The Biggest Upsets in Rugby World Cup History?

It seems like a long way off, but the 2019 Rugby World Cup will be upon us before we know it. We’ll know a little more about what to expect from the tournament during the next few weeks, as the recently announced November test schedule completes and a shitload of false hope is created in the English media.  And we can all laugh at Wales losing to Australia again.  So far, so predictable.

One especially unpredictable fixture during November is France versus New Zealand. The All Blacks are currently on a ten-match winning streak against France, but games between these two teams always bring to mind the 2007 Rugby World Cup when the quarter-finals of that tournament, the French pulled off a major shock by beating tournament favourites New Zealand by 20 points to 18, with bearded beat poet lookalike Phillipe Bernat-Salles front and centre of the humiliation.

This got us to thinking about other upsets the Rugby World. Although the tournament, and ruby generally, often goes pretty much as expected (see Wales losing to Australia, above) it can also be unpredictable (see hookers kicking the ball with increasing competence. This is just one reason why so many people lose money when betting on the sport so let’s have a look at some shockers from Rugby World Cup history.

South Africa vs Japan – 2015

The biggest Rugby World Cup upset of all, and responsible for every living room and bar around the world going batshit simlutaneously across many time zones. Eddie Jones’ Japan came into the game as huge underdogs against a South African team that all expected to record an easy victory.  Best laid plans and all that.

The result was all the more amazing for the manner in which it was achieved. South Africa was far from their best during the early part of the game, while Japan started brightly. The Cherry Blossoms took the game to their opponents and established an early lead with a penalty after just seven minutes.

Normal order was restored when South Africa recorded a converted try to lead 7-3, but the Japanese hit back soon after. A converted try of their own saw them retake the lead, before South Africa scored again to make it 12-10 at half time.

An early second half-penalty put Japan back in front, but South Africa made it 19-13 almost immediately. The brave Japanese didn’t crumble, however, and the two teams traded blows throughout the second half.

When the game went to 29-22 in South Africa’s favour, it looked like Japan were finally beaten. They came back once again, though, to level the score with 10 minutes to go. The Springboks then scored a late penalty which many assumed would secure their expected victory.

Incredibly, the Japanese were still not finished. After twice electing not to kick penalties that could have earned them the draw they were rewarded in the dying minutes with a converted try to win the game by 34 points to 32.  And not just any try, but one of such intricate complexity at pace it was like a flock of peregrine falcons doing the macarena on fast forward.  With a ball.


Wales vs Western Samoa – 1991


Western Samoa made their World Cup debut in 1991. And what a debut it was. No-one gave them a chance when they came up against Wales in the first game of the group stages, but they had other ideas.

Wales had placed third in the tournament four years previously, and were playing at home in their Cardiff Arms Park stadium. They were heavily fancied to start with a convincing victory against the rank outsiders from Western Samoa, who had just 2,000 players to pick from at the time.  Although, each one of them was massive and hard, which helped.

Speaking of which, the Samoans surprised everyone with their strength and aggression, and comfortably outmuscled the Welsh throughout the game. With two tries apiece, however, it was actually the kicking talent of Matthew Vaea that proved to be the difference. He scored the penalty which condemned Wales to the unexpected loss that ultimately led to their elimination from the tournament.


France vs Australia – 1987


1987 marked the beginning of Rugby World Cup history. The inaugural tournament was hosted jointly by New Zealand and Australia, and the two home teams were widely expected to contest the final.

That looked likely by the time the semi-finals came around, as the two best teams in the world hadn’t been troubled at all. New Zealand was to face Wales for their place in the final, while Australia was up against France.

Everything appeared to be going to plan as the Wallabies took a 9-0 lead. The French fought back, though, and the game turned out to be an enthralling encounter.

Australia still looked on course during the later stages of the game. They were leading 24-21, and it could have been more had it not been for fly-half Michael Lynagh’s missed penalties. Those misses proved to be costly, however, as the French equalized with a penalty of their own.

Extra-time appeared inevitable, but France completed the turnaround with a late try that is still a go to reference for all rugby fans and last minute drama thirty years late. The scripted final was not to be, and we had our first Rugby World Cup upset.  This game also gets extra points for Australia having a prop called Mr Lillycrap.

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France reversing a 24-3 All Blacks halftime lead in1999 semifinals was also extraordinary, both for the absolute abandon and elań with which the French humiliated the Kiwis, and the final margin of victory. It was amazing to watch.

The Global embarrassment of England at WC 2015, playing both at home venure and as hotly-tipped hosts against a Wales team with so many injuries there scrum halves playing on the wing and recently promoted players from youth squad called-up. Never mind Australia-Wales, THIS was the day that everyone laughed …

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