Why Did It Take 116 Years To Create The Rugby World Cup?

Years of arguments meant first tournament didn't take place until 1987
11:02, 20 Sep 2019

It seems bizarre to think it now but little more than 30 years ago, rugby union - one of the world’s most popular sports - did not have a global international event. In comparison, the other code held the first ever Rugby League World Cup in 1954 and football’s showpiece competition has been quadrennial since the inaugural 1930 edition in Uruguay.

So what was the 116-year hold-up in rugby union getting their very own World Cup before the first staging in 1987?

The sport has been played between nations for more than a century, with the first test match played in 1871 and the Home Nations Championship - now the Six Nations - initially contested in 1883. The first appearance for rugby at the Olympics came in 1900, but it took another 87 years for the first World Cup to be held, taking place in Australia and New Zealand.

There had been an initial push towards staging a World Cup in the late 1950s when Hardol Tolhurst of Australia floated the idea, but by 1960 the International Rugby Board (IRB) forbade its sides from competing in any international tournament similar to the World Cup in football.

The decision was made amid worries that a World Cup would take the game away from the ‘amateur’ principles it was built upon, and while the fears came from an honourable place that didn’t put an end to many people’s hopes that a new tournament could be organised. By the late 1970s calls for a worldwide tournament were growing, with the president of the Australian Rugby Union Bill McLaughlin suggesting a tournament in 1988 in his homeland to commemorate 200 years since the colonisation of Australia.

Esteemed sports commentator and potential event sponsor Neil Durden-Smith wanted a global tournament to be held in Great Britain in 1985, but despite evidence to the contrary, the IRB claimed there was not enough support for such a competition. New Zealand and Australia wouldn’t take no for an answer and the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Sir Nicholas Shehadie, got behind the concept with great enthusiasm.


Although originally Australia had put itself forward as a host after proposing the World Cup, in 1984 New Zealand submitted its own bid. Later that year the two countries joined forces with a joint-working committee which forced the IRB to study the feasibility of such a tournament in December of that year. By the time the committee got to their meeting in Paris in March of 1985, a vote was to be held between members of the IRB to decide if a World Cup could be held in those two countries in 1987.

It still wasn’t plain sailing from there though, with the Home Nations initially voting against the tournament as they looked to protect the Five Nations.

New Zealand rugby board member Dick Littlejohn explained to the Daily Telegraph that opposition was rife. He recalled one memorable confrontation between himself and Scotland Rugby Union treasurer Gordon Masson: “We were walking past his table and he pushed out his chair to stop us and said, ‘You two (Littlejohn and Shehadie) are wasting your time, you know, you’ll start a World Cup over my dead body’,”

But with South Africa able to cast in favour of an event taking place despite remaining under Apartheid and being banned from competing themselves, the first poll came out tied.

Only when England’s representative John Kendall-Carpenter and Welshman Keith Rowlands decided to throw their weight behind the tournament was the deadlock broken, and the green light was given for the very first Rugby World Cup.

The tournament proved to be a huge success with New Zealand romping to the title, wowing the world with some sensational rugby along the way. The sport has never looked back, but as we strap ourselves in for the ninth World Cup, let us be thankful to those pioneers who fought for decades at a time to make the vision a reality.