1995 Rugby World Cup

The 1995 Rugby World Cup was the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa following the end of apartheid. It was also the first World Cup in which South Africa was allowed to compete, South Africa having been readmitted to international rugby in 1992, following negotiations to end apartheid. This would also be the last major event of rugby union's amateur era. Indeed two months after the tournament, the IRFB opened the sport to professionalism. Of all the Rugby World Cups this is probably the most famous, helped by Hollywood’s depiction of the tournament in Invictus. In a tense and tight final, South Africa completed a fairy-tale win in extra time, over a valiant New Zealand side. But the result was not without controversy, and allegations of food poisoning persist to this day. However, the enduring memory is of Nelson Mandela bonding with the Afrikaner community and building bridges in the new rainbow nation.

What was going on in the world in 1995?

  • OJ Simpson murder trial commences in Jan; found not guilty in Oct.
  • Richey Edwards, lead singer of the Manic Street Preachers, disappeared on 1 Feb; he was declared "presumed dead" in 2008.
  • Nick Leeson arrested, 2 Mar, for his role in the collapse of Barings Bank
  • Members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult release Sarin gas in Tokyo subway, 20 Mar
  • Oklahoma bombing – Timothy McVeigh detonates bomb, killing 168 people
  • Srebenica massacre; thousands of men and boys were killed and women raped


Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv and former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, also died during 1995. The entertainment world lost Peter Cook, Donald Pleasance, Dean Martin and Paul Eddington; and sport said a final goodbye to legends Fred Perry and Juan Manuel Fangio. Finally the world was rid of British serial killer, Fred West.

World Cup format

Quarter-finalists from 1991 qualified automatically, along with the hosts, leaving the final 7 places to be determined via regional qualifying. Fiji failed to qualify and 1995 is the only World Cup in which they have not taken part. Rookies The South Africans were not the only rookies. Ivory Coast became the first West African nation to play in the Rugby World Cup and they were resoundingly thrashed to nil by Scotland in their first game. They did manage to be a bit more competitive in the other 2 pool matches and only went down by a 29-11 margin to Tonga in the final game.

Tournament facts and records

  • Top points scorer: Thierry Lacroix (France) – 112 points
  • Most tries: Jonah Lomu and Marc Ellis (both New Zealand) – 7 tries
  • Simon Culhane of New Zealand scored a record 45 points in the 145-17 trouncing of Japan, including 20 conversion and a try, which in 1995 was now worth 5 points
  • Marc Ellis scored 6 tries in that match, which remains a record for the single match
  • Scotland defeated Ivory Coast 89-0, with a mere 42 points for Gavin Hastings (4 tries, 9 conversions and 2 penalties)
  • Frank Bunce became the first player to play for 2 different sides in the Rugby World Cup. Having played centre for the fabulous Western Samoa side in 1991, he was poached into the New Zealand backline in 1992 and he played there until shortly before turning 36. Bunce was from the tiny island nation of Niue, in the Samoa / Tonga / Cook Islands triangle and he is a direct descendant of King George III. Not many rugby players can claim that! Who should have won but didn’t?

The 1995 Rugby World Cup is the only tournament (at least as at September 2015) to have seen a final between 2 teams from the same hemisphere; South Africa and New Zealand were without question the 2 best teams in the world at the time and there was precious little to choose between them, as can be seen by the fact that the final went to extra time.

New Zealand were such favourites, especially with the power and pace of Jonah Lomu, a 6’5” and 18 stone winger, but South Africa had burst on to the world stage after years of isolation to be true contenders again. You can make a case for either one. The difference in the end between South Africa and everyone else who played New Zealand was their ability to tackle Lomu. In the end this is the convincer for me. Here are two examples from Japie Mulder and Joost van der Westhuizen.

Close matches

Despite some of the most one-sided matches ever seen in the World Cup, there were some close encounters

• Ireland 24 Wales 23 in the pool match, the decider for second place behind New Zealand

• England 25 Australia 22 (after extra time) in the quarter-final; just as the match lurched towards injury time, Rob Andrew famous dropped a goal to beat a heavily fancied Australia side Memorable match

Aside from the final, New Zealand left their mark with a crushing win over England in the semi-final, by 45-29. Amazingly England scored 4 tries. But so did Jonah Lomu, with Josh Kronfeld and Graeme Bachop also getting over the line. And to add salt into the gaping wounds, Zinzan Brooke, New Zealand’s number 8, dropped an outrageous goal from way out near the right touchline.


Infamous Match: “The Battle of Boet Erasmus”

This is a little remembered encountered. South Africa, at home with their fearsome rugby reputation, were never going to be shrinking violets in any match in this tournament. Perhaps, more surprisingly, the outmatched Canadians were also determined not to take a backward step. The result? A mass brawl after a heavy touchline tackle with 3 red cards produced, which remains a World Cup record. Canadians Gareth Rees (Fly-half) and Rod Snow (Prop) joined South Africa's James Dalton (Hooker) in being dismissed. The decisions seemed rather random. Dalton's appeal against suspension failed. Scott Stewart, the Canadian Fullback who had started the fracas, got off "Scott free". Here it is, set to music.

Heroes and Villains

Hero: Jonah Lomu

Jonah Lomu burst on to the international scene in 1994 initially via the Sevens circuit and quickly graduated to the XV a-side national team. Even the best team in the world, New Zealand, had had nobody like him. It was impossible for someone that big to be that fast. As a combined package of size, strength and speed, most internaitonal opponents were unable to tackle him, or certainly it took more than one tackler to bring him down.

In 1995, New Zealand played all of the British teams: Ireland and Wales in the pool stage, Scotland in the quarter-final, and England in a memorable semi-final. Never before in the fields of top flight internaitonal rugby has so much carnage been caused to so many by so few!

Watch it here.

Villain: Suzie, the mysterious waitress

48 hours before the final the New Zealand camp had been struck with illness to the extent that winger Eric Rush said if the game had been player a day earlier they wouldn’t have been able to field a full team. Cue the conspiracy theories.

Coach Laurie Mains blamed the squad’s illness on a mysterious waitress called Suzie, who he claimed had poisoned the team’s water in the run-up to the game. Luckily for Rush and a handful of others who were fed up with Mains’ dietary regime of terror and desperate for carbs, they avoided the food poisoning having snuck off to the Pizza Hut down the road while their team mates were dropping like flies. The day after the final the illness had passed but by then the damage had been done.

If anyone knows the mysterious Suzie or her whereabouts, please do get in touch, as we would love to interview her for WorldCupStory!

Quick facts

  • Winners: South Africa
  • Runners-up: New Zealand
  • 3rd Place: France
  • 4th Place: England
  • 5th-8th: Western Samoa, Scotland, Ireland, Australia
  • Others: Canada, Italy, Wales, Tonga, Romania, Argentina, Japan, Ivory Coast

Verdict: good, bad or ugly?

Good, no doubts. This tournament provided one of the most iconic sporting moments of any era, when Nelson Mandela embraced the culture of his lifelong enemies, Afrikaaner establishment. It was a truly great moment of reconciliation and paved the way for the growth of the rainbow nation in its early years.