Former England ace Rob Andrew predicts game-changing Rugby World Cup in Japan
"I think the 1991 world cup actually transformed the game in terms of global interest and where the game sat in this country,” says Rob Andrew.
“It was the start of the journey towards professionalism.”
In the context of rugby union, it is a thought-provoking observation from the former England fly-half on the eve of a Rugby World Cup that could be another game changer for the sport.
We are chatting ahead of the three-time Cambridge University Blue returning to his old haunt of St John’s College for a gala dinner on the opening day of this year’s tournament.
Andrew experienced an almost full gamut of emotions in the three world cups in which he played for England with only one exception – victory.
The now Sussex Cricket Club chief executive was part of the inaugural competition in Australia and New Zealand in 1987, when a disappointing England side lost in the quarter-final to Wales in Brisbane.
However, far more memorable was four years later, on home turf, when England reached the final only to be beaten by Australia 12-6 at Twickenham.
Andrew was the first-choice No 10 and had played an integral part in the country’s success as they galvanised a nation – paving the way for what was to come in rugby union.
“It was a very special world cup, certainly from our point of view,” he says. “It was a fantastic playing journey.
“It didn’t happen for another four years, until after the 1995 world cup, but I think the seeds of the game moving towards professionalism actually began in that 91 world cup.
“I think it’s the growth in media, social media and everything. I think the start of that was the profile of the 1991 world cup and arguably the fact that we did well, and the profile of the England team probably started to change people’s perceptions.
“It was the profile of that team, the Carling era, Guscott, Underwood, Brian Moore, Dean Richards, there was more exposure.
“It was still an amateur sport so we all had day jobs but there was just this growth in interest which continued through to the 95 world cup.”
In 1995, Andrew was still in the England team, at a tournament that again united a nation – this time South Africa.
It was Andrew’s 45-metre extra-time drop goal that earned England a 25-22 win over Australia to send them into the semi-finals – where they ran into a Jonah Lomu-inspired New Zealand to lose 45-29.
There was a far greater significance though as South Africa were on their way back into global sport after the years of apartheid.
Nelson Mandela had been elected president the previous year in 1994, and was on hand to present Francois Pienaar with the world cup after the Springboks’ 15-12 success over the All Blacks.
“You often get remarkable things happening and you look back on the 95 world cup and it was just an extraordinary adventure,” says Andrew.
“It was more than a Rugby World Cup, it was a whole historical context as far as South Africa is concerned.
“They won the world cup in South Africa at a moment in their history when they were trying to come together as a nation, with Mandela’s presidency, with clearly a predominantly white rugby team, because that’s what rugby was and that’s changing.
“You knew at the time that it was remarkable what was happening but you look back over 25 days and it was just a piece of South African history.
“Like all of these bits of history, they are never to be repeated – it’s just a once in a lifetime moment of remarkable scenes really.”
That was only the third Rugby World Cup, and there have been five more since, but it will be heading for new shores in its ninth renewal.
Japan will be a departure from the traditional venues, breaking out of the comfort zone and into new ground.
“There will be some remarkable rugby, and no-one really knows who is going to win it, which makes it more exciting, but it will also be renowned as arguably a game changer in the impact it’s going to have around the world,” explains Andrew.
“It will be a fantastic world cup because it will be well run, the stadiums will be amazing, the crowds will be amazing, people will experience a completely different culture.
“It will be remembered as much for off the field as on the field which I think will be fantastic.”
For all those experiences at the very top though, the three appearances for Cambridge in the Varsity Match are just as important to Andrew.
He was a winning Blue in 1982, 83 and 84 and, in that last academic year, he would play for England in the Five Nations during the Lent Term.
Such was the status of the Varsity Match in those days, Andrew describes the build-up to that akin to a test match. The memories are also still as fresh now.
“I had never been to Twickenham before playing in the first Varsity Match, it was the first time I had ever been to the ground,” says Andrew.
“That memory of running out in front of 35,000 in those days, when the old stadium only held 50,000, it felt pretty full – it was remarkable.
“I can still feel it now, that moment when we exited the tunnel. You had to come up some steps in the old ground, still in the West Stand.
“I was quite far back in the queue of players as we were running out so you could hear the noise when the first players got up the steps onto the pitch and I was still underneath the tunnel so didn’t have any sight of it.
“That particular moment, I thought ‘my goodness, what’s out there?’. I will never forget that moment.
“I will never forget the build-up to the Varsity Match either, it does take over.
“When you get a sniff that you might be in the team and might be playing in the Varsity Match, it does take over most of that autumn term.”
Those occasions will no doubt be recalled by Andrew and his fellow guests and speakers when he returns to Cambridge next month.
HIGH HOPES FOR ENGLAND
Rob Andrew believes England have the ability to win what he believes will be an “open” Rugby World Cup.
New Zealand are overwhelming favourites with bookmakers, while England are currently third in the betting.
The odds perhaps reflect the view of the former fly-half, who said: “I think England have the ability to win it – I think they have a fantastic group of players.
“I worry a little bit about the consistency of performance over the last 12 to 18 months.
“There have been some amazingly good performances, but there have also been some inconsistently quite poor performances.
“If one of those poor performances turns up in the knockout game of a world cup then that will be the end of you.
“Consistency during a world cup tournament is absolutely critical to be able to see you through seven games to win the world cup.
“Even New Zealand have had inconsistency over the last 12 months.”
It is the All Blacks’ defeats to South Africa, Ireland and Australia – as well as a draw with the Springboks – that Andrew believes could give hope to others.
“With this world cup more than any others, because it’s so open, it’s who gets on a run, who gets some consistency and maybe a bit of luck with injuries so you don’t lose key players at key moments,” he said.
“It makes it potentially the most open world cup there has been for a long time in my view.”