Debuts on the apex: a showcase of players who have been blooded at World Cups
An international test debut is a special moment for any player.
The nerves and excitement, the hopes and fears – many former players identify their first test match as one of the highlights of their careers.
Typically, coaches try to ease players into the test scene in less challenging matches, but sometimes players will make their debut on a higher stage.
Arguably the greatest plateau that exists for a player to make their debut is at a World Cup.
With so many warm-up matches played in the lead up to rugby’s showpiece competition, World Cup debuts have tapered out in recent times. There are now so many opportunities for players to be blooded before the tournament kicks off, which means debuts are likely to be less common now than 20 years ago, with injuries the only real reason why an uncapped player would feature in a World Cup squad.
Look back through the years, however, and there have been plenty of successful test footballers who earned their first cap in a World Cup match.
Gordon D’Arcy (1999)
Gordon D’Arcy debuted for Ireland as a substitute in their final pool game of the 1999 World Cup.
The outside centre, who first came to prominence for Leinster in 1998, was actually shoulder-tapped by Ireland’s head coach Warren Gatland in his final year of high school and could’ve debuted on Ireland’s tour to South Africa. D’Arcy turned down the offer, however, to focus on his studies.
His debut finally came against Romania, in the form of 20 minutes off the bench. D’Arcy wasn’t selected for Ireland’s next game, a playoff match to decide whether the Shamrocks would make the quarter-finals, and Ireland’s tournament came to a premature end.
The now-39-year-old then spent three years in the international wilderness before making his return to the Irish set-up in 2002.
D’Arcy retired from all levels of professional rugby in 2015, having amassed 260 caps for Leinster, 82 for Ireland and a sole appearance for the British and Irish Lions. A World Cup winner’s medal eluded the proud Leinster man, but he ticked off all the boxes in every other aspect of his career. Three Heineken Cup titles, four domestic titles, two Six Nations titles and one Six Nations grand slam makes for pretty fine reading.
Notably, D’Arcy formed one of the great modern midfield partnerships with Bryan O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll was also new to the scene in 1999 and had made just three appearances for the Irish before the World Cup commenced.
Schalk Burger (2003)
Schalk Burger, despite his affable nature off the field, was one of the Springbok’s key enforcers for over 10 years.
Burger made his first appearance for South Africa in their third match at the 2003 World Cup, against Georgia. The Western Province flanker entered the game in the 63rd minute and scored his first international try in the final act of the game.
Burger was used in both of the Springboks’ remaining games of the tournament, where they were knocked out in the quarter-finals against the All Blacks.
12 years later and Burger is fondly remembered by Springboks fans as the type of player who would never back down from a challenge. His 84 caps is the most of any South African flanker and his 13 tries is a near-record for Springbok forwards.
Given that the man was sidelined by injuries regularly throughout his career, his achievements are even more immense. Thankfully, he avoided injury at the right times, and turned out for four Springboks World Cup campaigns – including their champions run in 2007.
Takudzwa Ngwenya (2007)
The USA haven’t always had the best of times at World Cups, lacking the depth of even the Pacific Island nations. Still, they’ve unleashed a few superstars on unsuspecting foes – none more well-known than Takudzwa Ngwenya.
Ngwenya, for those who can’t remember, is more commonly known as the man who gassed Bryan Habana.
The Zimbabwe-born wing moved to America after graduating high school in 2003. His outrageous pace catapulted him into the national side for the 2007 World Cup and he made his first appearance in the USA’s first match of the tournament against eventual finalists England.
Ngwenya started on the wing in all four of the Eagles’ pool games and scored two tries, against Samoa and South Africa – which is a pretty reasonable return, given that his team only scored seven tries in total.
His second effort, against the Springboks, was a thing of beauty. It started from an intercept in the Eagles 22 and three passes later Ngwenya was given the ball on the halfway line. Known pacesetter Habana offered the Eagle the outside channel and Ngwenya needed no second invitation, scorching the rest of the field to dot down for one of the great World Cup tries. It was subsequently anointed the try of the year.
Ngwenya’s performances throughout that tournament earned him a contract with Biarritz Olympique, where he spent nine years.
After flitting around for a couple of years, Ngwenya is now back in America, lining up for the San Diego Legion, 2019’s Major League Rugby runners-up. He has 36 caps to his name but likely won’t feature at this year’s World Cup.
Ken Owens (2011)
Ken Owens was first called into Warren Gatland’s Wales squad for the 2010 Six Nations after injuries to both Matthew Rees and Gareth Williams. He had to wait well over a year to earn his first cap, however.
Owens, as the third-choice hooker, received only minimal game-time during the 2011 tournament, coming on as a replacement in Wales’ 81-7 romp over Namibia. The 19 minutes he earned in that victory was his only on-field contribution in his team’s eventual fourth-place finish.
Over the last eight years, Owens has now established himself as Wales’ first-choice hooker, amassing 66 caps for the Red Dragons. He also made two test appearances for the British and Irish Lions on their tour to New Zealand in 2017 and had the prestige of captaining the composite side in their match with the Blues.
Owens, for All Blacks fans out there, was the man who played the ball from an offside position in the dying seconds of the third Lions test which should have seen New Zealand awarded a penalty. Thankfully for Owens, referee Romain Poite deemed the infringement an accidental offside – saving his and the Lions’ blushes.
Owens has clocked up over 180 caps for the Scarlets and will be aiming to hit the double tonne in the back half of the 2019-20 season.
Josh Strauss (2015)
Josh Straus, the ‘Kilted Bok’, kicked off his professional rugby career with the Boland Cavaliers in South Africa in 2008. Seven years later, he was debuting for Scotland at the 2015 World Cup.
Strauss earned his first cap for Scotland in their opening match of the tournament, off the bench against Japan. Four days later, Strauss made his run-on debut against the United States. The rugged loose forward played in all three of Scotland’s remaining fixtures of the tournament – including against his native South Africa.
His five caps from the tournament is an exceptional return for a man who had not yet played international football before the competition commenced. Since then, he’s been a mainstay in the Scottish side, accruing 23 caps over his five years of involvement.
Most recently, Strauss appeared in every match of Scotland’s 2019 Six Nations campaign. The bearded eighthman-cum-flanker will play a huge role in this year’s World Cup and will be tasked with helping Scotland earn a spot in the quarterfinals against host nation Japan and pool favourites Ireland.
Strauss will make a return to South Africa next year and play for the Bulls.
Other World Cup debutants
The home nations weren’t afraid to blood new players at the 1999 World Cup, with Scotland’s Chris Paterson and England’s Joe Worsley also debuting alongside Gordon D’Arcy.
Paterson went on to appear in 109 matches for Scotland (second most capped player) and amassed 809 points for the nation (top points scorer). Worsley had a successful career too, earning 78 caps for England.
In 2003, New Zealand’s Corey Flynn also made his international debut. Despite making just 15 appearances for the All Blacks, Flynn played in two different World Cups that were eight years apart: 2003 and 2011.
Fiji’s Isa Nacewa also debuted in 2003, appearing for just 3 minutes in the Pacific Island’s loss to Scotland. Nacewa didn’t even get his hands on the ball. So began a long quest for Nacewa to nullify his appearance for the Flying Fijians so that he could instead qualify to play for New Zealand (and, later, Ireland). Nacewa’s plight came to nothing, however, with the utility back instead becoming a legend for Leinster where he managed over 180 games.
Berrick Barnes was one of the few internationals to debut at the 2007 tournament where, from first five, he formed a solid partnership with Matt Giteau. Few players could be called upon to make their debut at a World Cup in one of the more important positions and excel as well as Barnes did.
Perhaps the most unusual World Cup debut came in 2011, when Jean-Marc Doussain ran on for France with just five minutes left in the tournament.
Doussain was brought into the French squad after the competition had already kicked off once David Skrela suffered a tournament-ending injury.
The halfback/first five was unneeded until the final stages of the World Cup and was finally called upon to make his debut in France’s grand final clash with eventual champions New Zealand.
If the World Cup is the peak arena to make a debut then the last quarter of a World Cup final, where Doussain was tasked with turning around a 1-point deficit with just minutes remaining, is the absolute ultimate challenge. A World Cup debut may be a dream come true, but Doussain was thrust straight into the 10th circle of Hell.
Potential debutants in 2019?
More so than ever, the chances of running out for your nation for the first time are slim as anything at this year’s World Cup.
With a slew of warm-ups played in the lead up to the World Cup, coaches have had ample chances to blood any newbies – but there’s still room for a few wild cards.
The Wallabies’ Jordan Petaia was named in Australia’s squad for the Cup but will sit out the final match of his nation’s build-up due to a hamstring injury. Petaia would have potentially earned a cap earlier this year but has been absent for most of the rugby season due to a foot injury.
New Zealand’s Josh Ioane is also just an injury away from a World Cup call-up – but could also debut this weekend against Tonga.
Elsewhere, coaches have done what they can to minimise any surprises. Short of a number of injuries, it’s unlikely we’ll see any other World Cup debuts for tier-1 teams.
A showcase of World Cup debutants:
1999 – Rhys Duggan, Gordon D’Arcy, Chris Paterson & Joe Worsley
2003 – Ben Atiga, Corey Flyn, Schalk Burger, Dannie Rossouw, Derrick Hougaard, Jacque Fourie, John Roe & Isa Nacewa
2007 – Berrick Barnes & Takudzwa Ngwenya
2011 – Ken Owens, Joe Simpson,Tomas Vallejos & Jean-Marc Doussain
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