Rugby reflections: a look back at the 8 World Cups

In eight Rugby World Cup tournaments, four countries have claimed the title: New Zealand three times, including the last two, Australia and South Africa twice each, and England. As Japan prepares to host the tournament in Asia for the first time, here's a look at the previous editions of rugby's signature event:

1987: New Zealand 29, France 9

The All Blacks' first title came when they shared hosting rights with Australia. It would be another 24 years, when they hosted the World Cup on their own, that they would win their second. There was no qualifying tournament for the first edition: seven of the 16 spots went to the leading International Rugby Board members — New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France. The remaining nine spots were given out by invitation to Argentina, Fiji, Italy, Canada, Romania, Tonga, Japan, Zimbabwe and the United States.

South Africa wasn't allowed to compete because of the international sports boycott in the apartheid era.

New Zealand's win in the final at Eden Park came after France had an upset 30-24 win over Australia in Sydney in the semifinals and the Kiwis overwhelmed Wales 49-6.

Rugby was still an amateur game at that stage, and several websites still report somewhat quirkily that New Zealand fullback John Gallagher, who had been one of the stars for the winners, was back on his policeman's beat the morning after the final.


1991: Australia 12, England 6

Twickenham provided the venue for the first of Australia's two World Cup titles, with Nick Farr-Jones as captain and Bob Dwyer as coach. The tournament was co-hosted by England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France — then known as the Five Nations.

England beat Scotland 9-6 in the semifinals and Australia defeated New Zealand 16-6. In the final, England abandoned its preference for 10-man rugby dominated by forward play and Rob Andrew's kicking, in a bid to beat the Wallabies at their own game — running rugby. It backfired for the English.

The Australians were relieved to make the final and had nothing to lose after their narrow quarterfinal win over Ireland at Lansdowne Road, which rates among the World Cup's all-time classic matches.

Ireland nearly pulled off an astonishing upset, with only some last-minute heroics giving Australia a 19-18 victory.

Trailing 18-15 with five minutes remaining after Ireland scored a late try, Australia flyhalf Michael Lynagh took a quick penalty tap rather than a safe shot at goal. Tim Horan and Jason Little each made valuable gains before David Campese leapt for the line, falling just short.

Campese managed, however, to loft the ball to Lynagh, who crossed for the winning points.


1995: South Africa 15, New Zealand 12

This edition was all about South Africa. It was the first World Cup final needing extra time, and also one of the most dramatic and touching for the hosts.

Playing in the tournament for the first time following the end of apartheid rule, the Springboks emerged victorious at Ellis Park in Johannesburg before 63,000 fans, including then-president Nelson Mandela. Joel Stransky provided all of South Africa's points, including his dropped goal in extra time that sealed the win, and Andrew Mehrtens kicked all of New Zealand's points.

The tournament's defining moment came when Mandela, wearing a Springboks cap — once considered symbolic of the apartheid regime — presented the Webb Ellis Cup to South Africa captain Francois Pienaar.

Mandela and Pienaar's involvement in the World Cup was the subject of the 2009 film "Invictus," including Mandela's insistence that black South Africans not scrap the Springboks name for the national rugby team, at the risk of more racial alienation.

There were a number of conspiracy theories surrounding New Zealand's unexpected loss, including reports that many of the players may have been suffering from food poisoning in the two days leading up to the final. New Zealand coach Laurie Mains alleged a mysterious waitress had deliberately tampered with the water.


1999: Australia 35, France 12

It was the first World Cup of the sport's professional era, and Australia picked up its second title with victory in the final at Millennium Stadium. Wales was the principal host, while England, France, Scotland and Ireland hosted games.

A change in the format meant the big eight rugby nations did not qualify automatically. Only the champions, the runners-up, and third-place team from 1995 and the host nation were given automatic entry. South Africa, New Zealand, France and Wales were assured of their places in the expanded 20-team tournament with 65 nations taking part in the qualifying process.

Jonah Lomu scored eight tries in the tournament for New Zealand, but the All Blacks capitulated in the semifinals in a 43-31 loss to France despite having a big early lead. Lomu, one of the biggest stars ever in the game, died in 2015. Australia edged South Africa in the other semifinal, and captain John Eales went on to collect his second World Cup title.


2003: England 20, Australia 17

Jonny Wilkinson's dropped goal with just 26 seconds left in extra time gave England a three-point win in Sydney, made him a megastar in the sport, and earned coach Clive Woodward a knighthood back in Britain. It was the first — and still only — title won by a northern hemisphere team in the tournament.

The event was staged entirely in Australia after New Zealand surrendered co-hosting rights in a contractual dispute with Rugby World Cup Limited over stadium signage rights.

Hot favorite England beat France 24-7 in the semifinals and Australia had a surprising 22-10 win over New Zealand.

Wilkinson kicked four penalties before his dropped goal in the Nov. 22 final at Sydney's Olympic stadium which sparked mass celebrations on the other side of the planet.


2007: South Africa 15, England 6

There were 80,000-plus at the final at Stade de France to witness the Springboks becoming the second team to claim two World Cup titles.

The French had raised home expectations by edging New Zealand 20-18 in the quarterfinals in Cardiff, Wales in a shocking day that saw both Australia and the All Blacks beaten by European teams in the space of six hours. England had upset Australia 12-10 in Marseille earlier in the day in a rematch of the 2003 final, and went on to end French hopes with a 14-9 semifinal win.

South Africa had thrashed England 36-0 in pool play and was the only undefeated team in the competition heading into the Oct. 20 final. The championship match was a dour, try-less encounter, with four penalties by fullback Percy Montgomery and one by center Francois Steyn providing the Springboks with their points. Jonny Wilkinson kicked a pair of penalties for England.


2011: New Zealand 8, France 7

New Zealand hosted the tournament on its own and, at the end, the All Blacks hoisted the trophy in the lowest-scoring final. France had eked past Wales 9-8 in the semifinals while New Zealand had a 20-6 win over trans-Tasman foes Australia, which had edged defending champion South Africa 11-9 in yet another low-scoring game.

The All Blacks went into the final unbeaten, and like in 1987, had advanced from the same pool as France (New Zealand won the group-stage head-to-head 37-17). The final was a different story, with New Zealanders clearly feeling nerves after some upset losses to the French at previous World Cups. Ahead 5-0 at halftime in a final at Eden Park, New Zealand injury replacement Stephen Donald kicked a penalty in the second half which turned out to be the difference.


2015: New Zealand 34, Australia 17

From the lowest-scoring final in 2011, the 2015 final at Twickenham featured a record five tries from the often bitter southern hemisphere rivals. The All Blacks became the first team to successfully retain the Webb Ellis Cup. With New Zealand leading 27-17 and Australia needing to score quick tries to stay in the match, the Wallabies lost the ball, which was kicked ahead by Ben Smith. That allowed Beauden Barrett to chase and score the clinching try. The tournament was notable for some other firsts.

— England lost pool games to Wales and Australia to become the first World Cup hosts eliminated in the group stage.

— It also marked the first time a northern hemisphere team failed to advance past the quarterfinals.

But the upset of the tournament — and some say the biggest in the history of rugby — was Japan's 34-32 win over South Africa in the seaside town of Brighton. Late in the game, a successful kick at goal could have tied it at 32, but Japan's New Zealand-born captain Michael Leitch appeared to go against the coach's instructions and instead kept playing for a try.

"I'd rather go down challenging South Africa than kicking the goal, missing, and regretting it for the rest of my life," Leitch said after winger Karne Hesketh, another Kiwi, slid over after multiple phases of play to give Japan an epic victory.

The Japan coach was Eddie Jones, who guided Australia to the 2003 final. Jones will be back in Japan at yet another World Cup — this time guiding England.


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