Although the Rugby League World Cup had been running since 1954, the irregular staging of the tournament had not helped the event establish itself in the sporting calendar. Indeed, after the 1977 tournament, it would be another eight years before the International Board decided to resuscitate the concept. A Paris meeting in May 1985 saw the five member nations of Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, France, and Papua New Guinea agree to take part in a ninth World Cup, although a change in format meant that it was now a three-year event.
The five nations would play each other home and away between 1985 and 1988, with a designated match on each international tour counting towards the World Cup group, resulting in the top two contesting the final in October 1988. On the one hand, the idea seemed reasonable; each team would be examined in all conditions, before the final showdown. However, an issue with French finances put a spanner in the works, and deciding a world champion over a three-year period did seem laborious.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of stories provided by the World Cup matches throughout the three years. From a strong New Zealand start, to the emergence of British talent, taking in the encouraging displays of Papua New Guinea, and the march of Australia to final success.
1985: New Zealand start strongly
The first match of the 1985-88 World Cup would prove to be the last for Australian coach Terry Fearnley. Having coached New South Wales to a 2-0 lead in the State of Origin, Fearnley’s Australian team took a similar advantage in the 1985 series against New Zealand. But there was trouble ahead. Dropping four Queenslanders for the final Test, and replacing them with NSW players was a brave move. And an unwise one as it would transpire.
The 18-0 defeat inflicted on Australia was the first time since 1956 that the Kangaroos had remained pointless in an international. "You have to live and die by your decisions," Fearnley declared. "I will die by mine." A 20-6 defeat in the final State of Origin match did little to improve Fearnley's mood, with Queensland's Greg Dowling taking the opportunity to hurl abuse at the former national team coach. From this point on, the Australian Rugby League introduced a policy where no current State of Origin coach could perform a similar role with the national team.
The controversy should take nothing away from New Zealand. Graham Lowe's team contained a number of quality players, as they proved when tries from Dean Bell, Mark Graham, A'au Leuluai, Dane O'Hara, and Kurt Sorensen gave them a 24-22 victory at Headingley against Great Britain. Four tries from Garry Schofield helped the hosts to level the series at Wigan, meaning that the World Cup qualification match at Elland Road was also a series decider.
The tension of the match was highlighted during the second half when a brawl broke out amongst the players, with a policeman entering the field of play to intervene. "This was more like an old-fashioned Test match with some real spice," British coach Maurice Bamford said. "It's what the game has been lacking."
A last minute kick from substitute Lee Crooks saw Britain secure a 6-6 draw. "I had scored with two kicks so I wasn't worried about the third, as I was confident enough," Crooks stated. "But I did have this vision that if I missed it, I would be the only man of the match ever to be slumped in a corner of the dressing room blaming myself as the man who lost the Test."
New Zealand moved on to France and continued their fine start to the tournament with a comfortable 22-0 win. The decline in the fortunes of the French rugby league team since the 1970s would see them battle it out with Papua New Guinea for last place in the table. But along the way they would gain a draw that played a big part in deciding the finalists come 1988.
1986: The Kumuls announce themselves
France's 10-10 draw with Great Britain in Avignon looked like a point dropped for the visitors, and it would prove vital come the final reckoning. Leading 10-2 at half-time, with tries from Ellery Hanley and Crooks, Britain looked to be coasting. However, with Crooks and Tony Myler both spending ten minutes in the sin-bin, the second half display left a lot to be desired.
New Zealand suffered their first defeat in July, as Australia gained full revenge. Under new coach Don Furner, the Australians put in a frightening performance, scoring six tries in their 32-12 win. Skipper Wally Lewis was outstanding, but he was not alone. Referee Robin Whitfield had a great view of the display. "There is so much class in this side," he said. "They can withstand pressure and they can turn defence into a try-scoring situation in the blink of an eye."
After the defeat against Australia, the Kiwis headed to Papua New Guinea for a two match series, the final Test counting towards the World Cup. Having won the first match 36-26, more of the same was expected when the two teams met a week later in Port Moresby. But in a shock result, the Kumuls won 24-22, their first Test victory since 1977, in what would turn out to be Lowe's final match in charge before his high profile move to Wigan.
Naturally, Australia arrived in October and ensured there was no repeat of the Port Moresby shock. Crushing their hosts 62-12, nine different players crossed the line as Australia scored 12 tries. After their early blip, the Australian machine was beginning to crank through the gears, as they demonstrated during their 'Unbeatables' tour of Great Britain and France shortly after their demolition of Papua New Guinea.
Winning all twenty matches in Britain and France, the Australian performances in the five Tests left journalists and fans spellbound. After going 2-0 up in the series at a canter against Great Britain, the final match at Wigan would be Australia's second World Cup match which was a dead rubber that took on more significance. British hopes were not high; the Daily Express headline 'GB FACE ANOTHER HIDING' indicative of the apprehension felt. Yet in a stirring performance, Britain would push the tourists all the way.
It seemed like business as usual when Australia led 12-0 after 15 minutes. But tries either side of the break from Schofield helped to level matters, before French referee Julien Rascagneres took centre stage at Central Park. Awarding a penalty try to Australia after John Basnett had tackled Dale Shearer off the ball, Great Britain manager Les Bettinson called it "a Mickey Mouse decision", as Australia moved 18-12 in front. The gap was narrowed to three points, but a fantastic try from Lewis late on clinched a 24-15 win for the Australians, with Britain left to contemplate what might have been.
Things were a little easier in France for Australia. Two wins in the Test series - 44-2 in Perpignan, and 52-0 in Carcassonne - the latter setting a record winning margin and giving Australia two more points towards final qualification. It was little wonder that Lewis waxed lyrical about the team: "This is the best football side that ever was - better than the '82 Kangaroos."
1987: French Francs in short supply
The tournament organisers were given a headache when it was announced in March that France could not fulfil their fixtures in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea due to financial troubles. At first, suggestions were made that a loan could be arranged or that France could play their away fixtures at home. But nothing came of this. The three southern hemisphere teams would all receive two points due to the French absence.
In truth, the points handed out didn't have a big impact on the outcome of the group table. Great Britain had started the year by hammering the French 52-4 in Mal Reilly's first game as coach, with Shaun Edwards, Hanley, and debutant Mike Gregory each scoring two tries, and Joe Lydon kicking eight goals. When a British team containing eight Wigan players beat Papua New Guinea 42-0 later in the year, the battle for second place with New Zealand was hotting-up.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for France. A 21-4 win over Papua New Guinea restored some pride in what would prove a difficult period for the French game, although they would be destined to finish bottom of the table.
1988: So near and yet so far
The final five qualification matches would take place in the southern hemisphere. A reasonably comfortable 42-22 win for Great Britain over Papua New Guinea in stifling conditions preceded a tour of Australia that seemed to be cursed from the start. Lydon and Des Drummond both stayed at home due to court cases - Lydon accused of headbutting a spectator and Drummond of confronting a fan who had been racially abusing him - and a constant flow of injuries hit the squad hard.
Andy Goodway and Steve Hampson both withdrew with injuries before the tour; Edwards would pick up a knee injury against Papua New Guinea; and during the Australian leg, others such as Schofield, Andy Platt, Paul Dixon, and Crooks were sidelined. It was hardly surprising that Australia pounced upon this vulnerability, taking the first two Tests 17-6 and 34-14. Yet in an astonishing turnaround, Great Britain would gain their first win over Australia since 1978, and also boost their World Cup chances.
"This is the springboard to a whole new future for British Rugby League," Bettinson said after the staggering 26-12 win in Sydney. With Andy Gregory at his very best, tries from Martin Offiah and Phil Ford gave Britain a barely believable 10-0 advantage at half-time, and a Henderson Gill try maintained the lead after the break. Australia briefly rallied, but another Gill try - accompanied with a celebratory wiggle - and a Mike Gregory score late on, capped a stunning triumph.
"It's going to be hell getting back to earth for next Sunday's Test in New Zealand," Andy Gregory admitted. The Kiwis had beaten Papua New Guinea 66-14 the day after Britain's Sydney triumph, setting up a play-off in Christchurch for the right to play Australia in the final. With Britain a point ahead, a draw was good enough to book a final place. But the team would fall agonisingly short.
In a tight match played in wet and muddy conditions, Britain were left to rue missed kicking opportunities and a disallowed Andy Gregory try, as New Zealand sneaked into the final with a 12-10 win. Despite camping in the opposition half in the second period, Britain could not find a way through. "We had enough possession to win and were as good as them," assistant coach Phil Larder said. Yet even in defeat there was now at least some optimism for the future.
1988: The final
Australia concluded the qualification matches by pummelling Papua New Guinea 70-8, winger Michael O'Connor scoring 30 points in the process, setting up the October final against New Zealand. The venue for the final had long been discussed. At first there was talk of playing the match in Los Angeles; if Great Britain reached the final then Wembley and Old Trafford were options. Eventually, Australia gave up their right to stage the event, with Eden Park, Auckland chosen by New Zealand.
Home advantage - a crowd of 47,363 - and a 1987 win in Brisbane indicated that the Kiwis would push Australia all the way. Yet in a devastating first half performance, the visitors surged into a 21-0 lead. New Zealand came out pumped up, but a lack of discipline saw them concede a number of penalties, and two tries from Allan Langer, and another from Gavin Miller effectively sealed Australia's third successive World Cup before the break. Shearer's try as the second half got under way merely confirmed that a miracle comeback was not on the cards.
Skipper Lewis had broken his arm after 15 minutes and battled on until just before half-time. But even without his influence, there was no way back for the hosts. The Kiwis added some respectability to the scoreline, with Kevin and Tony Iro scoring tries. However, Australia's 25-12 win saw them lift their sixth World Cup, and in subsequent years the Kangaroo domination of the event, 2008 aside, has shown little sign of fading.