The staging of the 2007 Rugby World Cup returned to the Northern Hemisphere as France took its turn to host rugby's most prestigious event. Although a small number of matches would by played out at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium and Edinburgh's Murrayfield, the lion's share of the tournament belonged to France, and a nation expected. With the trophy being clinched by a northern Hemisphere team four years previously, the weight of expectation on Les Bleus as host nation was enormous.
Using the same four pools of five teams format as the previous tournament, with the four-try bonus point and losing bonus point systems also employed, Pool A saw heavy weights South Africa and England matched with South Sea island giants Samoa and Tonga, with minnows the USA rounding off the five. Wales, in Pool B, were drawn against former two times world champions Australia, with Fiji, Canada and Japan completing the draw. Pool C saw the favourites New Zealand pitted against Six Nations rivals Scotland and Italy, and developing rugby nations Portugal and Romania whilst the Pool of Death saw hosts France, Ireland and Argentina included with smaller nations Namibia and Georgia; with only two quarter-final berths up for grabs from each pool, it was a certainty that one of the top rugby nations would make a premature exit form the World Cup in Pool D.
Ahead of the tournament it was regarded that Wales's toughest opponent were heavyweight contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy, Australia. Having last beaten the antipodeans in 2005 at the Millennium Stadium, the setting for their future Pool B encounter, it seemed a mountain for the Welsh to climb, but a scalable one nonetheless. Australia, though, showed their intent in the opening Pool fixture as they demolished Japan in a 91-3 victory, though they only led by twenty points at the interval due to the efforts of a plucky Japanese defence. Wallaby flanker Rocky Elsom set a record in the match for the fastest hat-trick scored by a forward in Rugby World Cup history; he notched his third try a minute after the interval break.
Wales began their 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign against Canada on September 9th. Staged in Nantes, the Welsh began the encounter in a nervy fashion. Although James Hook steadied the ship somewhat with three early penalties the Canadian abrasive tackling gained them a deserved 17-9 lead at half time; Jamie Cudmore and Craig Culpan powering over the Welsh whitewash. Wales Coach Gareth Jenkins made pivotal substitutions in Gareth Thomas, Colin Charvis and Stephen Jones on fifty minutes as a shock seemed to be on the cards. The cavalry changed the dimension of the match completely. With fresh legs came renewed belief and determination; tries from Sonny Parker and Alun Wyn Jones pushed Wales into the lead with a quarter of the game remaining. Shane Williams, who had made an earlier blunder with the try line at his mercy, made amends with a quick fire double in four minutes whilst Charvis completed the Welsh try-scoring with a late effort.
Fiji won the opening game of their campaign, three days after the initial Pool B matches had been played, in one of the most exciting Pool games of the entire tournament. Japan had taken an early lead and then trailed by just a single point at the interval after an open forty minutes. The lead see-sawed in the second half but Kele Leawere's try seemed to signal the end of the contest. Yet Japan rallied, throwing the kitchen sink at their rivals; Luke Thompson's try reduced the gap to just four points for the Cherry Blossoms and despite further pressure, they conceded a 35-31 loss to the Fijians, claiming a losing bonus point for their efforts.
In THE crunch match of Pool B, Wales hosted Australia at the Millennium Stadium on September 15th. Playing in the first of two Pool B matches at the Millennium Stadium, Wales failed to take advantage of their home crowd as they slumped to a 25-3 half time deficit. Scores from Matt Giteau, Stirling Mortlock and Chris Latham on the stroke of half-time compounded the heavy deficit as the team left the field with shoulders slumped for the interval.
As Wales made their way back down the tunnel and onto the hallowed turf they journeyed towards a twenty-two point fissure looming large up ahead. Yet some smarter decisions led to Australia's advantage being drastically reduced soon after the break thanks to a try-scoring effort from Jonathan Thomas and a penalty from James Hook. Latham secured his brace soon after, ultimately giving the Australians a lead that they were unlikely to relinquish, on Welsh soil or not. The most impressive passage of Welsh play came in the final quarter. Nippy winger Shane Williams crossed the Aussie whitewash with five minutes of play remaining to round off the scores at 32-20. Wales's loss handed Australia a maximum points total of ten, as bonus points had been gained in each match of their campaign thus far, whilst the defeat set-up a must-win clash with Japan five days later again at the home of Welsh rugby.
A plucky Japan entered the clash with Wales after a superb showing against Fiji and with confidence riding high. The Japanese took an early lead with Shotaro Onishi grabbing a fourth minute penalty for the Cherry Blossoms. Alun Wyn Jones powered over the whitewash after ten minutes played to redress the balance of the game; Stephen Jones's conversion took the Welsh into a 7-3 lead. However, yet to stamp their authority on their visitors, Wales again conceded; Kosuke Endo, leaving scorch marks on the field of play, streaked to Wales's line for one of the best breakaway tries of the tournament and pushed his team into an 8-7 lead.
After the initial Japanese onslaught, Wales sought to regain the lead. A penalty from Jones did just this four minutes later, which was immediately followed by a James Hook try; Jones's conversion gave Wales a 17-8 advantage after 25 minutes played. Hooker Rhys Thomas followed suit with a try just after the half hour mark but Japan clawed back another three points through another Onishi penalty. Wales led by 24-11 as the half time break approached but fullback Kevin Morgan gave the scoreboard a more flattering visage with another try on the stroke of the interval, the conversion going awry.
The second half witnessed Wales asserting dominance that fans could have expected in the first period. Scrum half Michael Phillips crossed the whitewash after just two minutes played in the new half whilst wingers Shane Williams and Dafydd James both added scores before a quarter of an hour had passed. Wales were punished by Japan soon after Jones's conversion of the veteran's try as a loose pass from Alun Wyn Jones was intercepted by Hitoshi Ono, the ball finding its way to Hirotoki Onozawa for another superb try. Bryce Robins converted the score, but these were to be the final Japanese points scored in the matches Wales powered to an eleven try victory.
Replacement scrum half Gareth Cooper, making what would be his only appearance in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, next crossed the Japanese line as the game entered the last quarter. He was followed over by Martyn Williams five minutes later, who completed his brace on 74 minutes with Wales's tenth try. Sweeney converted but Shane Williams was to have the final say in the match, grounding the ball on the stroke of full time to celebrate his 50th cap and hand Wales a 72-18 win, which was the largest score and biggest win for Wales in their Rugby World Cup history.
Australia continued their winning ways with a 55-12 demolition of Fiji. Yet as the latter had secured a bonus point win over Canada they were level on points with Wales, which set up a winner-claims-quarter-final-berth clash between the two nations in the last Pool B game of the tournament. Australia had confirmed their qualification to the knock-out stages with the win over Fiji but also defeated Canada in a bonus point-winning 37-6 display, leaving the Canucks winless in the tournament following their 12 all draw with Japan.
Wales returned to Nantes for their do or die clash with the Fijians. The match, rated as the best Pool game of the entire tournament by the IRB official tournament website, www.rugbyworldcup.com, proved to be one of the best see-saw battles in international rugby, for non-Wales supporters that is.
Wales took an early lead at the Stade de la Beaujoire courtesy of a Stephen Jones penalty goal. However, Welsh fans were in for a rough ride as they witnessed their team concede three tries in the space of a whirlwind ten minutes. Flanker Akapusi Qera gained the first try for Fiji underneath the posts after just a quarter of an hour played after being fed the ball by captain Mosese Rauluni. The ever-reliable boot of Nicky Little effortlessly converted the score. Vilimoni Delasau claimed the next quick-fire try as he gathered his own chip ahead and spectacularly touched the oval ball down over the Welsh line one-handed. Fiji led 12-3 as Little unusually missed the conversion but fired over two quick penalties to push his country into a commanding 18-3 advantage. The Fijian juggernaut continued its pace as lock Kele Leawere claimed the third try of the opening half whilst Little converted once more to give his side a commanding 25-3 lead.
Wales rallied after this devastating opening period that had been dominated by Fijian flair and daring. Alix Popham's try on 34 minutes reduced the deficit a little, with James Hook knocking over the conversion to take Wales into the interval still trailing by fifteen points and looking a premature departure directly in the face.
Wales restarted with more verve on the whistle and were aided with the sin-binning, on the stroke of half-time, of try-scorer Qera after he kneed a Welsh player. The extra man advantage allowed Wales to creep steadily back into the game as they aimed to turnaround their first half fortunes. Shane Williams notched a try five minutes in, his sixth of the tournament having in each pool B game played, and Jones's conversion took Wales to within one converted try of the Fijians. Gareth Thomas scored Wales's next try to mark his century of appearances in the Welsh jersey but the conversion went amiss to keep Fiji ahead by a tantalising two points. Winger Mark Jones crossed to complete Wales's early second half purple patch and as his effort was bettered by Jones Wales were now 29-25 in the lead with less than thirty minutes of the game left.
The fragile four point advantage lasted less than two minutes as Fiji fly half Little secured another penalty. Little edged his team back in front six minutes later as he slotted his sixth effort from eight attempts neatly between the uprights. Fiji led by the narrowest of margins, 29-31 as the game entered the final quarter. Expectant Welsh fans had to wait an agonising thirteen minutes before a further score from their team. Talisman flanker Martyn Williams intercepted a stray Fijian pass to thunder downfield and score what many hoped would be Wales's winning try of the match. The conversion went awry meaning that Wales led only by a four point margin, 34-31. In a nail-biting six remaining minutes Fiji threw everything they could at a tiring Welsh defence, and their attacking resilience finally paid off as prop Graham Dewes scrambled over the Welsh line. Little's conversion, before he was stretchered off field with an injury that would end his World Cup dream, pushed the Fijians into a four point lead at 34-38.
In a desperate attempt to claw their way back Wales valiantly tried everything they could but could not find the elusive try required to put them into the quarter-finals. After suffering woe at the hands of Samoa (previously Western Samoa) in 1991 and 1999, Wales had suffered yet another scarring defeat to a Pacific Island nation during a Rugby World Cup tournament. Whilst Wales took an early flight home and faced the media maelstrom on their return, Fiji advanced to the quarter-final stage of the Rugby World Cup, a feat that they had not achieved since the inaugural competition in 1987.
Australia met the runners-up of Pool A whilst Fiji met the winners. Victors in 1995 in their first Rugby World Cup, South Africa were the definite favourites to top Pool A in the 2007 championship. Defending world champions England started shakily against their American counterparts, eventually claiming a 28-10 win that was a closer contest than the scoreline suggests. South Africa, meanwhile, thumped Samoa 59-7 in an eight try showing in Paris. The Springboks took on England in the second round of Pool stage matches in Saint-Denis, a match in which a jaded English side were unable to answer the thirty-six points against them by the 1995 Champions; a brace by JP Pietersen together with a six minute opener from Juan Smith cementing English misery.
Tonga had picked up early wins against the USA and Samoa but came unstuck in the third round against the Boks in a tightly contested affair. The thrilling match saw South Africa edge their Southern Hemisphere rivals to a four tries to three, 30-25 win at the Stade Felix-Bollaert but not before receiving a scare from the Tongans. As that match concluded England took on fellow Pacific Islanders Samoa in Nantes, recording a more comfortable 44-22 win; Jonny Wilkinson boosting the morale of the so-far unimpressive defending champions. Samoa bowed out of the competition four days later, finishing on a high note with a success over the winless USA, with the crunch match between England and Tonga to determine the second quarterfinalist set two days later.
The match saw a first half double from impressive winger Paul Sackey put England 19-10 to the good at half-time at the Parc des Princes. Although Hale T-Pole, a soon-to-be Ospreys recruit, scored a late try for the Tongans efforts from Matthew Tait and code convert Andy Farrell had guaranteed a semi-final berth in what would be a re-run of the epic 2003 Rugby World cup final. The Springboks rounded off their successful time in Pool A with a 64-15 destruction of the USA, Schalk Burger marking his return with a ninth minute try for South Africa. The Eagles did notch two tries either side of the half time whistle, through Takudzwa Ngwenya and Chris Wyles, in the defeat.
Pool C resulted in a walk in the park for the much favoured New Zealand; four bonus point wins, including 108-13 and 85-8 defeats of minnows Portugal and Romania respectively, catapulted the All Blacks to the top of the table and set up a quarter-final meeting with the runner-up from Pool D. Romania notched a sole win, over fellow strugglers Portugal, who did pick up a bonus point in defeat. The runner-up quarter-final position of Pool C was contested by Scotland and Italy. Scotland started their campaign well with large victories over Portugal (56-10) and Romania (42-0) but encountered a forty point defeat at the hands of the All Blacks; Scotland's under-strength team unable to breach the New Zealand defence as they finished the game scoreless.
Italy suffered at the hands of New Zealand in their opening encounter but recorded a 24-18 win over Romania and 31-5 defeat of Portugal to set up a winner-takes-all clash against the Scots in the final Pool C Match. In a tightly contested affair the Azzurri nearly made it through to the knock-out stages, but the upper echelons of the Rugby World Cup still remain elusive to the Italians as Scotland edged their way into a quarter-final berth with the 18-16 victory; Chris Paterson expertly guiding six penalties through the uprights to maintain the Scots' 100% kicking record thus far in the competition.
Pool D was widely regarded as the fiercest pool of the 2007 competition. Hosts France endured a nightmare start to the competition as the Argentineans did the unthinkable and triumphed 17-12 on French soil on the opening night of the tournament. Argentina went on to record four victories out of four to top Pool D, clearly not having read the French script. Severely hampered by their initial loss, France went on to record victories over minnows Namibia and Georgia, and a 25-3 defeat of an extremely lacklustre Irish side, but Argentina's fine performances had demoted the hosts into second place in the pool, and set up a quarter-final meeting with New Zealand in a re-run of the 1999 semi-final.
Putting in one of the worst displays of the championship, Ireland stuttered in their bid to claim a quarter-final spot with less than convincing wins over tiny rugby nations Namibia and Georgia; the scoreline so close in the latter that Georgia gained a bonus point in the 14-10 loss. With confidence coasting on a low Ireland suffered defeat at the hands of the hosts, only putting a single penalty past their opponents whilst a 30-15 defeat by Argentina in the last Pool D match of the competition saw the Irish depart the competition with Agustin Pichot's men going onto bigger and brighter things in a semi-final clash with Scotland.
Previous tournament finalists Australia and England met in a mouth-watering Marseilles quarter-final. Attempting to right old wrongs, Australia secured an early penalty through Stirling Mortlock. Jonny Wilkinson responded for a disciplined forward-oriented England side with two penalty goals in the space of four minutes to edge the defending world champions into a slender 6-3 lead. Just seven minutes later Australia retook the lead with what was to be the sole try of the match; Lote Tuqiri breaching the English defence with Mortlock adding the conversion to draw the lead out to 10-6.
After the less than explosive start to the campaign England had registered their display in the second half of the match was astounding. Limiting Australia's attacking and scoring opportunities, denying possession and punishing their opponents with superb tactical kicking England soon drew the scores to 10-9 as Wilkinson's penalty once more found the uprights. In a forty minute period in which only one penalty was conceded, England's forward power devastated the ineffective Australians. A fourth penalty from Wilkinson on sixty minutes drew the English into the lead once more as the game entered a stalemate for the remaining quarter. The only penalty to be given away in the entire second half by England came just minutes from time, setting up a crucial kick for captain Stirling Mortlock. In a match-defining moment Mortlock missed, handing England a precious semi-final spot.
The second quarter-final was the final match to be held outside of France as the Millennium Stadium played host to France and the All Blacks. With one shock result of the day coming in England's riddance of the Aussies, another gargantuan of the game was set to depart the Rugby World Cup stage in dramatic fashion.
A spine-tingling rendition of the Haka ahead of the epic encounter set the tone for the game, with the weights of two nations resting firmly on the shoulders of the line-ups on the hallowed turf. In a nervy start to the match Serge Betsen was soon aided off field after receiving a blow that rendered the veteran French flanker unconscious. Dan Carter steadied proceedings for the All Blacks with a penalty after thirteen minutes while the first try of the evening involved the fly half just moments later; Carter and Jerry Collins provided the ball for Luke McAlister to cross the French line. Carter's conversion took the All Blacks into a ten point lead, which he bettered ten minutes later with a penalty to take his country into a thirteen point unanswered lead. France responded before the first half was through as Lionel Beauxis slotted a penalty in injury time.
France began the second half with more conviction than that displayed in the first half. Beauxis continued the scoring with another penalty soon after the restart, as McAlister was handed a yellow card by the referee. This brought France to within a converted try, which came for the host nation less than ten minutes after the fly half's penalty. Buoyed by the presence of substitution Sébastien Chabal, forward pressure resulted in Thierry Dusautoir crossing the All Black line. Beauxis's conversion skimmed the woodwork on the way through, drawing the teams level on thirteen apiece.
Restored to their full number, the All Blacks responded as Rodney So'oialo gained New Zealand's second try. McAlister, taking over the kicking role as Carter had departed the field with an injury, missed the conversion. 18-13 behind, France's substitute fly half Frédérick Michalak made an immediate impression as he set up the crucial second French try. After making a daring run down the left Michalak provided Yannick Jauzion with a superb ball to score; Jean-Baptiste Elissalde converted the extras to give France a precious two point lead. New Zealand were unable to pull a rabbit out of the hat in the last ten minutes of the game and a last gasp drop goal attempt went wide; with nothing in the reserve tank they crashed out of their fifth consecutive Rugby World cup as France motored towards a semi-final with England on home soil.
After these tumultuous events the second day of quarter-finals could not match the excitement witnessed the day before. South Africa took on shock quarter-finalists Fiji at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille and drew an early lead over their Southern Hemisphere brothers. Youngster Francois Steyn converted an early penalty whilst Jaque Fourie crossed for the first try of the match on thirteen minutes. Seremaia Bai gained a penalty before thirty minutes were played to take the scored to 8-3 but the Springboks added another unconverted try before the first half was through, courtesy of captain John Smit.
The second half saw a Fijian resurgence after JP Pietersen had crossed for an early try eleven minutes in, taking the Springboks into a commanding 20-6 lead. Vilimoni Delasau gained the first Fijian try on 57minutes as he raced ahead to gather his own chipped ball to breach the South African line. Bai converted a minute later and was called into action immediately as late call-up to the squad Sireli Bobo raced over for Fiji's second try in as many minutes. Having pulled back a fourteen point deficit to level the scores at twenty apiece, the South Africans dominated the final quarter of the match to knock the plucky Fijians out of the tournament. Tries by Juan Smith, Butch James and an extra seven points from Montgomery guaranteed the semi-final berth.
Frank Hadden's Scotland entered their quarter-final match against Argentina with a realistic opportunity to progress farther into to the knock-out stages, having last made a semi-final appearance in 1991. Dan Parks secured a penalty for his team after fifteen minutes to push Scotland into a tentative three point lead but two from the boot of Felipe Contepomi gave Argentina a 6-3 lead before half an hour had progressed. Argentine No.8 Gonzalo Longo Elía soon after charged down an attempted clearance and scored the opening try of the match; Contepomi converted to give his country a ten point lead, yet this was reduced just ahead of the half time whistle as Chris Paterson slotted over a penalty.
Contepomi wasted no time on the restart to extend the lead once more as he converted a penalty three minutes in and Juan Martín Hernandez's drop goal gave Argentina a commanding lead as the match entered the final quarter. The glut of substitutions brought a wave of rejuvenation over the Scottish who proved Argentina were not to continue having the run of play; Chris Cusiter powered over the line for Scotland's first and final try of the match with Paterson adding the conversion. Argentina's advantage was reduced to just six points and although their tiring defence was punished by Scotland, the Pumas held on to record the 19-13 victory and progress to the semi-final stage of the competition for the first time in Rugby World Cup history.
The first semi-final saw the reigning champions take on the hosts in a hard fought fight that ended the dream for Les Bleus. A Josh Lewsey try just two minutes after the whistle stood England in good stead but as Wilkinson failed with the boot, and was off form for the most game, his opposite number Beauxis was able to give France the 6-5 lead before the first quarter was through. The scores remained static until early in the second half when the fly halves kicked a penalty each in quick succession. France led 9-8 up until the 75th minute, and seemed to have the upper hand. Yet Wilkinson delivered when it mattered most, and having survived a French try attempt with a last gasp tackled by Joe Worsley, he secured England a penalty with 5 minutes remaining after a high tackle on Jason Robinson had been penalised. He clinched his country a place in the Rugby World Cup final for the second successive tournament with a trademark drop goal on 78 minutes that concluded the match.
The second semi-final ended Argentina's spectacular run in the competition as South Africa eased past the Pumas 37-13. Fourie du Preez gained the Springboks a try after just seven minutes and further efforts by Bryan Habana and Danie Rossouw gained the Boks an unassailable 24-6 advantage at the interval; Felipe Contepomi kicking the six points for the Pumas. Argentina began the second half in the best possible fashion with a try from Manual Contepomi, his brother adding the conversion to reduce the gap to eleven points. The Pumas though found no further scoring opportunities as South Africa powered to the win; Habana's second together with metronomic kicking from Montgomery manoeuvred his country into the final.
Argentina bounced back to dominate France in the Bronze final. Traditionally viewed as a match of little significance in rugby and media circles, this exciting match sought to challenge opinions of the 'third place play-off' as Argentina pummelled the hosts in a five tries to one victory in Paris. The 34-10 victory was just rewards for Argentina who had played with passion throughout; they recorded their highest ever finish at a World Cup tournament and were promoted to third place in the IRB Official World Rankings.
The 2007 Rugby World Cup finalists met for the second time in the campaign having earlier faced each other as Pool A contenders. Though keen to restore pride after their 36-0 beating by the Boks, the defending champions conceded early points in the match as Percy Montgomery slotted a penalty. Wilkinson responded but Montgomery fired back almost immediately and stretched the Springboks' lead to 9-3 at the break as he secured another on the stroke of half time. The restart brought a sensational move from youngster Matthew Tait, who snaked between the Boks' defenders to set up a 'try' for fullback Mark Cueto. After much deliberation the TMO adjudged the fullback's left leg to be in touch when the ball was grounded; Wilkinson slotted a penalty in consolation. Montgomery extended the lead minutes later to 12-6 with young star Francois Steyn adding a penalty early in the final quarter. The tense game ran out with each team unable to add any further points to the scoreboard; closing at 6-15 the final was the lowest scoring match of the whole 2007 tournament, an inconsequential statistic to the heartbroken English and new World Champions South Africa.
Springbok captain John Smit raised the Webb Ellis Trophy in front of a capacity crowd at the Stade de France in Saint Denis. With a series of parades already organised for the squad's return, South Africa (flanked by President Thabo Mbeki) celebrated the mantle of World Champions for the second time in the history of the World Cup tournament. The win ensured that they climbed to the top of the IRB World Rankings, knocking New Zealand off the top spot perch that they had occupied for an unprecedented forty months. As if to hark back to their previous victory in the Rugby World Cup, the first team South Africa would face as Champions would be Wales, in Cardiff the following November.
|RWC 2011: Pool D|