Rugby World Cup - The Origins
The notion of a Rugby World Cup had first been contemplated in 1979, but it was not until late-1983 that the Australian Rugby Union and New Zealand Rugby Football Union submitted written proposals to the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB).
Neither was aware of the other’s proposal with Australia wanting to stage a tournament to coincide with their Bicentenary in 1988 and New Zealand proposing the previous year.
Both proposals were turned down but Australia and New Zealand pooled their resources to conduct a feasibility study, which would then be presented at the IRFB’s annual meeting in March 1985.
Australia and New Zealand settled on 1987 as the year, whereby avoiding any clash with the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup, and a vote was held on the proposal at the IRFB meeting in the French capital Paris.
The vote between the eight IRFB members – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales – came down in favour of a World Cup by six votes to two.
Ireland and Scotland were against the proposal as it appeared to threaten the amateur status of the sport, while France were in favour only if countries from outside the IRFB were invited to take part.
South Africa would not be allowed to take part in any tournament, they were the subjects of an international sports boycott because of the apartheid regime, but nonetheless voted in favour.
The positive decision was an important one because it ensured that a tournament, there were no plans for a second at that stage, would be run by the world body and not businessmen and television companies interested in simply making money.
This green light left little more than two years to lay the foundations of a tournament, which finally provided the vehicle to establish a ‘world champion’ and would be held in New Zealand with Australia as sub-hosts.
Argentina were invited to take South Africa’s place with other invitations extended to Fiji, Tonga, Japan, Canada, Romania, Zimbabwe, Italy and the United States for the 16-team tournament to be held in May and June 1987.
These teams were split into four pools of four, three of which were based in New Zealand with the other, featuring Australia, hosted in Sydney and Brisbane with the top two nations in each pool progressing to the quarter-finals.
The inaugural match between New Zealand and Italy took place on 22 May at Eden Park in Auckland, a match the hosts won easily 70-6 and one which went a long way to uniting a country divided by the Cavaliers’ tour of South Africa in April 1986.
However the stadium was only half full, perhaps the consequence of the match being played on a Friday, but while New Zealanders embraced the World Cup in Australia the tournament was struggling to capture the public’s imagination.
That inaugural tournament saw 600,000 people pass through the turnstiles with 300 million in 17 countries watching the action on television, figures that would increase to 2.25 million and four billion in 200 territories respectively for the 2007 event.
The Rugby World Cup is now established as the third biggest sporting event behind the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup, having achieved its goal of merging the traditional powers with new and emerging nations to make it a truly worldwide sport.
One person who played a key role in this journey was the late Vernon Pugh QC, the International Rugby Board and Rugby World Cup Limited Chairman who was instrumental in the expansion of the governing body.