In sport, things don’t always go to plan. For England, 2 November 1991 was one of those days. The hosts of the second Rugby World Cup opened the doors of Twickenham to Nick Farr-Jones’s brilliant Australia side for a keenly-anticipated final, but the script was mislaid at the last minute.
The hope at any major tournament is for two heavyweight sides to contest the final, and on this occasion fans couldn’t have asked for more. England, reigning Five Nations champions, had been powerful and resolute in dispatching France and Scotland in the knockout stages and boasted a gritty, determined pack. Australia had turned over the All Blacks in the semi final and could call on the mercurial David Campese among a cast of stars. The stage was set for a classic clash of styles.
Pulling the strings at fly half were two of the Game’s finest tactical minds – England’s Rob Andrew and Australia’s Michael Lynagh. The two were familiar foes by this point and would continue to battle one another until Rugby World Cup 1995.
“I played against him a lot, we were direct contemporaries really,” Andrew remembered. “The first time I played against him was actually Cambridge University against Queensland University in about 1982. We pretty much went toe-to-toe for the best part of 10-12 years. He was just a great kicker of the ball, a great goal-kicker but had great sleight of hand as well.
“A lot of the keys to quality players at international level is not so much how big or strong or fast they are, although that’s clearly important, the thing that really stands great players out is the quality of their decision making. Michael was one of those accomplished rugby players who just had time and made good decisions.”
Despite Lynagh’s pedigree, many commentators expected Andrew to take charge behind England’s forwards. Underpinned by Jason Leonard, Brian Moore, Wade Dooley, Paul Ackford and Mike Teague, England’s eight were a force to be reckoned with and allowed Andrew an ideal platform from which to play.
Out wide, Will Carling and Rory Underwood waited for chances to pounce, although it wasn’t a style suited to everyone’s taste. Campese, in particular, ridiculed England’s attritional nature in the build-up to the final.
Australia were a different beast. In Campese they had a box of tricks, while centre Tim Horan was well on his way to being one of the Game’s best players. In Farr-Jones and Lynagh, they had two technically supreme operators at half back. Their forwards – including a young John Eales and the superb Willie Ofahengaue – were mobile, modern and facilitated the space required for their game-breakers.
“It was a well-balanced side, as most World Cup-winning sides are,” Lynagh said. “There’s probably a good lesson for coaches there. It was a lovely blend of experience, youthful enthusiasm and talent. It was a very happy squad as well, particularly in 1991/92. We were a close unit, we all seemed to get on very well. We were guys who enjoyed each others’ company, went out and trained hard – we were fit. That combination was pretty good.”
A change of pace
To the surprise of many in attendance, both in the Twickenham stands and press box, England emerged onto the field and played an open, expansive brand of rugby not expected of them. Andrew eschewed his traditional game in favour of one packed full of steps, breaks and varied passing.
“I think it [the criticism] was on our mind,” he said. “There has been a lot of talk about it in various guises, in people’s books and people’s memories of what actually happened. There are differences of opinion. That was a big factor, and undoubtedly we changed the way we played in the final.
“It would have been the right decision if we’d won it and because we didn’t everybody questions whether we should have done it. If we’d stayed playing the way we’d played for the previous 18 months, who knows, the result might have been different.
“Equally, we might have lost by even more. Those things are great pub talk, because that’s what sport is, you can talk about tactics and selection forever. We definitely changed things and with hindsight you question if it was the right thing to do.”
The match was scoreless until the 26th minute, when Lynagh drew first blood for the Wallabies with a penalty. Four minutes later, they had the only try of the final as prop Tony Daly crashed over from a lineout.
England’s challenge was undimmed however, and they continued to press forward in that unfamiliar style. The result hinged for many on a Campese intervention – although not the kind he is famous for.
The correct penalty
As the clock ticked through 70 minutes, England flanker Peter Winterbottom threw a pass out to Underwood that was cynically palmed down by Australia’s star wing. The referee, Wales’ Derek Bevan, signalled a penalty, but not the penalty try that many England players called for. Jon Webb, England’s full back, kicked his second penalty of the afternoon but it was not enough to haul his side back into the match.
“It was probably too far out to be honest, to be given as a penalty try,” Andrew recalled. “It would have been a massive call to give it. There are all sorts of moments in big games that determine the outcome. That was a big moment, just like there were big moments in 2003 that went England’s way and in 2007, Mark Cueto’s ‘try’ with the TMO decision. I’m still not convinced that that wasn’t a try, but that’s the beauty of sport.”
At the final whistle, there were the competing emotions that accompany any final. Andrew admits that his memories of the day remain tinged with “huge disappointment”, while Lynagh concedes that he was awash with relief, rather than euphoria, as Bevan signalled an end to proceedings.
“My overriding sense, apart from the achievement, was one of relief,” he said. “The opportunity was there and we took it. There was a huge amount of relief when it was finished. Obviously there was a lot of joy, happiness, all that sort of stuff, but the overriding sense was that it was an opportunity that we took.
“I’ve never watched it back in its entirety. I’ve got it here. I’ve always said that the time I watch it, I’d like to watch it with my three sons when they’re old enough to appreciate it. One day, we’ll get around to it.”
Looking to the future
Four years later, Andrew and England had a measure of revenge at Rugby World Cup 1995, when the fly half’s drop goal knocked the Wallabies out at the quarter-final stage.
Since then, he has enjoyed club success with Newcastle and risen to the senior ranks of the Rugby Football Union. Having experienced a Rugby World Cup on home soil, he is in no doubt as to how important the tournament will be to England in three years’ time.
“It’s probably about as exciting as it can get if you’re involved in rugby,” he said. “I don’t think you can get any more exciting than having a home World Cup. Most players only get one World Cup, lucky ones get two, extremely lucky ones get three.
“A World Cup in England, so they have the opportunity to chase the dream with the final at Twickenham, that’s a once in a career opportunity. If you think about it, from 1991 to 2015, that’s 24 years. You take that out another 24 years, maybe longer before it is back again, these things are very rare. It’s incredibly special.”