The first year of the Rugby World Cup was 1987 and hosting was shared by Australia and New Zealand. Sixteen countries competed and the event was won by New Zealand when they beat France 29-9 at Eden Park, Auckland.
The final, played in bright sunshine at Eden Park in Auckland on June 20 in front of 46,000 spectators, was refereed by Kerry Fitzgerald of Australia and won by New Zealand 29-9. Michael Jones, David Kirk and Kirwan scored tries, with Grant Fox kicking one conversion, four penalties and a drop goal for the Blacks. While for France, Didier Camberabero kicked a penalty and converted Pierre Berbizier’s try. The victory meant that scrum-half Kirk, captaining the side in hooker Andy Dalton’s injury-enforced absence, lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy for New Zealand for the first, and, so far, only time.
To say that New Zealand dominated this tournament would be an understatement. This All Black outfit was one of the greatest of all time, stuffed with legendary names such as Kirk, Shelford, Fox, Sean Fitzpatrick and Joe Stanley. This side, famed for its devastating rucking and ruthless finishing, also featured two of the greatest-ever players in their positions, both at the height of their powers. Jones at openside flanker, and Kirwan on the right wing were simply brilliant. The big, crew-cutted winger just shades player of the tournament, thanks to his six tries and the try of the tournament, his 90-yard,stepping and swerving solo effort where he seemingly beat the entire Italian team.
The 1987 Rugby World Cup kicked off on the 22nd May with the All Blacks facing Italy on a sunny weekday afternoon in Auckland. John Kirwan scythed through the entire Azzurri defence and ran 90 metres to score a brilliant try as the New Zealand side ran out winners 70-6.
That match would set the tone for the tournament as a superbly balanced New Zealand side, blessed with a fine mix of youth and experience, an astute coaching team of Brian Lochore, Alex Wyllie and John Hart and home advantage – except bizarrely enough – for a semi-final played against Wales at Ballymore in Brisbane – swept all before them.
The men from the shaky isles were never stretched – the 15 points scored by a Hugo Porta-led Argentina was the most they would concede in the tournament. Even the final was a relative coast, as they cleared out to beat the French by 29-9.
It was a tournament played in innocent times – tacked on to the end of the Northern Hemisphere season and plonked at the beginning of the Oceania winter.
Twenty years on the names from that competition still glisten as it truly was a time of heroes in rugby. The French Musketeers of Serge Blanco, Denis Charvet, Patrice Lagisquet and Phillipe Sella, the elusive David Campese and Brett Papworth wearing the yellow of Australia, the mercurial Johnathan Davies (has their been a skinnier man in international rugby?) and fellow future league convert John Deveraux represented Wales, while John Jeffrey and Finlay Calder were Scottish bravehearts. England had glorious ‘names’ such as Peter Winterbottam and Rory Underwood.
Hugo Porta, undoubtedly the best player to ever come out of South America, had his farewell on the international stage, just as future legends Kirwan, Michael Lynagh, Matt Burke and Zinzan Brooke were introduced to the global rugby public.
France was the pick of the Northern Hemisphere sides. They played with passion and fervour and flair and were involved in the two best games of the tournament. First a thrilling 20-20 draw against Scotland in the group stages then a pulsating semi-final where Serge Blanco broke Australian hearts with a last minute try in the deep dusk at Concord Oval in Sydney.