The Rugby World Cup Final represents the pinnacle of the sport. Only the finest players get the chance to strut their stuff in such a rarefied atmosphere, where their every move could be the difference between heartbreak and ecstasy.
Equally, only rugby’s elite grounds pass muster for the honour of hosting the showpiece event. Twickenham is poised to headline the forthcoming venue announcement for Rugby World Cup 2015, and could follow in the footsteps of Auckland’s Eden Park by becoming only the second stadium to host the Final on two occasions.
Eden Park, Auckland - Rugby World Cup 1987 and 2011
Eden Park’s first shot at the big one came at the inaugural tournament in 1987, when just shy of 50,000 fans packed the stands to see John Kirwan, Michael Jones and captain David Kirk score tries as New Zealand defeated France 29-9 in the final.
New Zealand’s largest stadium, Eden Park had been hosting rugby matches since 1914 – Ponsonby v City and Auckland v Canterbury being the first – despite beginning life as the home of Auckland cricket.
It remains a multi-purpose ground and hosts Test matches in both sports, as well as rugby league, but in 2011, when the All Blacks stole home to lift the Webb Ellis Cup again, it had a different complexion to 24 years earlier.
With temporary seating boosting the capacity to a record 60,000, the hosts again saw off France to seal the title, this time in front of a huge television audience and beneath the glare of pyrotechnics. Rugby had grown up, but Eden Park remained an important part of the landscape.
First Test: New Zealand 5-9 South Africa – 27 August 1921
Most appearances: Richie McCaw (New Zealand) – 19
Most points: Dan Carter (New Zealand) – 184
Domestic bliss: Home to Auckland and Super Rugby’s Blues, champions on their home track in 1996 and 1997
Twickenham, London - Rugby World Cup 1991
In 1991 the Rugby World Cup spread its arms across the shores of the Five Nations, with matches in England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but attention was focused on London’s suburbs as Twickenham hosted the final.
The famous cabbage patch was in the midst of a transformation as Australia narrowly beat the hosts 12-6 to seal their first title, with renovation work speeding the stadium towards its current 82,000 capacity and status as rugby’s largest.
A day out at Twickenham is packed with idiosyncrasies, from the walk to the ground to the pre-match car park congregations, and even among the innovations of the modern Game it retains the charm associated with more than 100 years of history.
From side-stepping Russian princes, to classic matches on consecutive afternoons – Australia and South Africa followed by New Zealand and France at Rugby World Cup 1999 – Twickenham has seen it all.
First Test: England 11-6 Wales – 15 January 1910
Most appearances: Jason Leonard (England) – 55
Most points: Jonny Wilkinson (England) – 650
Domestic bliss: Sometime home of Harlequins, Heineken Cup final host in 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2012
Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Rugby World Cup 1995
Rugby World Cup 1995 was an event that changed the iconography of world sport. The final at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park featured one of rugby’s most-enduring rivalries, between South Africa and New Zealand, a fly-by from a jumbo jet and also the iconic moment when Nelson Mandela handed the Webb Ellis Cup to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar following Joel Stransky’s extra-time drop goal in a 15-12 victory.
There was a pleasing circularity to the fixture, as the stadium’s first Test match had been played between the same teams in 1928, although the All Blacks emerged victorious on that occasion. Boasting an all-seated capacity of more than 60,000, the attendance at Ellis Park did, back in 1955 as the British & Irish Lions touched down, once swell to a reported 100,000 for a single match. As one of rugby’s most famous arenas though, even those stats don’t quite do justice to its contribution to the sport.
First Test: South Africa 6-7 New Zealand – 21 July 1928
Most appearances: Joost van der Westhuizen (South Africa) – 11
Most points: Andrew Mehrtens (New Zealand) – 92
Domestic bliss: Home to the Golden Lions Currie Cup team and Lions Super Rugby franchise
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff - Rugby World Cup 1999
In 1999, the Rugby World Cup was out on the road again. Taking in stops across Wales, England, France, Ireland and Scotland the tournament began and ended at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff’s new contribution to rugby’s scenery.
Boasting steep banks of seats rising from the pitch and a fully retractable roof, the ground brought technology to the party on the site of the old National Stadium. Welsh fans’ fondness for good old sing song was given fresh resonance by their new surroundings prior to the first match – against Argentina – and while the best contests of the tournament were staged down the M4 at Twickenham, the Millennium looked the part for the final.
Australia took their second title with a comfortable victory over France, with John Eales leading a band of men, including centres Tim Horan and Jason Little, to another Webb Ellis Cup eight years after their first.
First Test: Wales 29-19 South Africa – 26 June 1999
Most appearances: Stephen Jones (Wales) – 58
Most points: Stephen Jones (Wales) – 612
Domestic bliss: Heineken Cup final host in 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2011
Telstra Stadium, Sydney - Rugby World Cup 2003 (now ANZ Stadium)
In 2003, England turned the tables on the Wallabies and secured revenge for their loss in the 1991 showpiece. Under Sir Clive Woodward they had become a formidable unit and took a similarly impressive body of away support Down Under with them.
White and gold intermingled for the match at Telstra Stadium, which had hosted the Olympic Games three years earlier. On that occasion Cathy Freeman had delighted the home support by storming to 400m gold, but there was to be no repeat as Jonny Wilkinson slotted an extra-time drop goal to sink Australia 20-17.
As well as its headline-grabbing Olympic and union deeds, the stadium has hosted New South Wales’ legs of the State of Origin series against Queensland and international cricket, but for England fans there’s only one memory to cherish.
First Test: Australia 22-15 England – 26 June 1999
Most appearances: Nathan Sharpe (Australia) – 25
Most points: Matt Giteau (Australia) – 175
Domestic bliss: Sometime home of the NSW Waratahs Super Rugby team
Stade de France, Paris - Rugby World Cup 2007
The tournament returned to the northern hemisphere in 2007, when France hosted it for the first time. Matches were also played in Wales and Scotland, but the final bow belonged to the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris.
Opened in 1998 prior to France’s famous victory in the FIFA World Cup, the stadium doubled up nine years later as John Smit’s South Africa underlined their class with victory over England in its rugby counterpart.
Currently the only stadium to have hosted both finals, the Stade de France tops 80,000 supporters and has become a fixture of the French rugby calendar. As well as hosting the Heineken Cup and Top 14 Finals, it has become a regular haunt of Stade Français and Racing Métro at domestic level, adding its own distinctive style to proceedings.
First Test: France 24-17 England – 7 February 1998
Most appearances: Fabien Pelous (France) – 30
Most points: Dimitri Yachvili (France) – 120
Domestic bliss: Heineken Cup final host in 2010