At less than three decades old, Rugby World Cup remains a relative newcomer to the stage of global sport, yet it has wasted no time in establishing itself as one of the biggest and best-loved sporting events on the planet. Having grown with every Tournament, almost four billion viewers tuned in to watch the 2011 Tournament in New Zealand, and the action was beamed into 750 million households across the globe.
This autumn’s event looks likely to rewrite the record books again, as 20 of the Game’s most powerful nations do battle up, down and all across England. But to fully understand what is at stake in 2015 requires a little backstory, a recap of what has gone before. So let’s rewind to where it all began…
Despite the Game having been played for more than a century, that Rugby World Cup ever came to pass in 1987 was something of a surprise. The idea of a regular tournament between the world's strongest Rugby-playing nations had been suggested on several occasions – yet it had seemed at odds with the Game’s strictly amateur status. Writing in Thirty Bullies: A History of the Rugby World Cup, Alison Kervin noted that when the subject was raised once more, even the head of England's Football Association offered an opinion.“You rugger fellows would be best advised to stick to your international tours and matches and forget all about the flummery of a World Cup,” he warned. But the pressure finally told and the flummery duly followed. The inaugural event took place in New Zealand and Australia: 16 nations, 32 matches, one small gold Trophy: the Webb Ellis Cup – named after William Webb Ellis, the Englishman credited with inventing the game. New Zealand prevailed, overpowering France in the Final.
In the year Tim Berners-Lee officially unveiled his World Wide Web project (whatever happened to that?) and an unknown company named Starbucks opened its first coffee shop, Rugby World Cup arrived in the northern hemisphere for its second instalment. Co-hosted by England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France, the one-sided encounters of four years previous were replaced by shocks – most notably the heart-warming emergence of Western Samoa and Canada. The watching world was gripped. The global TV audience was predicted to have jumped from 300 million in 1987 to 1.4 billion in 1991. Sadly for England there was no happy ending: Australia ran out 12-6 winners in the Twickenham Final.
A Rugby World Cup of firsts arrived in 1995. The first Tournament to feature the mighty Springboks, allowed to compete following the end of apartheid. The first Tournament to be held in a single country – all 32 matches were played across the Rainbow Nation. And the first Tournament to be won single-handed by a 76-year-old pensioner, or so you’d think, given the almighty noise reverberating from Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium. Under a slogan of ‘One Team, One Nation’, the hosts were attempting to reunite a country torn apart by 40 years of racial oppression and reached the Final to face New Zealand. Having spent 27 years in prison for attempting to overthrow the government, Nelson Mandela had been released just five years earlier and had risen to become the President of South Africa. Sporting a Springbok-green jersey, long held as a symbol of the ‘white man’s game’, Mandela took his place in the stands and was South Africa’s 16th man, willing them to an extra-time victory. As he handed over the Trophy, before a global TV audience of 145 million, Ellis Park reverberated to the thundering roar of “Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!”. That day, a nation was reborn.
As we approached the fourth Rugby World Cup, hosted by Wales with help from its neighbours in England, Ireland, Scotland and France, the world was looking excitedly to the future. The dawn of a new millennium was upon us. Star Wars had gone back to the future by unleashing Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And Rugby World Cup, reflecting its growing global appeal and now-professional status, had expanded from 16 to 20 teams. It seemed certain to be won by New Zealand, until France performed the most remarkable and unexpected recovery in Rugby World Cup history, overturning a 24-10 deficit in the semi-final to win 43-31. It plunged New Zealand into crisis – the players returned home to find the word ‘Losers’ scrawled across their luggage and the country’s stock market slumped for months. And just to turn the knife further, neighbours Australia rolled over the Frenchmen in the Final, winning 35-12.
To the English, forever hung up on their footballers’ sole World Cup win in 1966, the morning of November 22, 2003 offered a chance to exorcise a few dark demons. That morning, England finally won another major Trophy, this time Rugby World Cup in Australia, thus becoming the first northern hemisphere team to raise the Webb Ellis Cup. A well-oiled machine, England went into the Tournament as favourites and powered through to the Final in Sydney. Back home, more than 10 million tuned in to roar at their TV screens – a 2,100-megawatt surge at half time was the equivalent to 850,000 kettles being boiled at the same time. In a match of high drama and frayed nerves, England’s winning points were kicked with just 26 seconds of extra-time remaining, securing a deserved and historic 20-17 victory.
New records were being broken in 2007. In the literary world, the final Harry Potter instalment set a new record for the most copies sold in the first 24 hours (11 million). More impressive still, in Rugby, the sixth Rugby World Cup set a new record of its own with more than four billion TV viewers tuning in to the 48 matches. Holders England again reached the Final, watched back home by a TV audience of 17 million – the highest viewing figures for any programme in 2007. Sadly, the South Africa they met had received a pre-match pep-talk from Nelson Mandela, via video link, telling them they had made the nation proud by reaching the Final. Eighty minutes later they had made them prouder still, winning 15-6.
Tragedy rocked the host nation New Zealand in the run up to the 2011 Tournament, as earthquakes struck its second-largest city, Christchurch, claiming 185 lives in the process. The nation regrouped and when the Tournament finally kicked off, a sense of déjà vu kicked in. As in 1987, England went out in the quarter-finals. As in ’87, the same four nations contested the semi-finals. As in ’87, New Zealand faced France in the Final. And as in ’87, the Kiwis prevailed (8-7). Finally, their long wait for another Rugby World Cup was finally over.
2015: Looking Ahead
Since its inaugural Tournament in 1997, only four teams have won a Rugby World Cup. New Zealand’s win in 2011 took them level with Australia and South Africa on two wins each, one ahead of England. Now, England fans looking for omens might point out that it must be England’s turn to win again, which would pull them level on two titles. Alas, the reality is that six or seven other nations harbour genuine hopes of lifting the Trophy on October 31. Whatever the outcome and whoever finally prevails, it should be fascinating and spectacular in equal measure.
This article was commissioned via NewsCred's NewsRoom and written by freelance contributor Nick Harper.