media following us and people lining the streets. It was like, 'Wow, what the hell is going on?' The whole ball game had changed.
JK’s masterpiece was carved out among the trees
"At that time, I'd been training with an old rugby league friend of my father, Neil Denton, who got me practising running through the trees at a park in NZ. It was called One Tree Hill but actually there were 10, all a few yards apart, and he got me trying to step them at full pace. Could I do it? No chance at first. I'd just run into the trees - and they tackled pretty hard too, to be fair.
"I was banging into the trees when I went full pelt and it was incredibly frustrating that I couldn't do it. It took me three months to get confident and another three months to get to full pace - and by the time I scored that try, I was just seeing those Italian defenders as trees! I’ve never watched it since because I’ve never felt comfortable about seeing myself.
"But I can still remember it; I step at one point, then a double step - that's the trees - and I remember not enjoying it too much because at one point, when I went through a gap, I didn't change the ball from my right hand to the left and there was a prop coming across to try to tackle me. It could have cost me that try. That's me, though; it's why I say to people that I’m a recovering perfectionist.
Kirwan’s favourite try of RWC 2019 is another All Blacks classic
"There have been some great ones here. I loved that length-of-the-field try the Fijians scored against Georgia, finished off by Api Ratuniyarawa, and the brilliant one where the two Japan wingers combined to score against Scotland, with Kenki Fukuoka off-loading to Kotaro Matsushima.
"But the best has got to be TJ Perenara flying airborne to the line against Namibia after that outrageous behind-the-back pass from Brad Weber. That’s the stuff I love, that’s why I watch the game. I don't watch the game to watch 82 box-kicks - even though as a rugby purist, I did enjoy that Wales-South Africa match of physical chess.
"But I do love to see players, like with the TJ try, under the biggest microscope, on the highest stage pulling off something so audacious for a great individual score. So, in a way, I guess there was a connection that goes back to my try all those years ago."