What happened last time France hosted the Rugby World Cup?

BY Matthew Bazell

17th Aug 2023 Sport

What happened last time France hosted the Rugby World Cup?
With the Rugby World Cup set to return to France in early September, Matthew Bazell looks back on the last time France hosted the tournament, with all the glory and despair that resulted
In his new book, Glory in Union: The Rugby World Cup, Matthew Bazell looks back through the hard-hitting history and legendary matches of rugby’s greatest tournament, from the inaugural World Cup 1987 to the last World Cup in Japan in 2019.

With the Rugby World Cup about to happen in France, in this extract from his book he looks back at the glory and despair of the last time the tournament was held in France in 2007, with England falling only in the final to deny them victory.

France’s mixed fortunes

With the exception of four games in Cardiff and two in Edinburgh, the entirety of the tournament was played out across ten French cities. Ironically and surprisingly, France would end up playing in one of the Cardiff matches in the knockout rounds after finishing second in their group and losing home advantage. They would be beaten to top spot in Pool D by Argentina who would be one of the stories of the tournament.
"Argentina handed France their first ever loss in the group stages, and their emergence saw Pool D justify its 'group of death' tag"
The South Americans had grown used to playing the hosts in the opening game; in 1999 they lost 23-18 to Wales and in 2003 they were beaten 24-8 by Australia. Instead of making it a hat-trick, Argentina handed France their first ever loss in the group stages, and their emergence saw Pool D justify its “group of death” tag—given that Ireland were also in there.

The Pumas come of age

The typical World Cup experience for the Irish is to make it to the quarter-final stage, and they go in to the 2023 tournament in France as one of the favourites to win it. In 2007, however, Ireland’s 30-15 defeat to the Pumas of Argentina condemned them to their one and only elimination in the group stages. Argentina would go on to lose to South Africa in the semi-final, but would then beat France once again in the bronze medal match, in what still stands as their greatest performance in a World Cup.

All-Blacks dominate the new boys

Portuguese fans in the crowd waving the national flag and cheering would be something you’d associate with the other World Cup with the round ball.
"Portuguese fans cheered when their team scored a try against New Zealand, despite being defeated 108-13 by the All Blacks"
However, in 2007 Portugal were making their only appearance to date in the Rugby World Cup and there were cheers of delight from their fans when their team scored a try against New Zealand, despite being on the end of a 108-13 defeat in what goes down as the fourth-biggest win (by points total) in World Cup history.

France wins game of the tournament

The New Zealand team perform the Haka dance before they face off against France in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Credit: span Flickr
Despite losing home advantage, France would put on their best performance of the tournament when they beat New Zealand in Cardiff. The All Blacks (wearing an unfamiliar grey kit) took a 13-0 lead and were looking to avenge the semi-final defeat they suffered to the French in 1999. Instead, lightning struck twice and Les Bleus once again came from a losing position to knock New Zealand out of the World Cup. This set up a semi-final in Paris against defending champions England in one of the most brutal and hard-hitting games in World Cup history.

Wilkinson on point

England were weaker than in 2003 but they still had the kicking skills of Jonny Wilkinson. They got the perfect start in the second minute when Josh Lewsey scored a try, but France responded by scoring three penalties in a row to take the lead.
"Wilkinson scored a drop goal against France described by the commentator as 'déjà vu' from four years earlier"
With just a little over two minutes to play England were 11-9 ahead, before Wilkinson scored a drop goal which the commentator described as “déjà vu” from four years earlier. France could still win the game on a converted try, and desperately pressed the English defence in the dying moments, but England held firm and against all odds were back in the final.

Tries hard to come by

Such a scenario had looked impossible in the early stages of the tournament, not least after losing 36-0 in the group stages in what still stands as their record defeat in a World Cup, and their fifth heaviest defeat of all time. The team who inflicted that heavy loss upon England were waiting to dethrone them in the final. South Africa were heavy favourites but the game would be a tight affair dominated by kicking. The Springboks had won the 1995 final with kicking points only, and would do the same in 2007 against an England team who also found tries hard to come by against elite opposition.

Springboks triumph for a second time

South Africa celebrate winning the 2007 Rugby World Cup after beating England in the final
The flashpoint in the game would be the try that wasn’t; with England trailing 9-3 early in the second half, Matthew Tait was tackled just before the goal line after an incredible forward run. The ball found its way to Mark Cueto on the wing and he scored what looked like a perfectly good try, but after a long video review, using multiple angles, it was judged that Cueto’s left foot went out of play just before the ball was grounded. The margins for glory and despair down to inches. The game finished 15-6 and South Africa, instead of England, now had a repeat triumph, and were also becoming experts at winning World Cup Finals without scoring any tries.
Glory in Union book cover
Glory in Union: Rugby World Cup by Matthew Bazell is published by Pitch Press (£25)
Banner credit: gepiblu
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