Top 10 International Rugby League Upsets
New Zealand caused a major shock by dominating Australia to the tune of 30-12 – the world champions’ first defeat in four years – on the opening weekend of the 2014 Four Nations, while Samoa went within an ace of staging one of the biggest Test boilovers ever before being edged out by England 32-26. In honour of the watershed weekend we’ve just witnessed, here is the Top 10 greatest international rugby league upsets of all time.
10. 1994 Kangaroo Tour
Great Britain 8 d. Australia 4
Great Britain’s 1994 Ashes campaign was thrown into disarray when long-serving Test coach Malcolm Reilly stood down from his post to join the Newcastle Knights, while talismanic captain Garry Schofield was unavailable due to injury. Ellery Hanley and Shaun Edwards stepped into the twin breaches respectively – but halfback Edwards was sent off during the first half of the opening Test Wembley for a shocking high tackle on Bradley Clyde. But Great Britain produced one of the most stoic performances in modern Test history. Welsh wizard Jonathan Davies’ sparkling solo try saw the hosts go into the break with an 8-0 lead, and they hung on for a famous four-point win over the shell-shocked Kangaroos.
9. 1983 Test Series
New Zealand 19 d. Australia 12
New Zealand had not beaten Australia in 12 years – and the green-and-golds had not lost to any nation in five years – when the trans-Tasman rivals met in a two-Test series in 1983. Australia prevailed 16-4 in the first Test in Auckland, but the Kiwis’ aggressive approach and brilliant attack laid the platform for a stunning 19-12 upset in the return clash at Lang Park. New coach Graham Lowe masterminded the victory, while wily halfback Shane Varley combined with experienced forwards Graeme West, who captained the side, and the Sorensen brothers, and unheralded young backs Nicky Wright, Dean Bell and Joe Ropati, to roll an Australian side containing 10 members of the previous year’s ‘Invincibles’ Kangaroo Tour squad. The defeat ended Australia’s world record 17-Test winning streak – a mark the Kangaroos fell one short of in losing their 2014 Four Nations opener to the Kiwis.
8. 1988 Ashes Series
Great Britain 26 d. Australia 12
The 1988 Lions suffered several embarrassing defeats on tour – including a 36-12 loss to Northern Division and a 30-0 drubbing at the hands of Manly – while their spirited 17-6 loss to Australia in the Centenary Test in Sydney was negated by an insipid performance in the second clash in Brisbane, going down 34-14. But Great Britain broke a decade-long drought against Australia in the dead-rubber, piling on five tries – including several long-range specials – as Andy Gregory, Mike Gregory, Ellery Hanley and Henderson Gill ran riot. The Wally Lewis-led hosts had no answer as Australia conceded its highest score since the 1972 World Cup.
7. 1986 Kiwis tour of PNG
Papua New Guinea 24 d. New Zealand 22
The Kumuls achieved a win and a draw against a French team in severe decline during their formative years as a member of the international rugby league community, but they claimed their first major scalp in the form of the touring 1986 Kiwis. The Graham Lowe-coached New Zealand side, featuring all-time Kiwi greats Gary Freeman, Hugh McGahan, Gary Kemble and Dane O’Hara, won the first Test 36-26, but could not overcome the unwelcoming environment in Port Moresby and were pipped 24-22 in the second encounter. The boot of Papua New Guinea fullback Dairi Kovae, who later played with North Sydney and Newcastle, proved critical after the combatants finished with four tries apiece. The shock loss ultimately brought Lowe’s revolutionary reign as Test coach to a bitter conclusion.
6. 1951 Les Chanticleers tour of Australia
France 35 d. Australia 14
The touring French side of 1951, a tough, exuberant outfit led by the eccentric and brilliant fullback Puig-Aubert, thrilled Australian crowds with their unpredictability and flair. France stunned Australia 26-15 in the first Test, but the Clive Churchill-captained hosts made six changes before the second clash and levelled the series comfortably, 23-11, to go into the decider as hot favourites. The tourists were spectacular in front of the 67,009-strong SCG crowd, however, with halfback Joseph Crespo scoring a hat-trick and winger Raymond Constratin bagging a double in the seven-tries-to-two rout. The 35-14 scoreline represented Australia’s highest score conceded and biggest losing margin in the first 44 years of international rugby league.
5. 1963 South Africa tour of New Zealand
South Africa 4 d. New Zealand 3
South Africa’s ambitious, groundbreaking tour Down Under was generally regarded as a failure, trounced 34-6 and 54-21 in the two Tests against an Australian side containing five future ARL Team of the Century members. But with Canterbury hooker Fred Anderson and Newtown backrower Graham Wilson joining the squad as guest players for the New Zealand leg of their tour, South Africa pipped the Kiwis 4-3 at Auckland’s Carlaw Park. Wigan and North Sydney legend Fred Griffiths’ two goals propelled South Africa to a morale-boosting triumph, although the NZRL did not recognise the match as a Test and the South African national side was virtually non-existent thereafter until featuring in the 1995 World Cup.
4. 1990 Lions tour of PNG
Papua New Guinea 20 d. Great Britain 18
After re-emerging as the No.1 challenger to Australia’s world rugby league supremacy in the late-1980s, Great Britain suffered a historic shock upset at the hands of minnows Papua New Guinea in 1990. The hostile conditions in Goroka proved too much for the touring Lions, who were rolled 20-18 despite fielding the likes of Garry Schofield, Jonathan Davies, Dennis Betts, Mike Gregory and Daryl Powell. Great Britain scored three tries to two, but five goals and a field goal by Kumuls centre Bal Numapo – and another one-pointer by Stanley Haru – spearheaded an extraordinary boilover. The Lions won the second Test in Port Moresby 40-8, but they struggled to overcome the Kumuls in subsequent visits to PNG in 1992 and 1996.
3. 1978 Kangaroo Tour
France 11 d. Australia 10
The 1978 Kangaroos tore through Britain, dropping just one Test and one tour match. But the flagrantly biased refereeing the Australians encountered on the fields of France saw them lose three of their six games there – including both Test matches to a French national side that had won just four of its previous 31 internationals. After losing the first Test 13-10, the Kangaroos sunk to an inglorious 2-0 series defeat via an 11-10 loss in Toulouse. Australia, boasting names like Fulton, Cronin, Rogers, Eadie, Raudonikis, Reddy and Price, could not overcome the unheralded hosts – despite scoring two tries to one. The green-and-golds have won all 14 Tests against France since, while they did not suffer another series or tournament loss until the 2008 World Cup.
2. 2013 World Cup Warm-up
Italy 15 d. England 14
World Cup host England suffered a humiliating setback in its build-up to the competition, crashing to a 15-14 defeat to 1000-1 tournament outsiders Italy in a warm-up match at Salford. The teeming rain did not deter the plucky Anthony Minichiello-led Azzuri, who opened up an early 12-4 advantage over a star-studded England outfit, before fringe Newcastle winger Josh Mantellato slotted a field goal to clinch the mind-blowing victory. Despite the disastrous result, England carved out an admirable campaign that finished agonisingly short of the final, while Italy drew with Scotland and thumped Wales in its World Cup debut.
1. 2008 World Cup Final
New Zealand 34 d. Australia 20
Australia decimated its opposition on the way to qualifying for the 2008 World Cup final, including comprehensive pool game thrashings of fellow heavyweights New Zealand (30-6) and England (52-4). The Kangaroos were cruising towards their seventh straight World Cup crown when they posted the first two tries of the Suncorp Stadium-hosted final, but the Kiwis fought back to trail just 16-12 at the break – and everything went pear-shaped for the overwhelming favourites in the second half. Australia conceded a penalty try, before fullback Billy Slater gifted a four-pointer to Kiwi playmaker Benji Marshall with a crazy pass near his own line as New Zealand powered to an incredible 34-20 triumph. Kangaroos coach Ricky Stuart was forced to stand down after accosting and abusing referee Ashley Klein in a hotel the next day over his controversial handling of the match, while the jubilant New Zealanders had carved out the most momentous victory in their rugby league history.