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1987 Rugby World Cup

Page 4 – Organising the tournament

Getting down to business

The Rugby World Cup was set to take place in May or June 1987, early in the southern winter but not too long after the completion of Europe’s Five Nations Tournament. The organising committee was headed by John Kendall-Carpenter, the Englishman who had voted for the cup in 1985. With South Africa expected to decline their invitation, nine non-Intenational Rugby Football Board (IRFB) nations would be needed to fill the four four-team pools.

Some choices were obvious: Italy, Romania and Argentina all had respectable recent records against the major teams. Canada, the USA, Japan, Fiji and Tonga also had a long history of playing the game, and the first three offered lucrative television markets. Minnows Zimbabwe were granted the last place to give southern Africa an interest in the event.

Money talks 

The IRFB spent a year arguing over the distribution of profits, which were yet to be made. Knowing they had the old guard over a barrel, the host unions held out for the best terms they could get. The deal reached in March 1986 gave Australia and New Zealand all their net gate takings. They would also share 48% of the income generated by the tournament representatives (the commercial company that would manage the event). The other unions taking part would share most of the rest.

The same March 1986 meeting appointed the British sports marketing company West Nally as the tournament representatives. West Nally had suggested a rugby world cup several years earlier. They trumped rival bidders by offering US$5 million upfront for the rights. The Australians’ insistence on payment in advance was to prove wise – West Nally failed to survive the October 1987 stock market crash.

Potential sponsors demanded stadiums that were ‘clean’ (free of all other advertising). Because of this and Australian rugby politics, the traditional New South Wales test venue, the Sydney Cricket Ground, was unavailable. Auckland’s Eden Park would host the final, and both semi-finals would be played in Australia. Brisbane’s Ballymore Oval could readily stage one. The Sydney semi-final was allocated to the small Concord Oval, which the New South Wales Rugby Union was developing as its base. With rugby weak outside these two cities, only one pool would be played in Australia. Eight venues in New Zealand would host the other three pools.

Commerce and committees

Rugby World Cup Proprietary Ltd, the company set up in Australia to handle the financial side of organising the tournament, appointed a New Zealand judge, Sir Desmond Sullivan, as its chief executive. When he was appointed to the Waitangi Tribunal, he was replaced by management consultant Jim Campbell (the father of TV3 broadcaster John Campbell). Both men found it tough going. The host unions had only a handful of employees between them, and much of the work was done by committees headed by the respected rugby identities Sir Nicholas Shehadie (in Australia) and Dick Littlejohn (in New Zealand).

Sponsors were not secured until shortly before the tournament kicked off. When they were announced, the wisdom of including Japan and the United States was confirmed. KDD, a Japanese telecommunications company, was the main sponsor. The others were Mazda, Rank Xerox and New Zealand Breweries. Commercialism was suddenly everywhere. The name of a beer, Steinlager, was even painted on the small buckets in which sand was carried out to place-kickers. Despite a stern circular from the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU), this ruse was repeated in the final. In rugby’s brave new world, even official sponsors were not above a little guerrilla marketing.

The host television rights were shared by public broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Television New Zealand. At the last minute, the British Broadcasting Corporation decided to pay £1 million to cover the tournament. This fee looked excessive, but by the 1991 World Cup it would seem the bargain of the century.

The Cavaliers

In mid-1986 a nervous IRFB, concerned at slow progress, had considered taking over the tournament. (A proposal to do so was lost only on the chairman’s casting vote.) There were other problems too. The New Zealand Cavalier tour of South Africa, an ‘unofficial’ venture in which key rugby figures in both countries were heavily involved, had just ended. All but two of the 30 players selected for the cancelled 1985 All Black tour of the republic had taken part. The IRFB expressed its disapproval.

The Cavalier tour disrupted the All Blacks’ preparation for the Rugby World Cup. The rebels were let off very lightly, being banned for just two tests. They were then blended uneasily with their temporary replacements, the ‘Baby Blacks’. More than half the team that played in the 1987 World Cup final were former Cavaliers.

A less positive outcome was the New Zealand government’s refusal to invite overseas dignitaries to attend the Rugby World Cup or to host functions for the visiting players and administrators. But when Prime Minister David Lange boycotted matches, some of his ministers were happy to take his place in the VIP section.


How to cite this page

Organising the tournament, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated