The trend of hemispherical rotation for staging the Rugby World Cup continued for the 1999 tournament; in the Northern Hemisphere for the second time, Wales were declared the hosts. The Welsh Rugby Union constructed a new national ground for the occasion and came up trumps with the Millennium Stadium. A 74,500-seater arena, the venue was the first rugby stadium in the world to feature a retractable roof. The stadium hosted both opening and closing ceremonies including the final, as well as Pool stage matches, one quarter-final and the third-place play-off. In addition, other Northern Hemisphere nations hosted games; Ireland, France, Scotland and England played the parts of sub-hosts.
For the first time in the history of the tournament, access into the competition was not automatically granted to the larger eight IRB nations. The 1995 Champions, runners-up and third-placed team were granted their places, as were the host nation. Consequently South Africa, New Zealand, France and Wales were granted the luxury of a direct route into the tournament.
Another modernization for the fourth Rugby World Cup was the expansion to a twenty-team format. Furthermore, to accommodate the extra spaces available, the idea of a Repêchage was introduced. This meant that runners-up in eliminating stages of the qualification zones were granted another chance to compete in the finals of the competition. Due to the competition's growing popularity, the tournament saw sixty-five nations battle it out for a berth in the twenty spaces.
Australia, Samoa, Fiji, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Romania, Namibia, Argentina, Canada, the USA and Japan joined the four automatic qualifiers. The two Repêchage places were filled by Uruguay and Tonga. An additional pool was created to split the competing nations into five groups of four. This format saw the top team of each pool progress into the quarter-finals, this would account for five out of the eight places. To determine the remaining three positions would necessitate a quarter-final play-off round: the five Pool runners-up and best third-placed team would compete to decide who would join the five Pool winners in the last eight.
The first Rugby World Cup in the professional era saw defending Champions South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France and Wales top the five Pools to secure the direct route to the quarter-finals. Of these nations all but the hosts secured three wins out of three. Wales entered their first Pool match with Argentina with an unbeaten run of eight international test matches under the guidance of new coach Graham Henry. They secured a 23-18 victory over the Argentines and defeated Japan 64-15, taking their consecutive wins tally to ten, but were foiled by Samoa in the final Pool match 31-38. Wales secured a direct route to the quarter-finals by virtue of a higher points score than Argentina and Samoa, who had also won two matches each in the Pool.
Scotland entered the quarter-final play-off having lost to South Africa in Pool A and finished second on two wins out of three. They met Samoa, who entered the play-offs as the highest scoring third-placed team in the Pool stages. The Scots triumphed over the Polynesians 35-20. England, having incurred a defeat to New Zealand in Pool B met Fiji in the quarter-final play-off. Fiji entered the play-offs due to a loss to France in Pool C making them group runners-up; they were defeated 45-24 by England who progressed to the quarter-final stages of the Rugby World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament. In the only play-off that presented a shock result, Ireland, who had been expected to progress to the latter stages of the competition, met Argentina. Yet despite an Irish lead of 21-9 midway through the second half, Argentina overcame the home nation side in a 28-24 victory to reach the quarter-finals for the first ever time in the Rugby World Cup.
Wales met Australia in the first quarter-final of the 1999 tournament. The following three matches would follow the day after. Both Wales and Australia had topped their groups, whilst the remaining three quarter-finals featured a winner versus a play-off winner.
Wales, having suffered a psychologically scarring defeat to Samoa for the second time in the history of the tournament, entered their quarter-final with once-champions Australia in less than confident mood. The last time Wales had gained a victory against the Southern Hemisphere team was in the third-place play-off in the inaugural 1987 tournament. Yet Wales entertained the Antipodeans in a refreshingly confident game of rugby in slippery condition at the Millennium Stadium. Australia eventually proved the stronger team, although some scoring decisions were called into question in the post match analysis, and advanced into the semi-finals for the third time in the tournament's history.
England met defending champions South Africa in their quarter-final. Having encountered the force of Jonah Lomu fours years previously, another giant of the game would send the English home prematurely. Springbok fly-half Jannie de Beer notched up an unprecedented five drop-goals to gain a 44-21 victory over the English, gaining 34 of his team's points himself.
France took on the shock quarter-finalists Argentina in the third quarter-final to be staged. The French entered the 1999 World Cup on the back of a less than impressive year of results. Having lost to Scotland, Wales and England in the Five Nations, and Tonga, New Zealand A and the All Blacks, 54-7, on a Southern Hemisphere summer tour, France began to show a hint of their usual form in this match against the Argentineans. After eleven minutes of the game France led by 17 points, but a spirited display from Argentina - with excellent performances from Agustin Pichot and Gonzalo Quesada - saw them continually fight back to keep within a few points of the French. With the scores resting at 30-26 to the French with only fifteen minutes remaining the Argentine energy began to wane. They allowed the French to score two further tries and a penalty to close the game 47-26, and end their best run in the Rugby World Cup to date.
The remaining quarter-final saw Scotland dismissed by the All Blacks. In their third meeting in the Rugby World Cup the All Blacks dominated the first half, stretching the lead to 25-3 courtesy of two tries by Tana Umaga and one each from Jonah Lomu and Jeff Wilson. Yet the Scots regained their composure in the second half, outscoring the New Zealanders by 15 points to 5. This comeback from Scotland was to produce no more points, though with the final scores at 30-18 they had played admirably to prevent a New Zealand rout. The All Blacks entered their fourth consecutive semi-final in the tournament and as the Scots headed home, France remained the only Northern Hemisphere representative in the competition.
The semi-final matches brought the 1999 Rugby World Cup to life. Though Wales was the designated host nation both semi-finals were staged at Twickenham. Australia met South Africa in the first clash and although they had overcome the Springboks by 32-6 during a test match four months previously, Australia had lost in the previous four meetings of the countries.
The gripping match between the two rugby superpowers contained no tries and only three men put points on the scoreboard on that Saturday afternoon. Engaged in a kicking battle, Jannie de Beer put five penalties plus one of his now-infamous drop-goals on the board for the Springboks, whilst Matt Burke had slotted over seven penalty scores for the Australians. With Australia leading 21-18 eight minutes into injury time, thanks to Welsh referee Derek Bevan, a Springbok defeat looked inevitable. However, after a South African push into opposition territory an Australian offence went duly punished by de Beer's boot; he secured the three points, a 21-21 draw and a period of extra time for the defending champions.
The stalemate ensued until the third minute in the second period of extra time. The drop goal - a mode of scoring that was becoming increasingly influential in World Cup tournaments - was to catapult Australia into the lead. From 45 metres out Stephen Larkham secured the first, and possibly most important, drop goal of his career. Burke added his eighth penalty score of the game to take Australia through to their second Rugby World Cup final, having disposed of the defending champions in a breathtaking finale.
The second semi-final, staged the day afterwards on Halloween, pitted France against New Zealand in a re-run of the inaugural final between the two teams in 1987. The All Blacks were pre-destined to reach the final and having gained a 24-10 lead during the second half another New Zealand win beckoned. However, just after 45 minutes France began a thirteen minute period of utter demolition of New Zealand's lead. Christophe Lamaison dropped two goals and two penalties to add to his previous haul of try, conversion and penalty. With the score reduced to 24-22, Christophe Dominici took up a chip from Fabien Galthie and touched down. With Lamaison's conversion, France led 24-29. This lead was stretched further soon after as Richard Dourthe gathered a Lamaison kick and crossed the try line. Lamaison again converted.
Six minutes before the final whistle Philippe Bernat-Salles added France's fourth try of the game, chasing the ball and beating the New Zealand wing Wilson to the line. Lamaison converted the try, taking his personal points haul to 28. In this exceptional display by the French, New Zealand had conceded 33 points without reply until Wilson gained a consolatory try in the last minute of the game. With the final score at 43-31 the jubilant French made their way into their second World Cup final and the New Zealanders once again returned home unexpectedly early.
Yet the third-place play-off beckoned for the All Blacks before their flight home could be boarded. New Zealand versus South Africa presented a game of two of the mightiest rugby competitors in the world. Disappointingly, as was the habit of this much-detested fixture in the World Cup, the match was sub-standard. With only one try scored, little flair was seen from the likes of Umaga, Lomu and Wilson; Andrew Mehrtens scored all of New Zealand's points with his boot. South Africa attained their try thanks to Breyton Paulse and together with a conversion and penalty from Henry Honiball and two drop goals from Percy Montgomery the Springboks claimed the bronze position with a 22-18 win.
Australia and France met at the Millennium Stadium for the eagerly anticipated final. France had been in this position once before and this would also be Australia's second final, having won the tournament in 1991. Following two glorious semi-final displays the World Cup final did not reach the standards set at Twickenham. Playing on a pitch that hardly met World Cup final standards the two teams appeared lacklustre. Australia closed down the French play so that the freedom and free-flowing running rugby they enjoyed against the All Blacks was prohibited.
With a quarter of an hour played the score was equal at six points all. France could have stretched their lead further as Abdelatif Benazzi crossed the line but Olivier Magne had been judged to have thrown a forward pass in the build-up to the score. Australia instead took the lead to 12-6, courtesy of two further penalty kicks from Burke, as half-time ensued. After the interval France could only add two more penalties to double their score; Lamasion was the only French scorer of the afternoon. Australia on the other hand secured their first try in the 66th minute as Ben Tune touched down after linking with Owen Finegan. Finegan secured a score himself deep into injury time after a break from Gregan. As Burke secured the two conversions and added a further three penalties throughout the second half the Australians triumphed to a 35-12 victory. France, drained from the semi-final just as in the inaugural competition, lacked the exuberance to overpower an Australian side that sought their second victory in the Rugby World Cup tournament.
Captain John Eales lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, heralding Australia as winners for the second time and retaining their status as the only team to win the Rugby World Cup away from home. Tim Horan deservedly received the recognition of Player of the Tournament whilst the highly impressive Gonzalo Quesada of Argentina won the Golden Boot award having scored a total of one hundred and two points in the tournament.
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