World Cup winners say events of 1999 are proof Wallabies can challenge in Japan

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

They may be rated by bookies as $17 outsiders to win the Webb Ellis Trophy but proof the Wallabies can succeed in Japan can be found in the events of the 1999 World Cup.

That's the view of key figures in the 1999 Wallabies, who gathered in Sydney this week to mark the 20th anniversary of their World Cup victory in Wales.

The Rod Macqueen-coached and John Eales-led team were guests of honour at a huge Cauliflower Club charity lunch on Thursday, after gathering the night earlier at a private reunion dinner at a North Sydney pub.

"It was interesting, there are a few guys … George Gregan has not changed whatsoever. There are a few guys who would struggle to fit in the gold jersey now,” former Wallabies centre Tim Horan said. 

"It was just good to catch up and have everyone in the same room. We went around the room and everyone had to speak about their best memory, and had to pass the baton on to the next person and speak about what they meant to them on that tour. It is a pretty special and unique group that hopefully we can stay connected for a long time.”

The 1999 win was the last time the Wallabies held aloft “Bill” - with two unsuccessful finals appearances since in 2003 and 2015 - but with another World Cup campaign on the horizon in September in Japan, members of the ’99 crew aren’t as pessimistic as others about the prospects of Michael Cheika’s men.

After a poor year last year, many at home and abroad have written off the Wallabies but Matt Burke said the unique nature of a World Cup meant pre-tournament predictions are often tossed out the window when the games begin.

"The great thing about Cup football is you don’t have to be the best team in the world to win the whole thing,” Burke said.

"Yes, it helps if you go in with a bit of form but our guys, and it showed last time in 2015, if you get a momentum in these tournaments and you get a roll on, anything can happen.

"Anything can happen on these Cup days, people faint on the big stage.

“It’s all about momentum for these one-offs games, these Cup games. And dealing with history and pressure plays a big part of making sure you can get the job done.”

The 1999 Wallabies had a far smoother run into the tournament than the 2019 side will, after they beat New Zealand 3-0 in the Bledisloe series in 1998.

But Burke pointed to the team they played in the final - France - as a great example of a team who routinely defy expectations at Rugby World Cups.

After the Wallabies beat South Africa in the semi-final in 1999, they watched on in amazement as France upset the heavily favoured All Blacks a day later.

"We laugh about it now … we had all the tapes and all the videos on the Kiwis lined up and ready to go, and our video tech guy Scott Harrison literally swiped them into a bin and said “right I have to start cutting for the French tapes”,” Burke said.

“That’s the unpredictability of Cup football - and the Kiwis have probably suffered the most.

"They’ve had some dominance since 2011 but if you were to go down the bookies’ route, the Kiwis would have won all the World Cups.”

Horan, who won two World Cups and was player of the tournament in 1999, agreed with Burke and said the Wallabies can mount a successful run.

"We always seem to perform well at the World Cup,” Horan said.

"I remember back in 2015 being asked this at the John Eales medal and I was really confident back then. And it’s probably a similar feeling to when Michael Cheika took that side away in 2015, probably only fourth or fifth favourites. And now we’re probably fifth or sixth.

"I think success for us is making the semi-final, and once you make the semi-final and when you make the semi-final, you don’t need to get up for the match.”

Macqueen, who coached the Wallabies to Bledisloe Cup wins, a World Cup win and a British and Irish Lions series win, is another who thinks the Wallabies are being under-estimated.

"A World Cup is a World Cup - you never know,” Macqueen said.

"I believe we have the coaches and the players, it’s about getting on with it and doing it. I am not of the belief that we are not going to do well. I believe we are a good chance. Once you are in the semis, anything can happen. The main thing is to get through those early rounds.”

The memorable World Cup win twenty years ago still feels like yesterday, according to Matt Cockbain.

"For me it was a real sense of relief that we’d finally achieved what we’d set out to do, two years earlier,” Cockbain said.

"That grew over time into joy and realising we’d done something special together.

"Dan Crowley summed it up pretty well last night when he said “it  gets more special the older you get” so hopefully that continues for all of us.”