August 26, 2020, marks a quarter of a century since rugby union went professional. It’s an era that spans six World Cups, including the first on the Asian continent, six British and Irish Lions tours, including one famous drop goal, one infamous spear tackle and arguably the best try of all time.
We’ve charted the glittering careers of Jonah, Jonny and Siya on the newspapers’ back pages. We’ve seen sagas and scandals play out on the front pages. And we’ve even seen rugby return to the Olympic Games after a 92-year hiatus.
Here we wind back the clock to highlight the 25 most memorable moments from the past 25 years.
Professionalism was already creeping into the game by the 1980s, signalled by the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, but the catalyst for change came in 1995 when South Africa won their home World Cup, soothing a nation that had long been divided by apartheid. That year, Rupert Murdoch and fellow media mogul Kerry Packer had flooded the sport with multi-million pound television deals and players were taking sponsorship payments, leading to accusations of shamateurism. Unable to resist professionalism any longer, the International Rugby Board, now called World Rugby, finally agreed to end the era of amateur rugby at the elite level.
With professionalism came the advent of European club rugby as the Heineken Cup was launched, made up of 12 sides representing France, Ireland, Wales, Italy and Romania, while the English and Scottish teams refused to play ball until the following season. From an inauspicious beginning in Romania, where Toulouse beat Farul Constanţa 54-10, the competition gathered momentum. Toulouse went on to become the first European cup winners, beating Cardiff in extra time in front of a crowd of 21,800 at Cardiff Arms Park. The French side and Ireland’s Leinster currently hold the joint record for most titles with four each.
Call it controversial, but rugby journalist and author Chris Jones believes the day Nigel Wray, a millionaire property dealer, took ownership of London club Saracens FC was a crucial turning point for northern hemisphere domestic rugby. “He’s been incredible in terms of support and an unwillingness to accept the norm, to get some of the greatest players into the game. [Over the years] Nigel found a way to compete with the French billionaires.” Three European Champions Cups in 2016, 2017 and 2019 as well as a conveyor belt of talent for the England national side have been the spoils of his unwillingness to accept the norm. But more on that later.
The 1997 British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa was the stuff of legend. It produced the peerless fly-on-the-wall documentary, Living With The Lions, Scottish forwards coach Jim Telfer’s spine-tingling “this is your Everest” speech and centre Jeremy Guscott’s moment of magic. The Lions had won the first match at Newlands and were tied 15-15 in Durban when Guscott nervelessly slotted a drop goal to edge the match and secure the series. Notably, it was only the third time a touring side had won a test series in South Africa.
Clive Woodward’s appointment as head coach was not only crucial for England’s aspirations of winning the World Cup, says Jones, it was also seminal for the development of rugby union and its players across the northern hemisphere. “Until then England played at being pro and were quite good but not brilliant,” argues Jones. “But with Woodward they got an obsessive coach and changed the way they trained, prepared and thought about rugby.” Still, it took until 2003 for everything to click, when England secured their first Six Nations Grand Slam in eight years, beating Ireland 42-6 in Dublin.
Context is everything. Les Bleus, then the Five Nations wooden spoon holders, were being pulverised by an all-star All Blacks side boasting hall-of-famers Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson, Andrew Mehrtens and a fearsome Jonah Lomu in his pomp. The Kiwi express train had already plundered two tries to put the favourites 24-10 in the lead when Christophe Lamaison sparked the unlikeliest of comebacks. France swept back with 33 unanswered points to crown arguably the biggest upset in World Cup history.
At the turn of the millennium, the Five Nations, which could trace its roots back to the Home Championship of 1883, was expanded to six and Italy made an immediate impact with an emphatic 34-20 victory over Scotland in Rome. Sadly, bar a couple of eye-catching wins over France, that’s been about as good as it’s got for the Azzurri. Italy have finished bottom 14 times out of 19.
That’s how it was billed, and who could argue when it served up 11 tries and finished 39 points to 35. In front of a world record 110,000 crowd at Sydney’s Stadium Australia, it was high drama from start to finish as the All Blacks raced into a 24-0 lead after just nine minutes. The Wallabies battled back to level it 24-24 at half-time and both sides continued trading the lead throughout the second half. Finally, with just three minutes left, Australia thought they had won it, only for Jonah Lomu, who else, to score and snatch it at the death for the All Blacks.
Down Under the stars finally aligned for England. Woodward’s forensic attention to detail, combined with Martin Johnson’s talismanic leadership and fly-half Jonny Wilkinson’s obsession with self-improvement produced the winning formula for a northern hemisphere nation to finally break the south’s domination of the World Cup. No northern side has won it since.
The hugely anticipated 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand was virtually over after just 45 seconds. It literally was for centre and captain Brian O’Driscoll, who lay crumpled in agony after Kiwis Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu had driven his collar bone into the turf. With BOD went the Lions’ fight and the All Blacks – and a 23-year-old Dan Carter in particular – dominated the match and tour, wrapping up a 3-0 series whitewash. To this day that infamous spear tackle is still being raked over.
A Heineken Cup quarter final. A fake blood capsule. A wink. It was rugby’s biggest scandal that led to a three-year ban for Harlequins’ DOR Dean Richards, the team physio being struck off by the Health Professionals Council and the player caught in the act, Tom Williams, banned for four months and trolled by rival fans dressed as vampires. But according to Williams’ former teammate Ugo Monye, everyone was doing it, Quins were just the fall guys. “I'm just glad in some ways that we got caught because it cleaned up rugby,” he said on an episode of Rugby Union Weekly. “To my knowledge it's not been done since.”
This was a massively important day for rugby, says commentator Nick Heath. Japan beat bids from South Africa and Italy to earn the honour of hosting the first Rugby World Cup in Asia. “That decision had an even bigger impact than the tournament itself,” says Heath, suggesting Japan’s performances in the 2015 and 2019 World Cups wouldn’t have been possible without that moment. “The God of rugby smiled on us today,” said Japan RFU president Yoshiro Mori at the time. A decade later, the God of rugby shined on Japan again as the Brave Blossoms lit up the tournament.
You couldn’t make it up. New Zealand hadn’t won a World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987 and were under immense pressure to put it right as hosts in 2011. That expectation took its toll as the Kiwi’s first, second and third choice fly-halves each broke down with injury, the last coming at halftime in the final. With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, replacement number 10 Stephen Donald took the field. Legend has it, Donald hadn’t kicked a ball for five weeks and was whitebait fishing on the Waikato river when he got the call up. But cometh the hour, Donald slotted the crucial penalty to win it for the All Blacks.
If there was one moment that encapsulates the 2013 Lions tour of Australia, this was it. Lions wing George North was at his rampaging best, having scored a scintillating try in the tourists’ opening test win, when he received the ball under pressure from the Wallabies’ towering full-back Israel Folau. Unable to shrug him off, instead North drove underneath Folau to lift him off the ground, carry him five metres towards his own try line, and dump him on his back. The fact it came in defeat is inconsequential as the Lions went on to dominate their opponents in the decisive third test to claim their first series since 1997.
The World Cup’s greatest game of all time? Undoubtedly it was one of the finest finishes. With soon-to-be England head coach Eddie Jones in charge, Japan had given South Africa the game of their lives. Then, with seconds remaining, Japan won a kickable penalty that would have levelled the game at 32-32. Instead they went for the kill. A dominant scrum set the platform for winger Karne Hesketh to slide over in the corner and immortalise the day forever as The Miracle of Brighton.
Technically the Wallabies knocked the hosts out, but the psychological damage had been done a week earlier when bitter rivals Wales raided England’s fortress, overturning a 10-point deficit to edge this classic 28-25. “Incredible,” Wales coach Warren Gatland recently told Rugby World. “All the odds were against us. I took – and still take – great pleasure in the character we showed to stay in the fight and win.”
In a game of giants, Jonah Lomu was peerless. He scored 37 tries in 63 matches for New Zealand between 1994 and 2002, including a record 15 World Cup tries in just 11 tests. Off the field he inspired a generation to pick up the sport, all while concealing a rare and serious kidney condition diagnosed in 1995 that ultimately led to him passing, aged just 40. “Everyone wanted to be Jonah Lomu,” says Chris Jones. “In 1995 the sport needed an icon. We needed a Muhammad Ali of rugby and we found one. Without him, professionalism would have been impossible. In terms of changing what you believe people can do on a rugby pitch, there hasn’t ever been another Jonah Lomu.”
Rugby union, first played in the 1924 Paris Games, made its long-awaited return to the Olympic roster as Rugby Sevens in Rio. Australia won the women’s gold medal and Fiji, earning their first ever Olympic medal at any Games, romped to gold in the men’s competition. Seeing rugby on that global stage was “the cherry on top” of the past 25 years for former Wales international Phil Davies, now coach at Yorkshire Carnegie. “That’s led to the powerhouses of the Olympics, like the US, China and Russia to embrace rugby.”
Ireland ended a 111-year wait for victory over the All Blacks with a breathtaking 40-29 win at Soldier Field, Chicago. The odds were stacked against them, having never beaten the Kiwis in 29 attempts while the triple world champions were looking to extend a record unbeaten run of 18 consecutive wins. But, inspired by the recent passing of Irish legend Anthony Foley, the men in green roared into a 25-8 half-time lead, fending off a late comeback to seal the win.
“Like kissing your sister,” was how Kiwi coach Steve Hansen described drawing the series with the Lions. “There’s not a lot in it for anybody.” That niche comparison aside, the 2017 tour produced some outstanding rugby, and with the Lions’ length-of-the-field score in the first match, arguably the best high stakes try of all time.
While the Rugby Football Union in England has been at constant loggerheads with Premiership clubs about centrally contracting their star players since professionalism, the women’s game showed them how it’s done in 2019. “The first women’s team to go pro should be a line in the sand,” says Nick Heath, highlighting the qualities of England’s Katy Daley-McClean, Zoe Harrison and Emily Scarratt, last year’s World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year. “There isn’t the breadth and depth of skill levels in the women’s game yet – but there will be.”
Determined to prove the Miracle of Brighton wasn’t a fluke, the Brave Blossoms dazzled again at their home World Cup four years later. Lightning fast attacks cut Ireland and Scotland to ribbons, helping them qualify for the last eight for the first time. It sent a nation reeling from Typhoon Hagibis into raptures, and showed how far they had come since a record 145-17 defeat to the All Blacks in 1995. Uruguay’s shock victory over Fiji and England’s dominant win over New Zealand also deserve a mention in a tournament of upsets.
In Japan, Asia’s first Rugby World Cup, Siya Kolisi made history as the first black captain – not just of South Africa, but any nation – to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. The moment charted a remarkable journey for Kolisi, from the poor townships of Port Elizabeth, where his family would struggle to feed him, to leading a racially integrated side who dominated tournament favourites England in the final. At full time history repeated itself as President Cyril Ramaphosa joined in the celebrations, echoing the iconic scenes of 1995 when Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey and cap, presented captain Francois Pienaar with the World Cup trophy.
After a golden spell that included winning four of the previous five Premiership titles and three out of four European Cups, Saracens FC were found to have breached the league’s salary cap regulations. The league leaders were slapped with an initial 35-point deduction, fined a hefty £5.3 million and eventually relegated. Saracens’ chairman, Nigel Wray (remember him?) and the club’s creative accountants had been investing in companies owned by the players to sweeten their deals. Two months later, Wray stood down, cutting ties with the club after a quarter of a century.
A deadly Coronavirus pandemic ground the global rugby season to a halt just months before the sport’s 25th anniversary since professionalism. While casting uncertainty on the future of the game, it has also provided a rare opportunity to align the northern and southern hemisphere calendars under a global season, which could benefit unions, clubs, players and fans. It would be the biggest shake up since the amateur era ended but, ironically, Covid-19 could ultimately turn out to improve the health of the game for the next 25 years.
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