Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The birth of the Rugby Union World Cup

The Rugby Union World Cup is now one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar, but it took years of negotiations and rejection before the tournament finally kicked off in 1987.

March 21, 1985: A little acorn is planted by the International Rugby Board, who after years of resistance, have finally agreed to southern hemisphere demands for a Rugby Union World Cup. Thirty years later, that seed has grown into the major global event that we witness today, as twenty nations visit England to contest a tournament played at thirteen venues, over six weeks, in an attempt to walk away with the coveted William Webb Ellis trophy. However, it hasn't always been like this.

In many ways it is staggering to think that it took until 1985 for a Rugby Union World Cup to get the green light. To consider some of the moments we may have missed out on; the stunning New Zealand team of 1987; England winning in Paris and Edinburgh before falling short against the Australians at Twickers; the jaw-dropping displays of Jonah Lomu; Pienaar and Mandela; France stunning New Zealand in 1999; that Jonny Wilkinson drop goal; England somehow reaching the 2007 final; New Zealand finally burying the choking jibes in 2011. And that is just scratching the surface.

Throughout the history of the sport, there had often been talk about establishing a tournament to decide the best team in the world, yet it took until the 1980s for the powers that be to get their act together. Before David Kirk lifted the World Cup in 1987, debates would often be heard concerning who the unofficial world champions were, such as the time Wales defeated New Zealand in 1905, or Wales played South Africa in 1951, and when New Zealand toppled South Africa in 1965. Great for arguments in the pub perhaps, but not a totally satisfactory and definite conclusion to the search for a world champion of the sport.

As the 1980s arrived, it looked as if any attempts to set up a World Cup event would fall on increasingly deaf ears. In April 1980, the International Board rejected calls for a World Cup on the basis that any such tournament would have a massive impact on the future tours programmes, with the Board also concerned about the pressures already placed on the top players in the amateur sport. The stubborn nature of the British and Irish Board representatives - who many felt were trying to protect their Five Nations baby - would be a recurring theme for any future proposals.

Next to dip their toes in the water were the Sports Sponsorship International Limited Company, led by chairman Neil Durden-Smith and managing director Gideon Lloyd. The plan - announced in March 1982 in London - detailed a tournament based in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, that would involve eight other countries, and take place in September 1985. The Times reported that the package was "attractive and well-prepared", with Durden-Smith encouraged that his company was "50 percent of the way there" in securing support. But 50 percent simply wasn't enough.

The fact that Durden-Smith and others before and after him needed 75 percent of the votes from the eight International Board countries basically put the biggest obstacle in the way for the concept of a Rugby Union World Cup. New Zealand, Australia, France and South Africa were seemingly keen, yet British and Irish indifference would provide a hand-off to any organisation or rugby board that even dared to bring up the idea.

Rugby Football Union president David Brooks highlighted the hopeless situation facing Durden-Smith, stating that the project did not have "a cat in hells chance of getting off the ground", and so it would transpire. The reluctance within the International Board to licence a tournament which they felt would erode at the amateur principals of Rugby Union led to endless frustration.

In the meantime, many began to extol the virtues of a World Cup. Times journalist David Hands and former Wales player Gerald Davies wrote a series of articles in 1983 entitled Rugby at a crossroads, both pointing out the advantages of the tournament. Players would have a logical summit in the sport, and a definitive world champion could be found. Intense interest would be generated worldwide in such an event, and the revenue derived could be pumped back into the game. And nations such as Argentina, Romania, Italy and Russia could finally get a chance to pit themselves against the bigger boys on the world stage, thus developing the sport in these countries.

Ultimately though, these voices would not be heard if the British and Irish refused to change their stance. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and in April 1983 this came in the form of David Lord and his Kerry Packer-style breakaway circus. Lord, who was an Australian sports promoter and commentator, planned to cherry pick 200 of the top players in the sport, and arrange seven world tournaments in 3 years, costing £20 million, and threatening to rip the sport to pieces.

The radical proposals were met with a firm threat by the RFU of lifetime bans for any players involved, but the very fact that Lord had been driven to this course of action emphasised the southern hemisphere annoyance at the British and Irish antipathy. Former All Blacks skipper Graham Mourie indicated in his autobiography that one day the "the outsiders may get frustrated and build a mansion of their own", and his comments were looking truer by the minute in 1983.

Nothing came of the rumoured circus, or of the idea of staging an international tournament in 1988 to celebrate Australia's bicentenary. Come March 1984 the annual International Board meeting in London drew another blank on the chances of a World Cup, yet an important step was taken on the day. A feasibility study that would be put together by Australia and New Zealand was to be discussed at the March 1985 meeting in Paris. Whether this would go the way of the other meetings was unknown, but there was hope at least.

And so it would pass that on March 21, 1985, the International Board voted to launch a rugby World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in 1987. The political manoeuvrings over the course of the meetings have gone down in rugby folklore. Obviously Australia and New Zealand were fully in favour of the World Cup, with France also on board as long as other European nations such as Romania, Italy and Russia were invited (French rugby president Albert Ferrasse argued the case for the FIRA countries, an association he chaired). But it would be the South African actions that was key to the outcome.

Despite the very real prospect of missing the first World Cup on political grounds, South African rugby president Danie Craven saw the benefits of playing the long game, gaining assurances from colleagues that his nation could host a future tournament as soon as apartheid had ended and South Africa were back on the international stage. This of course was not enough to swing the balance in favour of a World Cup, but the South African decision was seen as the turning point. English representative John Kendall-Carpenter and Welshman Keith Rowlands were apparently persuaded to change their minds, and the rugby World Cup was finally a reality.

The actual voting process on that day is still contentious. Some reports state that each country had a vote each, and with the Irish and Scottish against the plans, a 6-2 majority was reached. Other sources indicate that each nation had two representatives with one vote per person, the Kendall-Carpenter/Rowlands about turn leading to a 10-6 vote. This book even suggests that South Africa did not have a vote at all, resulting in an 8-6 score. What is indisputable is the fact that after years of banging their heads against a brick wall, the wishes of Australia and New Zealand had finally been granted.

Inevitably the confusion and complexity did not end there. As soon as the tournament had been announced, the thorny issue of South Africa became the main focal point, with the governments of New Zealand and Australia opposed to any sporting involvement with the country. According to David Hands in The Times, an invite was sent to the South Africans, but it was declined due to the fact the Australian and New Zealand governments had already made it clear that no visas would be issued to their players.

Another topic of discussion was the exclusion of the Soviet Union. At the time it was perceived that they simply were not invited, Kendall-Carpenter (chairman of the organising committee) hinting that "Russia was discussed but they are not the easiest of nations with whom to make contact." But subsequent evidence seems to suggest that the country refused an invitation, taking a political stance over the South African continued membership on the International Board. Rugby in Russia was developing, the country finishing second to France in the recent FIRA championship, so either way their absence was unfortunate. As was the omission of Western Samoa, who certainly proved a point in 1991.

There was still opposition to the tournament amongst the rugby world. Scotland and Ireland in particular were not happy, the latter concerned that the tournament would open the door to semi-professionalism. They were not alone in this view. The recently retired Gareth Davies was also sceptical. "Who is pushing for a World Cup? Have the players been asked about a World Cup, do they want to play two or three international games a week for which they are not mentally or physically prepared? Do they really want to know who is the best side in the world? I doubt it. I believe it is a case of players being asked to fill the coffers."

Davies went on to discuss the role of the southern hemisphere in the whole matter, bemoaning that this "could be the start of a professional circus". In this regard, the appointment of Sir Desmond Sullivan as executive director of the tournament was seen as a master stroke, a move that according to David Hands would "ensure the propriety of the competition", and appease the Irish and Scottish boards. Another key piece of the jigsaw occurred when the marketing contract for the tournament was awarded to the West Nally Group, a company that had overseen the first Athletics World Championships in 1983, and in the words of Kendall-Carpenter would "shore up rather than undermine the amateur ethos of the game".

It may have taken a long time, seen examples of a lot of board officials burying their heads in the sand, and involved a lot of political bargaining, but on May 22, 1987, the very first match of the Rugby Union took place, and the sport has not looked back since. Fans of the amateur era may well look back on the decision with scorn, but as an exercise for increasing the profile of the sport, the introduction of the tournament has proved a huge success. The 1987 event was watched by over 600,000 people at the grounds and an estimated 300 million worldwide, and according to West Nally earned the International Board $1.6 million. There was no going back after that.

Admittedly we did witness a slightly one-sided event, yet 1987 justified the establishment of a World Cup. A wise old owl wrote in this blog on sporting firsts of the 1980s about some of the highlights of the inaugural event, so I'll just repeat them here. John Kirwan's try against Italy; the exciting Fijians; the tense 21-21 draw between France and Scotland in their pool match; Wales' run to the semi-final; England's general ineptitude; a quite breathtaking semi-final between Australia and France; Paul Thorburn's dramatic last-minute kick to earn Wales third-place. But most of all, it had a simply stunning winning team in New Zealand, streets ahead of anything else in the tournament (a month after the final, New Zealand triumphed 30-16 in Sydney just to prove the point).

So if you settle down to enjoy the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup, perhaps you should raise a glass to the men who 30 years ago finally got the concept of the tournament over the try line. It's a sobering thought to consider the sport without such a great event as we're hopefully about to witness from September 18 onwards.

No comments:

Post a Comment