The history of Rugby World Cup opening matches

The Rugby World Cup 2023 match schedule revealed a mouth-watering opener between hosts France and three-time champions New Zealand. Here we take a look at how previous RWC curtain-raisers have impacted the rest of the tournament and beyond.

Never in the history of Rugby World Cup – and we are now approaching the 10th edition – will an opening match be as eagerly anticipated as France v New Zealand on 8 September, 2023.

In what is a rerun of the inaugural final of 1987 and also 2011, both wins to the All Blacks, Les Bleus will be looking to begin their home tournament with a bang, not a whimper, as they did when losing to Argentina, first-up, in 2007. Inflicting a first-ever pool defeat on New Zealand would be a huge statement of intent.

With France and their so-called golden generation looking set to be in very good shape by the time 2023 comes around and the All Blacks hellbent on reclaiming the Webb Ellis Cup from South Africa, the tournament could not have asked for a more high-profile encounter to kick off proceedings.

Kirwan brings Rugby World Cup to life

It has not always been this way, however. Before the opening match of Rugby World Cup 1987 no-one really knew what to expect, and it was impossible to envisage how big the tournament would become.

Sure, there was a sense of excitement as 16 teams from all corners of the world gathered together for a rugby jamboree, but the build-up in Auckland and elsewhere was very low-key compared to today.

Thankfully, a sparkling second-half performance from the All Blacks and a brilliant solo try by John Kirwan in a 70-6 over Italy at Eden Park got everyone talking and Rugby World Cup has developed into the third biggest sporting event in the world.

It’s fair to say the curtain-raiser at the second Rugby World Cup in 1991 fell a little flat, as the All Blacks kept England try-less in an 18-12 victory – the first of three wins in the opening match for New Zealand. England recovered from that setback to make the final, losing to Australia on home turf.

Wallabies win set Boks on road to glory

As defending champions, Australia were the team to beat at Rugby World Cup 1995, the first time South Africa, the host nation, were involved.

The Springboks knew they could get the nation behind them if they won, and they duly obliged with a 27-18 victory giving them the momentum they needed to go all the way.

“No-one outside of South Africa really expected anything of us but because of Kitch Christie’s positivity we didn’t lack for self-belief, and we were confident everything would fall into place if we beat Australia, the defending champions, in our first game. We really dominated them on the day and that gave us an easier route to the final,” recalled centre Japie Mulder.

The Springboks famously went on to beat the All Blacks in the first final to go to extra-time, as the nation came together as one in celebration.

Pumas announce arrival on the world stage

Argentina appeared in three successive RWC opening matches from 1999-2007, losing the first two to Wales (23-18) and Australia (24-8) before stunning France in the third. That 17-12 result in the Pumas’ favour was, beyond doubt, the Rugby World Cup opening match with the biggest impact as it paved the way for the South Americans’ entry into Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship.

However, winger Diego Albanese believes the journey to the ground-breaking victory in Paris, which they repeated later in the same tournament against France in the bronze medal decider, began in Cardiff in 1999.

“When we played the first game of that World Cup against Wales, at the Millennium Stadium, that was the first time we had ever played in a packed national stadium. That’s when we started to get used to playing at that level. Before that World Cup, we had three professional rugby players in Argentina, afterwards at least half of the team went to Europe to play professionally.”

Having won only one match in the first three Rugby World Cups, Argentina followed up their narrow defeat to Wales in the opening match of RWC 1999 with wins against Samoa, Japan and then, famously, against Ireland in the quarter-final play-offs.

“People talk about the match-winning try I scored in the quarter-final play-off against Ireland, but it needed Gonzalo Quesada to kick a brilliant touchline conversion and also seven minutes at the end when we had to defend for our lives. That is what stood out for me.”

Argentina failed to progress as far as they’d have liked in Australia in 2003, narrowly losing to Ireland to miss out on the last eight.

But they set their stall out at the start of 2007 with a brilliant display against France. Felipe Contepomi kicked four penalties in a man-of-the-match performance and Ignacio Corleto scored the only try in a game where Juan Martín Hernández’s raw talent was unveiled to the world.

Fiji win papered over England cracks

In truth, the opening matches of the three Rugby World Cups that followed failed to come anywhere close in terms of drama, with New Zealand (41-10 v Tonga, 2011), England (35-11 v Fiji, 2015) and Japan (30-10 v Russia, 2019) winning with relative ease.

While New Zealand used the Tonga result as a springboard to go on and win the tournament for the first time in 24 years and Japan reached the quarter-finals for the first time in history, few England fans would have anticipated that the Fiji win would be as good as it got for them.

Defeats against Wales and Australia in their next two games rendered the result of their final game against Uruguay immaterial and England became the first host team to exit the tournament at the pool stages.

Such a fate for the France team of 2023 is unthinkable and a win over the All Blacks first-up would do wonders for their confidence as they bid to put past near-misses behind them and become world champions for the first time. 

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