The 10 Greatest Rugby League World Cup Matches of All Time
As fans gear up for the start of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup on October 27, we’ve hand-picked 10 of the greatest matches from the previous 14 editions of the tournament.
10. 1972 – Great Britain v Australia (Final)
A dismal crowd of 4,321 turned out at Lyon’s Stade Municipal de Garland for the 1972 final, but the Anglo-Australian battle nevertheless holds an important place in the Rugby League World Cup narrative. Australian front-row enforcer John O’Neill scored the opening try from a superb solo burst, before Graeme Langlands had a spectacular touchdown disallowed by referee Georges Jameau. The skipper raced after a high kick by halfback Denis Ward and caught it at full stretch in the in-goal, but Jameau incorrectly ruled Langlands offside (Langlands claims Jameau later apologised to him after viewing a television replay). British captain and wing speedster Clive Sullivan scored a memorable 90-metre try to level the scores 5-all before halftime. Ward made a break to send Arthur Beetson over for try in the second half, but Great Britain hooker Mike Stephenson’s converted try consigned the final to extra-time. No change was made to the 10-all scoreline in the additional 20 minutes and Great Britain was handed the World Cup due to its superior record in the preliminary matches.
9. 1995 – New Zealand v Tonga (Pool match)
With just seven minutes of their opening pool match remaining, heavyweights New Zealand stood on the brink of World Cup oblivion. Led by New Zealand’s captain of only 12 months earlier Duane Mann, Tonga – who lost Jim Dymock and John Hopoate to Australia’s cause, and Gorden Tallis to injury – headed the Kiwis 24-12 after trailing by six at halftime, and seemed destined for one of the great international upsets. But Kiwis skipper Matthew Ridge rallied his troops and converted late tries to Hitro Okesene and Richie Blackmore from tough angles to draw his team level. Defying the Warrington crowd’s deafening support for the Tongans, Ridge then coolly slotted a left-footed field goal to clinch a 25-24 victory.
8. 2013 – Scotland v Italy (Pool match)
The success of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup in Britain lay primarily in the performances of the developing nations, and two of those big improvers – Scotland and Italy – played out one of the tournament’s best games, a 30-all draw at Derwent Park in Workington. Both sides came into the showdown confident after winning their respective opening matches, but the Bravehearts got the jump on Anthony Minichiello’s Azzurri by charging to a 14-0 lead. Italy produced a stunning comeback, however, snatching a 30-26 advantage on hour mark after skipper Minichiello scored a fortuitous try. Scotland needed something special to turn the tide, and it came with 10 minutes to go in the form of captain Danny Brough’s chip-and-regather, before brilliant quick hands saw Danny Addy dive over out wide. Brough’s unsuccessful conversion left the combatants with a share of the spoils after 80 pulsating minutes.
7. 1970 – Australia v Great Britain (Final)
The 1970 World Cup final at Headingley wasn’t a great advertisement for rugby league’s more wholesome qualities, but it nevertheless retains an important place in the international game’s folklore. In what became known as ‘The Battle of Leeds,’ Australia prevailed 12-7 in a savage encounter, with Father John Cootes, the footballing priest, and Lionel Williamson scoring tries. English referee Fred Lindop struggled to maintain control as the final was marred by brawling and vicious off-the-ball incidents. Another wild melee in the dying minutes resulted in Billy Smith and Great Britain centre Syd Hynes receiving their marching orders. Inevitably, sensationalist headlines from the aghast British press denouncing the violent encounter followed, but the result was a triumph for skipper Ron Coote and coach Harry Bath, and sweet revenge for Australia after a home Ashes series loss earlier in the season.
6. 1995 – England v Australia (Pool match)
Australia’s defence of its world champion tag was rattled by the Super League upheaval that engulfed the code earlier in the season. Australia sent a side consisting entirely of ARL-aligned players to the 1995 World Cup, leaving behind Super League stars and Test regulars Laurie Daley, Allan Langer, Steve Renouf, Bradley Clyde, Steve Walters and Glenn Lazarus. Knockers of the under-strength squad were provided with ample ammunition when the Brad Fittler-captained side fell 20-16 to England in the tournament-opener at Wembley. Australia led 6-4 at halftime, but England snaffled the lead 16-10 after a diabolical error from Manly winger John Hopoate that resulted in a try to Wigan flyer Jason Robinson. Paul Newlove’s intercept try extended England’s lead and the hosts held on for a 20-16 victory after Steve Menzies finished off a brilliant long-range movement in the dying minutes. It was Australia’s third loss in four clashes at Wembley during the 1990s, but the Bob Fulton-coached side gained their revenge at the same venue three weeks later, however, subduing the hosts 16-8 in a tense final.
5. 2000 – Australia v Wales (Semi-final)
Call it complacency on the part of the Australians, or merely the most inspired 40 minutes in Wales’ rugby league history – the semi-final ambush in Huddersfield was the highlight of an otherwise predictable 2000 World Cup. The green-and-golds skipped to an early 8-0 lead through tries to Brett Kimmorley and Wendell Sailor, but were caught napping by the rank outsiders, who ran in three quick tries. Wales five-eighth Lee Briers scored a try and booted two field goals to snare a 20-8 advantage, before his opposite number, Australian captain Brad Fittler, powered through for an important four-pointer just before halftime. The Welsh fairytale dissipated after the break, with Fittler and fullback Darren Lockyer – who both finished with doubles – guiding the Kangaroos to a comfortable 46-22 win.
4. 2008 – Australia v New Zealand (Final)
Red-hot favourites to retain the World Cup in the Suncorp Stadium final against New Zealand, Australia raced out to a 10-0 lead before being reeled in by the plucky Kiwis. Australia led 16-12 at halftime after man of the match Darren Lockyer’s second try, but New Zealand secured one of the all-time great international upsets in an extraordinary second half. A now-infamous Billy Slater howler handed Kiwi five-eighth Benji Marshall a crucial four-pointer before a penalty try to fullback Lance Hohaia extended the underdogs’ advantage. Following Adam Blair’s match-sealer, New Zealand finished the euphoric triumph – its maiden World Cup success – as 34-20 victors over the shell-shocked Kangaroos, who had not lost a World Cup tournament since 1972. Former Australian coach Wayne Bennett celebrated on the field with the Kiwis, having acted as young mentor Stephen Kearney’s assistant throughout the year; meanwhile, Bennett’s Kangaroos successor, Ricky Stuart, was sacked from his post after abusing referee Ashley Klein in the team hotel after the shock defeat.
3. 1992 – Australia v Great Britain (Final)
A rugby league international record crowd of 73,361 packed London’s Wembley Stadium for the gripping 1992 World Cup final between the bitter Anglo-Australian rivals. The hosts led 6-4 at halftime courtesy of three penalty goals to halfback Deryck Fox. Australian skipper Mal Meninga landed two first-half penalties, the second after a vicious elbow from British hooker Martin Dermott that fractured five-eighth Brad Fittler’s cheekbone. Fittler courageously battled on and played brilliantly, but the crucial moment came deep into the second half when Brisbane pivot Kevin Walters (who was injected from the bench) fired a beautiful pass for debutant centre Steve Renouf to sprint 20 metres and score in the corner. Meninga’s sideline conversion made it 10-6 – a lead Australia doggedly defended until fulltime to retain the Cup.
2. 1995 – Australia v New Zealand (Semi-final)
Australia had one hand on a place in the 1995 World Cup final when they led New Zealand 20-6 after 50 minutes of the semi. Steve Menzies had just scored a spectacular 70-metre try – his second for the day and Australia’s fourth unanswered touchdown. But the Kiwis, with just three penalty goals to show for their toil, launched an astonishing comeback in the final quarter. Richie Barnett and Tony Iro scored stunning tries to reduce the deficit to four points, before Kevin Iro levelled the scores with two minutes on the clock with a barnstorming try in the corner. Matthew Ridge’s sideline conversion and a long-range, left-footed field goal attempt both shaded the upright and the match headed into extra-time. But New Zealand’s brave riposte was doused by brilliant tries to Terry Hill (whose sin-binning late in regulation time aided the underdogs’ comeback) and Brad Fittler in the added period, getting the relieved green-and-golds home after 100 incredible minutes.
1. 2013 – New Zealand v England (Semi-final)
The Kangaroos won the 2013 Rugby League World Cup in emphatic fashion, but the enduring memory of the tournament is destined to be the Wembley masterpiece New Zealand and England produced in the semi-final. England’s NRL stars James Graham and Sam Burgess combined to send Sean O’Loughlin over for the opening try, but a pair of superb four-pointers to Kiwis winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck either side of halftime – the first from a freakish Dean Whare pass – put the defending world champs 12-8 ahead. England dared to dream of their first appearance in a RLWC final since 1995 after back-to-back tries to centre Kallum Watkins and a rampaging Burgess gave the hosts an 18-14 lead with 13 minutes left, but a stunning piece of individual brilliance from a hot-stepping Shaun Johnson levelled the scores 20 seconds from fulltime. The halfback coolly slotted the conversion to send the Kiwis into the decider after a 20-18 epic.