Forget the American style hyperbole of our title for a second.
We’re well aware that when referencing the ‘world’ in a Rugby League sense, this means North Eastern Australia, the area in and around Auckland, a few of the Pacific islands, Northern England, the towns of Perpignan and Carcassonne in southern France and basically everyone in PNG. However, around here at Dressing Shed towers, that’s all the world that matters! So, if you live in a place that doesn’t consider Rugby League the greatest game of all, you know what you need to do? Move!
Now that we’ve cleared that up, in celebration of the Rugby League World Cup Finals this weekend and in anticipation of another shock (although the women’s is quite evenly poised, Australia are near on dead certs in the Men’s) here are our top 5 occasions when International Rugby League shocked THE WORLD!
PNG beat British Lions 20-18 on May 27th, 1990
Google ‘international rugby league upsets’ and this game barely rates a mention. Truly odd when considering that if this list were ranked, it would be very near the top in terms of upset and shock all rolled into one. Details of the match are extremely hard to come by. The PNG Rugby League lists it on their site with all results, the brilliant Rugby League Project website also has scores etc. but that’s about it. In fact, if you didn’t score a point that day there is no way of knowing if you were actually on the field. (Ed NOTE: the RLP guys pointed out this page with full team sheets) Footage may one day appear on YouTube, and be gawked at by league trainspotters much like a bigfoot video.
Yet it actually happened.
The game took place in Goroka, a town at 1600m altitude in the middle of the country and the capital of Eastern Highlands Province. Goroka has a population of 19,000, and 11,500 of them turned up that day to watch.
Average temps in May hit the high 20’s and at altitude under a blazing sun, by all reports the Lions struggled to keep up with the Kumuls intensity.Barely five days later, the Brits would have their revenge by putting 40 past PNG.
Keep in mind this was a British Lions team that barely six months later would come within 20 seconds of taking a series win over the Kangaroos at Old Trafford. But here they lost to PNG. And 1990 era PNG at that, not the hardened, well trained and drilled Kumuls of the modern game. In PNG’s two games prior to this, against NZ and Australia, they’d scored 22 points whilst conceding 136.
For the Lions this was the first match of a short mid-winter southern tour in which they’d go on to beat the Kiwis in a three Test Series.
This result was not meant to happen, and in Rugby League, it basically never does.
Except, it did.
Roosters beat Kangaroos in 1951
The French tour of 1951 deserves a mention here less as a shock and more as a reminiscence and a longing for what might have been for the French in Rugby League. Anyone who watched France go down in every match in their group in this World Cup will scarcely believe that there was a time that they were easily the best, most exciting team in the world.
This was the first time they had ever toured the southern hemisphere, barely seven years after the completion of European conflict in World War Two and most importantly, when they were actually allowed to play again, Rugby League having been a banned sport under the quasi nazi Vichy government. Yes that’s right, you could be shot by Nazis for playing Rugby League in France during the Second World War.
The Chanticleers (named after a famous fictional Rooster, the French national emblem) played with incredible abandon, matched with considerable toughness and unbelievable skill and the Australian public warmed to them in droves with an aggregate crowd over three Tests of 162,169. More than 60,000 watched them win the first Test at the SCG 26-15, before they lost the second 23-11 in Brisbane and returned to Sydney to finish the Aussies off 35-14 in the Third, this time with more than 67,000 craning their necks for a look.
The tour is also historically significant for a player and a mascot which left their mark. The French captain Puig Aubert was the definition of enigma. He reportedly smoked like a chimney, was barely 5 foot 4 but with legs like tree trunks and the little fullback was a marvel with ball in hand and even more deft with his boot. As a reflection of his genius, renowned French sports paper L’Equipe awarded him Champion of Champion that year, the only time the award, which is still given out, has been awarded to a Rugby League player in history.
Meanwhile, Roosters fans can thank the Chanticleers for their emblem, as club management at the time were so enamoured with the visitors they labelled their club after the Frenchmen and took their logo.
Imagine...could that happen today?
NZ 34 beat Australia 20, November 22nd, 2008 in World Cup Final
It should happen. But it never does. New Zealanders don’t REALLY play League for a start, being the world’s one and only truly Rugby Union country and dominated by a global brand in the All Blacks. However in 2008, Benji Marshall was pretty much the best player in the world and in this tournament he was at his zenith with a supporting cast that wasn’t too shabby either. Nathan Cayless, Isaac Luke, Jeremy Smith and Adam Blair provided the platform and Benji wreaked havoc with Lance Hohaia and Manu Vatuvei being the biggest beneficiaries.
The game was a gripping contest with both teams going blow for blow and the lead changing hands multiple times. It wasn’t much of an arm wrestle, but the way in which the Aussies folded in the pressure in the last fifteen minutes said a lot for Kiwi team spirit and the fact the ‘Roos had so rarely been pushed like this.
The celebrations...based on current team performance they may still be going on.
Will this game be in the minds of the English team when they step out at the same venue on Sunday?
Fiji beat NZ 2017 World Cup Quarter Final
The NZ win in the 2008 World Cup Final wasn’t actually huge shock (we know, we know, the title of this blog. Get over it). Stunning and unexpected, yes. But perhaps not a shock. An argument could be made that neither was this game where Fiji rolled the Kiwis. Or that the Tongan win over NZ earlier in the tournament was a bigger shock than this. But it’s our list and we’ll do what we like.
So on that score, this has to be the greatest shock in a Rugby League World Cup match...ever. The Fiji-NZ game was just...wtf?
A 4-2 scoreline defied belief. Rugby League matches just do not end with an aggregate score of 6 any more. This isn’t the 1950’s or mid 80’s matches involving a Warren Ryan coached team. This is the modern game with super huge humans and super fast play the balls.
The Kiwis had started the tournament in bits with the withdrawal of Jason Taumalolo on the eve of the tournament and then the emotional, intense game they ended up losing to Tonga. That game put them behind Tonga in the group and so instead of coming up against Lebanon in their Quarter Final, they had the slightly tougher Fijians in their path. The scoreline suggests an arm wrestle, and captain Adam Blair spoke of their heart and commitment after the game. In truth though, they were well beaten with the Fijians having a try disallowed to go alongside two close saves during the game.
If not for nothing, results like this and those with Tonga during this World Cup may have given the tournament proof of a purpose and therefore...guaranteed its existence.
NSW vs England match abandoned due to brawl. Aub Oxford.
This game, much like the French tour, has gone down in legend from a simpler time. Whilst not strictly an international, the effect on the international game was huge.
Respected Referee Aub Oxford became the biggest story from the match and never refereed another game again after walking off and refusing to let the carnage continue, so disgusted was he with what he saw.
The match took place between the Second and Third Tests and with the series tied at 1-1, trouble was afoot once the NSW team were made of aware of the English selections. With Second Rowers at fullback, and props on the wing, the English had decided against ensuring an earnest contest and instead took to terrorising the best NSW players, among whom was captain Clive Churchill. It was reported by the newspapers the next day that during the first half, every player on the field was involved in some incident of indiscriminate violence in tackles, but the real fun started in the second half. With ten minutes gone Oxford sent off British five-eighth Ray Price and from then on every tackle involved a punch or a stiff arm. When the English attempted to inflict special hurt upon the little master Churchill 20 mins into the second half all hell broke lose with every player involved in a mass brawl. Oxford had had enough. He walked off the field and the match was officially registered as a no-contest and he never refereed a single match again, ever.
The British were forced to apologise after the game and to this day, the motivation behind the constant violence is the subject of conjecture.
Additionally, this is the only top-flight game in the history of Rugby League to be abandoned by the referee, although with a British Lions tour next year and matches against the Blues and the Maroons mooted, what price a repeat?!