Play on…

And so we begin the Rugby World Cup. Alongside us, hope, that most dangerous of drinking partners. In front of us, the undecided. Minutes into quarters into halves into wholes, match upon match of rugby potential. That lot versus us. Keep them out, yet get within. Pass, kick, tackle. One oval ball, one capricious bounce, one life changing moment.

Come November we will wake, groggy; the knowledge of what has come to pass sinking in. The vanquished and the victors; what could have been and what was. We shall have learnt something new. For this is six weeks of study; the previews and the write ups, the statistics and the lies. Poring over team sheets, a sucking in through teeth, searching for a key to the door; the individual battle can win the war.

1989: Grant Fox of New Zealand kicks the ball during the match against Newport at Rodney Parade in Newport, Wales. New Zealand won the match 54-9. Mandatory Credit: Russell Cheyne/Allsport

Back in 1987 it was all new. Rugby, despite its Victorian tapestry, has a World Cup of youth. New Zealand hosted the inaugural contest and I have enough years to remember it. Kirwan’s high knees etched onto my rugby cortex; Jeffrey, Blanco, Winterbottom, Thorburn. I wanted to be able to kick like Grant Fox. So did all of those participating. The All Blacks became World Champions, but weren’t they always going to be? Binding.

1991 and England drop goaled their way passed Scotland to the final and met up with Campese’s box of tricks. Nick Farr Jones’ smile was wide and Lynagh’s hair immaculate, still is. On their way to the title, the Aussies met the most spirited Irish side I can remember: Geoghan, Mullin, Lenihan, Matthews. Big Willy ‘O’ and friends had just enough to get out of Lansdowne Road. Off their feet.

In 1995; Lomu. Jonah the unstoppable, crunching opposition as he strode; the ball in one hand, a fullback’s skull in the other. South Africa were the hosts, and faced down the big Maori and his crew in the final. They would have to draw on intervention; Mandela was bigger than rugby’s biggest winger. Oh Madiba, berobed in Afrikaans green, hand in hand with history, for rugby’s most iconic moment. When sport isn’t just sport. Everyone onside.

1999 and the Millennium Stadium. A professional World Cup. New Zealand trying to shake off a worrying pattern; something sticking in their throats; the French, in the semi-final, little Domenici and Christophe TheHouse. Les Bleus dispose of the Blacks but come unstuck in the final; Australia and their goal kicking lock-forward; the man with Webb Ellis gold and the simplest of nicknames. John Eales is ‘Nobody’, because ‘Nobody is perfect’. Wallabies lift the trophy again. Double movement.

Talking of Australian perfection, 2003 and Jonny. First on, last off. Practice makes penalty kicks and probably drop goals. Before the dead duck took flight from Wilkinson’s boot, ickle Shane and Billy Whizz showed us wingers don’t have to be like Jonah. When Wales met New Zealand sticks out. Ninety points shared, two nations akin, separate hemispheres but the language of rugby rolled so lovingly off the tongue. Neither good enough for the final, let’s relive that moment; Dawson then Johnson then Dawson to Wilkinson. Lots of jumping, Heathrow electric. Lifting.

2007 brought us the biggest commercial success of a World Cup. We had learnt how to make money. France were hosts and South Africa became the second team to become champions twice. France overcame the All Blacks again, Wayne ‘the deck’ Barnes scrawling his name into antipodean folk lore. England made the final, the embers of 2003 still warm. Not warm enough to burn off Victor and Schalk and a fullback called Percy. Argentina announced themselves claiming third and three nations thought to become four. Through the gate.

SAINT-DENIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 07: Argentine players celebrate victory after the opening match of the Rugby World Cup 2007 between France and Argentina at the Stade de France on September 7, 2007 in Saint-Denis, France. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

2011 and Wales get close. Alain Rolland sends off Warburton and the valleys ache for what could have been. But the All Blacks are at home and running out of reasons why they can’t win it. So they do. Not before their best No.10 limps away from the tournament though. Leave Carter, get Donald; someone has to be sent to interrupt the fly fishing. France in the final; the team who know the location of All Black pressure points; nerve held, Stephen casts true, the ball through the sticks and Richie gets his paws on the prize. Hands in.

So how do we top that 2015? Goodness knows. But we shall have a lot of fun finding out.
Play on.

Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.

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