You’d imagine the nerves before playing in a Rugby World Cup final would be hard to top.
And yet you can. According to those who’ve played in – and won – Rugby World Cups, the rawest nerves in a campaign come a few weeks earlier, before a quarter-final.
Some of the biggest names in Australian rugby history say the anxiety attached to playing in a Rugby World Cup quarter-final is particularly acute, mostly because of the potential consequences of losing.
After four years of preparation and distant focus, and a month of building in the tournament pool stage, the arrival of sudden death games can be brutally sudden, particularly those four teams who watch their title hopes die over one weekend.
And then have to fly home almost instantly, and almost inevitavbly, suffer the embarrassment of landing back on home soil as fans at the same airport are embarking on a planned trip to watch them play in the semi-finals.
Despite being qualified for the finals, most teams in the playoffs have genuine belief they can win the tournament and don’t regard a quarter-final exit as satisfactory outcome.
Whereas many unofficially set a semi-final appearance as a pass mark, going out in a quarter-final is seen as failure, and that’s been the view in Australia rugby since Rugby World Cups began in 1987.
The Wallabies have only gone out in the quarters at two World Cups – in 1995 and 2007 – and in something of a pertinent omen to note ahead of the England-Wallabies quarter on Saturday, both times it was the English holding the shiv.
“I always think in a World Cup, the most important week is the week leading into the quarter final,” said dual Rugby World Cup winner Tim Horan.
“Because you knew in a quarter-final in the World Cup, we knew there is no sixth-seventh playoff. You are actually on a plane on the Sunday flying back to Australia.”
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Horan was one of several ex-Wallaby greats who spoke about the nerves of quarter-final week in the “Keep ‘em Nude” podcast, which was produced by RUGBY.com.au about the Wallabies’ famous 1999 Rugby World Cup victory.
Horan was part of the Wallabies’ World Cup winning sides in 1991 and 1999, but it was the lessons of 1995 failure that prompted the star centre to stand up and deliver a message to the 99ers as they arrived in quarter-final week.
They were due to play Wales, the hosts, in Cardiff.
“It was just making sure they knew what the reality was,” Horan told the podcast.
“If you lose this game in three or four days time, we are all on the plane back to Australia. There is no hanging around, there is no tomorrow.
“It was just trying to get that realisation, because we didn’t have back in 1995 ahead of the quarter-final. It was just a normal Test week. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t probably realise it.
“And then the realisation in Cape Town probably hurt a lot of us.”
As defending champions, Australia were one of the favourites to win the 1995 World Cup but after a tight game, England no.10 Rob Andrew landed a drop goal in the dying minutes to win the game for England.
Horan stayed on in Cape Town with a friend, but the rest of the Wallabies flew home two days later.
“Matty Burke tells a great story, and Dan Crowley, about then when you arrive in Perth, obviously in those days flights would stop in Perth before they go to South Africa,” Horan said.
“Getting off the plane and seeing hundreds and hundreds of gold jerseys and scarves and everyone so excited to go to a World Cup.
“And Wallabies at Perth airport trying to hide behind pot plants or sit in toilets for an hour before the connecting flight to Sydney because of the embarrassment losing that game, and all these supporters have saved up money for two or three years just to be over there watching the Wallabies play.”
Former Wallabies coach Rod Macqueen noticed the change in mood in the 1999 quarters week.
“That was the most nervous I saw our team, in any of our games, including the World Cup final,” Macqueen said on the “Keep em Nude” podcast.
“Because in the previous World Cup they’d ended up going home and ended up doing back through Perth and had to fly on the same plane as the spectators.”
Matt Burke said getting beaten in a quarter-final is to get “crushed” twice.
“Quarter-final is one of the most important games. You get through your pool games and all of a sudden you have to win your game or you go home,” Burke said on the “Keep ‘em Nude” podcast.
“It’s pretty simple. If you don’t win the game you’re on a plane home and that’s what happened to us in 1995. We got beaten by England down in Cape Town.
“We had two days to basically get out. You get crushed by a field goal and you get crushed by losing and all of a sudden you have to go home.
“The Wallabies were defending champions at that time so everyone was expecting us to go and defend that trophy.
“It didn’t go to plan and we were on a plane home, and those were the days when you had to stop off in Perth on the way to Sydney, and we were going through customs and as we were going through customs all our supporters who were going over to watch us in the semi-final and final. There was no where you could hide.
“There was that understanding that “we have really messed up here”.
“It is the most bitter feeling. In 2007, the guys experienced the same thing. Again to England.”
The 2007 Wallabies tell similar stories about crossing paths with Wallabies fans at the airport in Marseille, France, after they’d lost a game everyone tipped them to win against England.
Those fans had been on flights during the game too, so many didn’t know the result.
Horan and Burke have both been travelling around Japan covering the 2019 Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup campaign, for FoxSports and Channel Ten respectively.
The Wallabies say they’re not a team that focusses on the past but bringing in Horan and Burke for a team chat ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final with England probably wouldn’t hurt one bit.