The Rugby World Cup has taken its place amongst the top sporting competitions. In the 25 years it’s being in existence it has quickly become the 3rd most watched sporting event in the world, behind only the Soccer World Cup, and the Olympic Games. This is doubly impressive considering the world-wide appeal of both Soccer and athletics, as opposed to Rugby’s more select audience. The Rugby World Cup has quickly become an important part of the sporting calendar. Strange to think that it almost never existed.
In the early 80’s, Rugby Union was a strict amateur sport. Since the Northern Unions had split away to form the game of Rugby League, in 1895, the IRB (International Rugby Board/governing body of Rugby) made sure that the Union code would never follow. This meant it outlawed the idea of a Rugby World Cup. It believed that such a tournament would hasten Rugby becoming professional as the World Cup would require a more professional outlook by players, managers and coachers (which would prove accurate). Having a trophy to compete for, and making the outcome of a match more important than the match itself, would go against Rugby’s fundamental law of being a sport played only for pleasure. A bigger threat than even professionalism was looming on the horizon, though. One which could change the game of Rugby Union completely.
David Lord was an Australian Entrepreneur who had come up with an idea for a World Rugby Series. He would recruit the top players from 8 top rugby playing nations in the world: the Northern Hemisphere countries of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and France. And the Southern Hemisphere countries of Australia and New Zealand. There was still a boycott on South Africa competing at the time (due to Apartheid), so their place was taken by Argentina. The 8 international sides would compete in a round-robin/American Rules-type tournament over a period of 2 months. They would than rest for 2 months, and than begin again in a different country. Most of the top players were keen on this idea and the IRB realised that if they didn’t move quickly than they could soon be irrelevant. So they again looked at the feasibility of a Rugby World Cup and put it to a vote.
Of the 8 member nations, Australia and New Zealand were the most keen for an international tournament. Rugby Union was the 3rd most popular sport in Australia, behind Aussie Rules and Rugby League, and they needed something to get more viewers hooked. New Zealand had long considered themselves the unofficial best team in the world and wanted a tournament to prove their mettle (which is ironic, considering how their fortunes have gone in the World Cups, i.e. very badly). South Africa were also keen on the idea, although they would be unable to compete (don’t ask me why South Africa were banned from competing and still had a seat on the IRB, I don’t really understand it). France would go along with it as long as other teams outside the top 8 were invited to compete (the IRB only recognised the top 8 countries in Rugby. When Ireland played a team like Canada, or Japan no caps were awarded. These teams were referred to as second-tier teams, or minnows. Hopefully a World Cup would change that (which it has). Wales and England were undecided. Only Ireland and Scotland were against the idea but the tournament went ahead anyway.
It was decided that 16 teams would be invited (they would introduce qualification for the next tournament) to compete in the inaugural tournament, and they would be broken up into pools of 4. The teams invited were Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Russia, Fiji, Romania, Italy, Japan, Zimbabwe, Tonga and Canada. Russia made too many demands and so their place was taken by the United States. It was decided that both New Zealand and Australia (being the countries keenest on the idea) would jointly host the tournament. They picked 1987 for the year of the inaugural Rugby World Cup as there were no other major sporting events that year. So the teams began preparations in earnest.
Preparation for such an event was quite new so each of the teams had a difficult time adjusting. No team had a more difficult time than that of Fiji, though. Fiji is a ‘country’ made up of 300 islands of varying sizes, a lot of which don’t have a telephone. This makes it very difficult to communicate with the islands. This makes it very difficult to contact players. This makes it very difficult to form a squad. Miraculously they managed to select a group of players and started training in an army barracks near the capital. Unbeknownst to them, events were taking place which would jeopardise their chances of competing: while they were training they were cut off from contact with the outside world so they were completely unaware of what was happening in the capital. A military coup had taken place which meant that Fiji’s political state was unknown. The coup was condemned by major world leaders and no-one in the World Cup knew if they were going to be allowed to compete. This state of affairs was the talk of both the political world, and the rugby world. The only people who didn’t know about events threatening the Fijian rugby squad were the Fijian rugby squad itself! No one had being able to contact them! It turned out that the new de facto leader of Fiji was a rugby fan and made sure his team could compete in the first Rugby World Cup. Amazingly, after all the trials and tribulations, Fiji managed to advance to the quarter-final stages, taking South Africa’s place.
All the kinks, both major and minor, which arise when preparing such an international tournament, had seemingly being dealt with and the organisers were looking forward to getting the World Cup underway. Somehow they had missed one small but crucial factor. On the eve of the opening ceremony somebody realised that they had nothing to actually give the winning team! They had no actual World Cup trophy! A runner was quickly sent to a local jeweller in England and Cup was purchased. It was christened the ‘William Webb Ellis’ (known as ‘Bill’ in New Zealand and Australia) trophy in honour of the schoolboy credited with inventing the game (although that story is now believed to be apocryphal) and was quickly shipped off.
The most interesting thing about Ireland’s involvement in the first Rugby World Cup was that their coach, Mick Doyle, suffered a suspected heart attack and was rushed to hospital before they had even played their first game. Luckily he turned out to be all right (he died around 2004, after contributing a lot to the game). While Irish captain Donal Lenihan was talking to his mother he told them about their losses to Wales and Australia. ‘I’m not surprised you lost’, she replied, ‘I don’t know what you expect playing at 8’o’clock in the morning!’ Wales had injury problems and had to recruit to Welsh students, who were over watching the tournament, into the squad! One of these players would turn out to be David (or Dai) Young, who would go on to have an illustrious career in both Union and League. Wales would enjoy their most successful World Cup, eventually gaining 3rd place, after shockingly beating Australia (who had surprisingly lost against France in the semi-final, in one of the greatest ever games). Unfortunately Wales would suffer a tremendous downturn in fortunes over the next few years. This was not helped by the fact they lost an unprecedented 16 of their best players to Rugby League in the space of about 2 years! Legendary winger Ieuan Evans, and scum-half Robert Jones, were about the only players that didn’t make the move. The biggest loss was their great out-half Jonathan Davies, who was their best out-half since Phil Bennett. He was one of the true greats and Rugby would miss him. He was able to return to Union, when it became a professional game, in 1995, and he won a few more caps.
This first World Cup really belonged to New Zealand. They were far and away the best, most prepared side for the tournament, and steamrolled over all their opposition. Even beating France in the final by 29-9, which was the closest anyone came to them. Winning the World Cup in such a dominant fashion went someway towards healing the wounds that the New Zealand Rugby squad had caused in their country. The year before the tournament began, in 1986, a group of New Zealand players had accepted payment a series of matches against South Africa. South Africa were boycotted from competing against other countries at the time, and the only way they could get foreign players over was by offering them below-the-counter payments. They were dubbed the ‘Cavaliers’ and the New Zealand public branded them mercenaries. They were treated like pariahs and winning the World Cup was the only way to appease their fans.
Just a final comment on the differing attitudes towards professionalism between the 2 hemispheres: in the Northern Hemisphere, professionalism was strictly outlawed. No player could receive payment for playing in a game, or anything to do with the game. They could not advertise products or even received money for writing memoirs (players that did, like Bill Beaumont and Fran Cotton, were banned from the sport for decades). This message was reiterated to the Scottish Squad as they were training for the tournament. After they finished they would return to their rooms and find a New Zealand player advertising tractors in his rugby kit!