The tournament once more saw sixteen teams pitted against each other. A qualification process, involving thirty two nations, was introduced in preparation for the second Rugby World Cup. This resulted in Argentina, Western Samoa (now Samoa), Japan, Italy, Romania, Canada, Zimbabwe and the USA entering the competition alongside the seven IRFB members. South Africa was once more excluded from the competition due to the international sports boycott against the Apartheid regime. Fiji filled the remaining space due to their advancement to the quarter-final stages in the inaugural competition.
Hosts England kicked off the opening match of the contest against defending champions New Zealand on the third of October. The All Blacks won with only a small margin, 18-12, highlighting the way of things to come for a strengthened England side far more confident than the side witnessed four years previously. Three days later Wales made their first appearance of the competition against tournament newcomers Western Samoa.
Wales had returned from a tour to Australia in July 1991; they had lost 63-6 to the Wallabies. Wales's coach Ron Waldron left his post a few weeks before the Rugby World Cup due to ill health, throwing Alan Davies into the hot spot. Wales were a team in disarray.
Still complacent from their third place glory of the inaugural competition in 1987, Wales encountered outsiders Western Samoa at the Cardiff Arms Park. The match is still regarded as one of the biggest upsets in Rugby World Cup history, and is one in which the spirit of Rugby World Cup is encapsulated. With brutal tackling, strong attacking play and steely determination, the minnows triumphed over one of the whales of the game with a 16-13 victory. One of the visions for the Rugby World Cup was to widen the game to developing rugby nations; to encompass a wider rugby community. Western Samoa emerged onto the world stage in a blaze of glory, and had diminished Wales's prospects in doing so.
Pool 3 had become a nightmarish place for the Welsh. With the daunting prospects of Argentina and favourites Australia looming ahead, the Wales camp knew that only two wins would secure a place in the last eight, and also knew that this was highly implausible.
Having grasped a 16-7 win against the Argentineans, in a match fraught with nerves and error-strewn play, Wales entered their match with the Australians facing a greater task than scaling Ayres Rock. As to be expected, Wales fell. The Australians completed their second win over a Welsh side in a year 38-3, sending the Welsh out of the tournament and, humiliatingly, into the 32-team qualifying process for RWC 1995.
Australia and surprise outfit Western Samoa progressed from Wales's pool. They were joined in the semi-finals by New Zealand and England, Scotland and Ireland and from the final pool, France and Canada. The latter team, also regarded as having minnow status, overcame Fiji and Romania to make it into the remaining eight and only narrowly lost to France.
Impressive as the outsiders' efforts were, both teams would unfortunately fall back to reality in the latter stages of the competition. Canada, pitted against defending champions New Zealand, fought bravely but were defeated 29-13. Home nation Scotland succeeded where Wales could not, defeating the Western Samoan debutants with a 28-6 victory. England continued their success, progressing into the semi-finals following a superb 19-10 win over the French in their capital Paris. This quarter-final saw the 93rd and final appearance by Serge Blanco, a French hero four years previously in France's superb semi-final victory against Australia.
The most impressive quarter-final saw favourites Australia take on Ireland at their home ground, Lansdowne Road. In a tightly contested match the Antipodeans, just five minutes from time, trailed the home nation by 18 points to 15. Regarded as one of the best matches of the tournament, Ireland lost out in the final minutes after Australian captain, Michael Lynagh, spurred on his team and touched down to give Australia a 19-18 victory and a place in the semi-finals for the second Rugby World Cup in a row.
England met old foe and rival home nation Scotland in the first semi-final. Despite England maintaining ball possession and dominating territory, fullback Jonathan Webb's unreliable boot ensured that the scoreboard did not reflect England's dominance. Only a drop-goal from the disciplined boot of captain Rob Andrew secured the game for England 9-6 and in turn put the Scots out of the tournament. This was Scotland's best result at a Rugby World Cup to date; they would later finish fourth after losing the third-place play off.
Australia met Southern Hemisphere neighbours New Zealand in their semi-final. The All Blacks, confident of retaining their trophy from the inaugural competition, were superbly outplayed by the Australians. Australia, in absolutely dominant fashion, dismantled an All Black side that looked simply inferior. In the opening ten minutes of the game David Campese, one of the stars of the tournament, scored an outstanding try that left the New Zealand defence mesmerized. With the boot of Lynagh in fine form, the two Australian stars set up Horan for the second try and with the lead stretched to 13-0, New Zealand were left to play catch-up. Unfortunately they couldn't: Grant Fox, outstanding for the All Blacks in the inaugural competition, could only add 6 points to New Zealand's score. Lynagh added a final three points to the Australian tally, taking Australia through to the Rugby World Cup final on a 16-6 victory.
Comparable to the tournament four years previously, the 1991 final featured a Northern-Southern Hemisphere battle. In front of a capacity crowd at Twickenham, England and Australia met; for both it was unfamiliar territory, having gone out in the quarter-final and semi-final stages respectively in the initial tournament.
Australia's resilient defence ultimately won them the match. Willie Ofahengaue and Simon Poidevin were both superb in holding up the English attack and lock John Eales, a rising star set to become one of Australia's most prominent sportsmen, also demonstrated his potential. Australia, despite the English dominance in possession, secured the solitary try of the match. Tony Daly touched down for a try following Ofahengaue's break from a line-out and subsequent drive from the Australian pack. Lynagh converted and later added a penalty score, taking the Australians into the intermission with a 9-0 lead.
England, adopting an open, running style failed to crack the Australians. Yet they came close and had it not been for a controversial incident in the second half the outcome may have been very different. Facing a 12-3 deficit, England had a secured an overlap in an attack. Peter Winterbottom passed out to winger Rory Underwood but the pass was knocked down by Campese. Many perceive that this was a deliberate knock-on designed to foil an England score. The English camp argued for a penalty try, insisting that Underwood would have easily secured the try. However, the referee, Welshman Derek Bevan, awarded only a penalty. Jonathan Webb secured his second 3-pointer of the game but no further England points were to follow.
Playing in a style so different to which they were accustomed to, England lost the 1991 Rugby World Cup final to Australia 12-6. Despite the controversy of the final, David Campese had made his mark on the wing and was arguably the star of the competition. Ultimately the better team on the day, and the best throughout the competition, Australia were rewarded for their efforts as captain Nick Farr-Jones held aloft the Webb Ellis Cup.
Though doubts may have remained about the history of the Rugby World Cup following the initial tournament in 1987, the 1991 championship had guaranteed the event a place on the international sporting calendar. The 1991 tournament was an unquestionable success and captured the imaginations of a television audience of 1.75 billion viewers across 103 countries, compared to 300 million in 17 countries in 1987. With audiences and interest in the tournament ever-increasing, the Rugby World Cup was here to stay.
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