1991 Rugby World Cup

It was still the amateur era and still just 4 points for a try, but this time the tournament moved to the Northern Hemisphere, jointly hosted by each of the 5 nations: England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Such was the expectation for the second World Cup, that the IRFB commissioned an anthem, “The World in Union”, to the tune of “I vow to thee my country”, which is an extract from “Jupiter” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”. Its first performance was recorded by New Zealand opera soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa. Here is the link.

What was going on in the world in 1991?

  • First Gulf War; Operation Desert Storm is launched
  • The Birmingham 6 are freed
  • California police officers indicted for the beating of Rodney King 
  • Dissolution of the Soviet Union; President Gorbachev under house arrest whilst holidaying in Crimea; Boris Yeltsin elected President of Russia
  • Magic Johnson announces he is HIV positive


The body of Robert Maxwell was found floating near the Canary Islands. The literary world said goodbye to Graham Greene. The music world lost Miles Davis and Freddie Mercury to AIDS related pneumonia, and suffered the tragedy of the Conor Clapton’s young death.

World Cup format

The 8 quarter-finalists from 1987 qualified automatically and 25 other nations competed for the remaining qualifying slots. The 4 group and quarter-final knockout format remained the same as in 1987.


Western Samoa made it through qualifying at the expense of Tonga, and they were the only rookie team in the 1991 tournament. What an impact they were to make, beating the Welsh in Cardiff and getting through to the quarter-finals before bowing out to a Gavin Hastings inspired Scotland. Canada also made a surprise first appearance in the quarter-finals at the expense of Fiji and Romania, where they were outclassed by New Zealand, and this remains their only participation in the knockout phase.

Tournament facts and records

Australia won beating England in the final, having eliminated defending champion New Zealand in the semi-final. England had reached the final the hard way, finishing as runner-up to New Zealand in the pool and then beating France in France in the quarter-final, and Scotland in Scotland in the semi-final.

  • Top points scorer: Ralph Keyes (Ireland) – 68 points
  • Most tries: David Campese (Australia) and Jean-Baptiste Lafond (France) – 6 tries

Who should have won but didn’t?

Unlike 1987, the winners did not really look the part throughout the tournament. For sure any team defeating New Zealand can fairly have a claim to be deserving champions. But if you dig a little deeper you soon see the cracks in this argument. In the pool matches, the first and third matches against Argentina and Wales were comfortable wins, but in between, the faced the surprise package of the tournament, Western Samoa at a rain swept Pontypool and prevailed by the narrow margin of 9-3. This was a fortunate win, and Australia benefited from the lack of action against their flanker, Brendon Nasser, for a horrendous piece of foul play, as described below in the “villain” section.

In the quarter-final it took a last gasp try in the corner from Michael Lynagh to see off Ireland by a single point. And finally in the final against England, another tight encounter, Australian winger, David Campese attempted to intercept a scoring pass to Rory Underwood and knocked it on. A penalty was given, but today it would certainly have been a yellow card and possibly a penalty try, because, as the commentator in the clip below notes “he went for it one handed and that it is benchmark referees use”. The incident is at about 6 min 50 sec in the youtube clip


So if Australia did not entirely deserve to win, who did? This is a tough one to answer. England came through strongly in the knockout and arguably lost the final due to a wrong choice of tactics, but they started slowly and lost their opening group game. New Zealand looked terrific in the group, beating England at Twickenham, but laboured past Canada in the quarter-finals before being decisively beaten by Australia via a moment of sublime skill from Campese, with an over the shoulder pass.

So, take your pick from these 3 sides, all of whom had their moments. Close matches Australia 19 Ireland 18 in the quarter-final, with a last gasp try from Michael Lynagh settling the match.

Great matches Wales 13 Western Samoa 16: (group game at Cardiff Arms Park)

Wales had suffered from defections to rugby league since the 1987 World Cup, when they had finished third. In 22 matches from 1988 to 1991 they had beaten only England (once), Western Samoa (once) and Namibia (twice) in a period so bad that some, including Gerald Davies in the Times, questioned whether the decline was terminal. He described "a melancholy born of shoulder-hunching and long suffering resignation; it is no longer that of a sudden tragic death." Davies lamented that defeat "through infinite repetition, has become bearable", continuing that it "belonged safely and indelibly marked among the haunting litany of recent years."

Though familiar names such as Pat Lam, Frank Bunce, Brian Lima and Stephen Bachop appear on Western Samoa's team sheet, they lacked international experience at the time. Over half the team, however, was based in New Zealand, including captain, prop and specialist piano shifter, Peter Fatialofa. In Western Samoa,

15,000 had watched the match on a giant screen, despite the kick-off at 1am local time. While celebrations lasted long into the night in Cardiff, Bryan Williams, Western Samoa's coach later reported that, "the parties back home went on until everyone had to go to church." In fairness,

Wales were unlucky. Vaega’s try early in the second half was clearly a bad call, as Welsh scrum-half, Robert Jones, got to the ball first and touched it down in goal, for what should have been a 22 metre drop out.

However, it is upsets such as these which are the life blood of sport and the world stood to applaud the gallant heroes from the Pacific Islands. Of course the jokes soon did the rounds “what would have happened if Wales had been playing the whole of Samoa…” and so on. Well, in the 1999 World Cup we would find out.

Heroes and Villains

Hero: Apollo Perelini

Born in July 1969, Apollo Perelini was born on the day that Apollo 11 was launched and named accordingly. In the 1991 World Cup he gained the nickname of "Terminator" for his fierce, hard-hitting tackling technique. Indeed he was the first player in world rugby to change the defensive tackle into an offensive attacking weapon A product of Auckland’s North Harbour club, Perelini played open-side flanker and formed a legendary back row combination for Western Samoa with East Tamaki’s Junior Paramore at 6, and Auckland’s Pat Lam at number 8. All their opponents felt the full impact of the hit tackles pioneered by Perelini.

It was unfortunate that the professional era did not come to Rugby Union at the end of the 1991 World Cup as Apollo Perelini would have been snapped up by one of the top clubs in the fledgling professional era. Instead he was “lost” to Rugby League and plied his trade with St Helens, mostly playing as a prop.

The big hits kept coming and Mickey "The Munch" Skinner was instrumental in getting England through a tough quarter final against France in Pairs. Here is his legendary tackle on Marc Cecillon.


Villain: Brendon Nasser

The tight pool match in Pontypool between Australia and Western Samoa was effectively the decider for first and second place. Australia won 9-3 in driving rain, aided by as bad a “clothes line” tackle from their flanker Brendon Nasser as you will ever see.

Quick facts

  • Winners: Australia
  • Runners-up: England
  • 3rd Place: New Zealand
  • 4th Place: Scotland
  • 5th-8th: Ireland, France, Canada, Western Samoa
  • Others: Italy, Japan, Wales, Romania, USA, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Fiji

Verdict: good, bad or ugly?

Good, for sure, maybe even better. Although it is reasonable to debate whether the right team won, this tournament had all the ingredients you could want in a World Cup: great skills, massive upsets, close matches, memorable characters, and even some villainy. If you want a parallel from the world of football, it is reminiscent of the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain.