Rugby’s 10 Biggest Ever Upsets
18 November 2020
Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at where Argentina’s historic win over New Zealand ranks among rugby’s greatest upsets as he lists his top 10 shockers.
There’s nothing quite like an unbelievable upset. An emotional victory that defies all logic, an extraordinary effort that shocks the world and transforms the triumphant underdogs from mere men into immortals.
Saturday’s Sydney shocker is right up there as one of the greatest upsets in the history of Test match rugby, the passionate Pumas achieving the seemingly impossible as they defeated the mighty All Blacks 25-15 in a Tri-Nations clash that will never be forgotten.
See where it ranks on my list of the top 10 titanic Test upsets below…
10: Argentina 17-12 France (2007)
The significance of this surprise result – the lasting change it led to – lands it on this list. The Pumas rained on France’s parade when they stunned them in front of their home crowd in the 2007 World Cup opener. Argentina were rank outsiders, expected to be the victims of the Pool of Death, which also included Ireland.
Instead, this stunning victory in Paris – sealed with a terrific try by fullback Ignacio Corleto – sparked their best-ever World Cup run and set their eventual inclusion in the Rugby Championship in motion. The Argentinians reached their first semi-final, succumbing to eventual winners South Africa, and signed off with another stinging win over France in the bronze medal match.
9: Uruguay 30-27 Fiji (2019)
Uruguay’s unbelievable win over Fiji on an emotion-fuelled occasion in Kamaishi is Hollywood worthy. Just a year prior, they were thrashed 68-7 by the self-same Pacific Islanders. Four years earlier, they managed to score just two tries in their entire World Cup campaign but in their first match back on the big stage, they had three by half-time through scrum-half Santiago Arata, eighthman Manuel Diana and centre Juan Manuel Cat.
Flyhalf Felipe Berchesi starred for the South American minnows with his nerveless boot, finishing with 15 points – a new national record for most points scored in a World Cup match – as Los Teros triumphed over the Fijians for the first time. The wild celebrations from the players and coaching staff made for a heart-warming moment that will live on forever.
8: Italy 20-18 South Africa (2016)
Not the most aesthetically pleasing encounter, but that didn’t matter to the Azzurri as they recorded their first-ever win over the mighty Springboks. The men in Green and Gold had won all 12 of the previous meetings with Italy by 16 points or more but found themselves in dire straits. Allister Coetzee’s maiden season at the helm proved to be one of the worst in Springbok history, with the South Africans managing just a meagre four wins out of 12. The lowest point came in Florence, where tries by South African-born lock Andries van Schalkwyk and wing Giovanbattista Venditti helped Italy seal a historic win.
7: Tonga 19-14 France (2011)
Wellington witnessed Tonga’s greatest World Cup win. Brute force fuelled the historic triumph, which was aided by a try from wing Suka Hufanga, who collected a crosskick and willed his way over with strength and determination. The scoreline flattered the French as Tonga No.10 Kurt Morath missed four of his eight penalties, while they also squandered a certain try. What’s more, wing Vincent Clerc scored a try in injury time, a crucial score that bagged Les Bleus a losing bonus-point, which saw them squeak into the quarterfinals. Thierry Dusautoir’s team made it all the way to the final, losing to the All Blacks by a single point (8-7), making Tonga’s upset that much more impressive.
6: Western Samoa 16-13 Wales (1991)
The pantheon of classic World Cup upsets began in the second edition of the global showpiece as co-hosts Wales were battered, bruised and ultimately beaten by a largely unknown Western Samoa outfit. Cardiff Arms Park was the stage on which the Pacific Islanders introduced their bone-crunching tackles to the wider rugby audience, with Welsh lock Phil May, fullback Tony Clement and flank Richie Collins all limping off after taking a licking. Centre To’o Vaega and flank Sila Vaifale dotted down with flyhalf Matthew Vaea slotting two penalties as Western Samoa became the first non-seeded side to defeat one of the IRB’s seeded senior statesmen, offering hope to all future generations of minnows.
5: Fiji 38-34 Wales (2007)
A rugby rollercoaster for the ages saw the flying Fijians turn into dragon slayers as they defeated the Welsh for the first time. Wales were expected to prevail in this final World Cup pool match in Nantes to advance to a last-eight date with the Springboks. Fiji, however, had other plans and raced into a 25-3 lead with trademark flair.
A yellow card allowed Wales back into the game and set up a tense, back-and-forth finale. An intercept try by flank Martyn Williams in the 73rd-minute looked to save the day for Wales, but the inspired Pacific Islanders were not to be denied, with loosehead Graham Dewes powering over to secure a sensational victory and first quarter-final berth for Fiji in 20 years.
4: Japan 19-12 Ireland (2019)
One of two seismic upsets by Japan on this list saw them topple Ireland as World Cup hosts last year. Routing Russia 30-10 in the tournament-opener kick-started their campaign, but it was “The Shizuoka Shocker” that inspired the Brave Blossoms’ fairy-tale run. The Irish ranked second in the world, scored twice to lead 12-9 at half-time but succumbed to the superior will of a Japanese side who refused to lose.
The Brave Blossoms took the lead midway through the second stanza thanks to a try by replacement Kenki Fukuoka. No.10 Yu Tamura added the conversion and a three-pointer to his three first-half penalties and the hosts held on for a famous victory. A second historic upset, over Scotland (28-21), along with an emphatic win over Samoa (38-19) saw the Michael Leitch-led side qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time.
3: France 43-31 New Zealand (1999)
One of the all-time classic World Cup clashes, no-one gave France a shot in their semi-final showdown against the All Blacks at Twickenham. The match played out as expected, with the much-vaunted Kiwis leading 24-10 at the break with the great Jonah Lomu in vintage form, scoring two barnstorming tries.
Les Bleus then caught lightning in a bottle, scoring 33 points to seven including tries by centre Richard Dourthe and wings Christophe Dominici and Philippe Bernat-Salles to dump New Zealand out of the tournament in spectacular fashion. The sequel eight years later in Cardiff – where they again sent the Kiwis packing with a thrilling 20-18 win in the quarterfinals – was epic, but like many things, nothing beats the original.
2: Argentina 25-15 New Zealand (2020)
The Pumas outplayed a shell-shocked All Blacks side from start to finish at the weekend to record their first-ever win over the three-time World Cup winners. Ace flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez scored all 25 of the Pumas’ points – a converted try and six penalties – while captain Pablo Matera was colossal, leading from the front in the No.6 jersey to end Argentina’s 35-year wait to conquer the Kiwis.
As sublime as Sanchez and Matera were, the stunning win was the result of a complete team performance – one powered by patriotism and passion and made all the more remarkable by the fact that the Pumas went into the Sydney showdown having not played a Test in 13 months due to Covid-19 restrictions.
1: Japan 34-32 South Africa (2015)
As awe-inspiring as Argentina’s heroics Down Under were, “The Miracle of Brighton” remains the greatest upset in rugby history. The Pumas have consistently evolved since being included in the Rugby Championship in 2012 and with their win over the All Blacks, they’ve now beaten every top-tier nation in world rugby.
Japan don’t have the luxury of playing in an elite international competition like the Rugby Championship or Six Nations and was a true Tier 2 nation in 2015. On the greatest day in Japanese rugby and one of the darkest in Springbok history, the Brave Blossoms lived up to their moniker and sent shockwaves through the rugby world as they pulled off a historic win on the biggest stage of them all.
The stunning victory, masterminded by Eddie Jones and sealed with a thrilling last-gasp try by wing Karne Hesketh, did wonders for the development of the game in Japan and was a big reason why the Land of the Rising Sun won the bid to host the 2019 global showpiece.