A brief history of the origins of the Rugby World Cup


The Origins of Rugby as a Sport

Despite the origins of the game dating back over 164 years and the governing body the  IRB being formed in Dublin in 1886, we had to wait until 1987 for the first formally organised Rugby World Cup to take place. The are many political and sporting reasons why the event took so long to organise. 

Allegedly, it all began at a school in the town of Rugby in the English Midlands in 1823, when a certain young gentleman by the name of William Webb Ellis decided to pick up the ball and run with it. The rest, as they say, is history. The Webb Ellis trophy that the twenty best teams in the world will compete for in Japan next month bears his moniker as a testament to his legacy.

Before 1885 the laws of the game were still somewhat up for dispute. After a contentious try in a game between England and Scotland, the English claimed that as they founded the game they should be the final arbitrator of any disputes. Unsurprisingly this was not acceptable to the home unions of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The trio met in Dublin in 1886 to formalise the rules of the game and set up the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), the English RFU eventually relented and joined in 1890.

The Great Schism

During the next decade, the game underwent a form of civil war as the ruling bodies of the game wished to remain amateur. However, a large portion of the players in working-class regions wished to be compensated for the loss of earnings due to matches clashing with their normal working hours. This lead to a split within the game which became known as ‘the great schism’ and led to the creation of two separate codes, Rugby League and Rugby Union. 

The game was spread internationally to other countries by the ex-patriot community, largely linked to the movement of the British Army and British Navy. In the Commonwealth countries of Australia, South Africa and particularly New Zealand the game spread quickly. While in warmer locations such as India the slower tempo of Cricket was more suited to the  climate.

In 1900 Rugby was introduced at the second running of the modern Olympics, thanks in no small part to lobbying by the father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. It helped that the Baron was a huge ruby fan and indeed he refereed the first domestic French Club Championships in 1892. Only three countries sent teams to the games held in Paris. France, Germany and Great Britain contested the games and the French went home with the Gold medal. 

Rugby at the Olympics

Rugby wasn’t part of the 1904 games in St.Louis, but returned for the 1908 games in London. There were only two teams this time around, Australia and Great Britain. The Wallabies lifted the title. It was 1920 before Rugby was included again and an American side made up of players from Stanford, Berkeley and Santa Clara Universities lifted the crown in Antwerp, Belgium. The 1924 Olympics games were, to date, the last time rugby was included as a 15 a-side game. The US defeated the hosts France in the final in front of 21,000 in Colombes and the disgruntled locals invaded the pitch on the final whistle. 

In 1925 Baron Pierre de Coubertin stepped down as head of the Olympic movement, the IRFB had never encouraged their members to participate in the games and the lack of support led to the end rugby’s involvement with the Olympics until the sevens version of the game was reintroduced in Brazil in 2016. 

Around the same time as the Olympic Games was being revived, rugby playing countries began to send representative sides on ‘tours’ to other rugby nations. The most famous of these sides was the 1905 ‘Original All-Blacks’ led by Donegal man Dave Gallaher. Born in Ramelton, as David  Gallagher, he moved to New Zealand with his parents while still a child. In 1895 he joined Ponsonby Rugby club and went on to play in New Zealand’s first-ever test match, against Australia in Sydney in 1903. 

The ‘Originals’

Gallaher captained the ‘Originals’ who played 35 games in the British Isles, France and the USA during a span of six months from September 1905 to January 1906. They lost only one of these (0-3 against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park) and scored 976 points while conceding only 59. Their 15-0 win over England at Crystal Palace drew a then-record crowd estimated to be 100,000. It was during this tour that they picked up the All-Blacks tag. 

The logistics of long-distance travel in the early part of the century were slow and costly, and touring teams tended to concentrate on playing a mixture of club and representative sides in one country or geographical area per tour. The watching audience was almost exclusively a local one, but there would be newspaper and telegram dispaches sent home with results and reports. 

Opposition to a World Cup

The success of both the Olympics and FIFA’s football World Cups had shown that the public interest was there for major sporting events. But the politics of the governing bodies and the fact that Rugby was played at different times of the year in the two different hemispheres delayed the progress of an international tournament. 

The ‘Home Unions’ of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales had been slow to include other countries in the governance of the game. They felt that they were the guardians of the amateur principles upon which the game was founded. 

Despite the success of various southern hemisphere touring sides, it wasn’t until 1948 that the Australian Rugby Union, New Zealand Rugby Football Union and South Africa Rugby board joined the IRFB. The French Federation joined in 1978 and it wasn’t until after they had already held the first World Cup in 1987,  that Italy, Argentina, Canada and Japan were invited to join in 1991. 

Harold Tolhurst, a former Australian winger and a test match referee, was among the first to formally propose a  Rugby World Cup. In the early 1960’s he suggested that Australia host a month-long tournament to find a world champion between the four ‘home’ sides from Great Britain, France, South Africa, New Zealand and the hosts. But in 1968 the IRFB stated that they forbade their member countries from participating in any such tournament. As recently as 1983 the IRB (international Rugby Board) stated that ‘the concept found no support’. Among the principal objections was the fact that the IRB did not want such a tournament to be run by commercial operators as they feared this would encroach on their ‘amateur ethos’.

End of Amateur era

But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times they were a-changin’. The 1981 Springboks tour to New Zealand saw riots outside the grounds as the Apartheid regime came under the spotlight. Isolation from the rest of the rugby world led the South African board (SARB) to propose a professional game. Meanwhile, there was a dispute in Australia as nine members of their squad to play New Zealand refused to travel as the daily allowance offered was too small. In 1983 David Lord, an Australian entrepreneur, proposed a professional league along the same lines as Kerry Packer’s successful Cricket league.

The increasing commercialisation and popularity of other sports in traditional rugby areas, as well as the advent of sports television and the associated earning potential, led the power brokers of the game into a rethink. At a meeting in 1984, it was agreed to conduct a feasibility study into holding a Rugby World Cup. The feedback this time was positive and at a meeting held in Paris in 1985 a vote was taken. The ‘Home Nations’ were still initially opposed, with the southern hemisphere powers and France in favour of a global tournament.  After an initial tied vote, John Kendall-Carpenter of England was won over and changed his vote as did his Welsh counterpart on hearing of the change, so it was now a 10-6 vote in favour of a World Cup. The tournament was to be held jointly by Australia and New Zealand from 22 May – 20 June 1987.

In part two of the story, next Friday, I’ll take a look at Ireland’s record in each World Cup tournament.

For further reading on the history of Irish teams at the Rugby World Cup and more on the origins of the game take look at the following links:

Ireland’s Rugby World Cup History – Part 1: 1987

Ireland’s Rugby World Cup History – Part 2: 1991

Ireland’s Rugby World Cup History – Part 3: 1995

Ireland’s Rugby World Cup History – Part 4: 1999

Ireland’s Rugby World Cup History – Part 5: 2003






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