The Biggest Upsets in Rugby World Cup History

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In the wake of Uruguay’s shock victory against Fiji at the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium on September 28, it felt pertinent to take a look back at some of the most memorable Rugby World Cup upsets from over the years. Little did any of us know, that just three days later Japan would send shockwaves around the sporting world – for the second World Cup in a row – by toppling Ireland 19-12 in their Pool A encounter.

So, after a little delving into the tournament archives and reliving the best of those jaw-dropping encounters, here’s a quick reminder of the greatest upsets in the history of the Rugby World Cup.

France vs New Zealand (1999)

Les Bleus Take Down Les All Blacks

Since the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, the French have been like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get. Their 1999 semi-final against New Zealand typifies that erratic unpredictability.

The All Blacks came into the game as overwhelming favorites. Jonah Lomu, a beast of 6 feet 5 inches, 270 pounds and the ability to run 100m in under 11 seconds, was in the form of his career. The rest of New Zealand’s starting 15 was strewn with legends: Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen, Zinzan Brooke. With France down by 14 points after 47 minutes gone, it looked like the inevitable was on the cards. Then came la magie.

Some inspired kicking from fly-half Christophe Lamaison brought France within touching distance at 22-24. What followed is something that I’ll never forget: a barrage of sensational breakaway tries in quick succession, from Christophe Dominici, Richard Dourthe and Philippe Bernat-Salles. France had a sense of belief and desire that was palpable from the other side of the boxy, ’90s television screen. I remember sitting there as a 5-year-old truly in awe of what I was witnessing. It was sporting theatre, a frantic drama with the script thrown out the window. The final score was France 43 – 31 New Zealand. The unstoppable All Blacks weren’t just beaten, they were battered.

Tonga vs France (2011)

The French Annihilation in Wellington

Tonga’s victory over France in 2011 once again highlights the danger of trying to predict the French. France coming into the game ranked 4th in the world, faced a Tongan side which had lost to a poor Canada team only two weeks previously.

Ultimately, France had an evening to forget, but let’s not take anything away from an incredibly dominant Tongan performance. The game was far from pretty – just ask the many players who limped bloody and bruised from the field – but by God was it tense. Tonga let a number of opportunities go begging during the scrappy affair, but the physicality and passion for which the country is known was brought to new heights for the full 80 minutes, from the opening haka to the final scrum, which ended with their 19-14 victory.

As chance would have it, Tonga would rue its defeat to Canada, and a stumbling French side would remarkably go all the way to the final. A final, which frankly, they should have won.

Japan vs South Africa (2015)

The Brave Blossoms Will Not Wilt Away

Dubbed ‘The Miracle in Brighton’, Japan’s 34–32 victory over South Africa in 2015 beggared belief. Barring profanities, most people who bore witness to that breath-taking encounter were completely lost for words. Upsets of this magnitude didn’t happen in international rugby.

Every time South Africa, a titan of rugby union and two-time World Champions, took the lead, Japan seemed to have a response. Captain Michael Leitch and kicker Ayumu Gorumaru – who contributed 24 points – put in performances of a lifetime. And to have the audacity to go for a try in the dying embers of the game, when a penalty kick would have guaranteed a draw, showed how much belief Eddie Jones had instilled in his group of players. Watching Karne Hesketh cross in the corner for the final act of the game still sends ripples of gooseflesh all over the body; as do the images of Japanese players face down on the ground in varying states of shock and ecstasy following the final whistle.

Fiji vs Uruguay (2019)

The Miracle in Kamaishi

Upon the culmination of Uruguay’s 30–27 victory over Fiji on September 25, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a liberated people celebrating their new found freedom; such were the scenes of elation. Beasts of men sobbing collective tears of joy after ousting one of the world’s greatest and proudest rugby nations.

It was a classic underdog story, and every sporting neutral worth their salt loves one of those. Uruguay, a team with eight amateur players in the squad, hadn’t won a World Cup game since 2003. Traditionally it was a tournament outlier showing up for the developed nations to batter en route to a quarter final. Against Fiji however, the team’s prior credentials counted for nought.

The Uruguayans defended like their lives depended on it, and crossed the whitewash on three occasions (showing some sublime Fijian-esque offloading skills in the process). As the final whistle blew and victory was sealed, only the coldest of heart could have begrudged those sky-blue warriors their moment of glory in the autumn sun.

Japan vs Ireland (2019)

Brave Blossoms Prove Success is More Than Luck

And so, we come to the pièce de résistance of Rugby World Cup upsets. I’m Irish, so take my word with a pinch of salt, but have you ever been more shocked? Even a full two weeks down the line, the sports pages are still threaded with stories harkening back to Japan’s 19-12 victory in Shizuoka.

Japan was fantastic against Ireland, particularly in the second half, playing above and beyond what most pundits thought the team was capable of. It used a combination of scintillating rugby and brute force physicality to nullify one of the best and most disciplined defences in World Rugby. It was the game that set this already fantastic tournament alight. And the noise when Kenki Fukuoka went over in the corner for Japan’s winning try, was unlike anything I have ever heard in a sports stadium.

After securing a bonus point win against Scotland and top spot in pool A last weekend, doubts have been raised as to whether Japan’s victory over Ireland was in fact an upset. Maybe the team is just that good now? Either way, Japan has undeniably thrown down the gauntlet, and the World Cup is better for it. South Africa in the quarterfinals awaits; a mouth-watering repeat clash of four years ago. And to tell the truth, I don’t think the Springboks will be particularly thrilled at the prospect.

Feature photo by Warren Little – World Rugby via Getty Images

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