1987 Rugby World Cup

Page 3 – The long road to the cup

Rugby World Cup fever 

In the mid-20th century, nearly every major sport, and many minor ones, launched world championships. Even those with a regular place in the Olympics found such an event profitable both in financial and public relations terms. The Football World Cup began in 1930, Handball World Championships in 1938, Rugby League World Cup in 1954, Orienteering World Championships in 1966, Men’s Field Hockey World Cup in 1971 and Cricket (limited-overs) World Cup in 1975. Yet into the 1980s, the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB) refused to even think about a world cup. Such a tournament would inevitably bring money into the game, with unknown consequences.

Time for a change?

The fact that rugby’s professional rival, league, now had a world cup was another reason the IRFB opposed the idea. With league having shown it could be done, though, whispers of a rugby world cup were now heard occasionally. In the 1960s former Australian test player Harold Tolhurst and Manly club stalwart Jock Kellaher suggested finding a world champion by holding a month-long tournament in Australia. Great Britain, France, South Africa and New Zealand would fight it out with the home side. The IRFB was not amused. In 1968 it reiterated its opposition to anything resembling the Football World Cup.

Even competitions to find national club or regional champions were seen as contrary to the spirit of the game. Only France among rugby powers had a national championships until 1968, when South Africa’s Currie Cup became an annual event. New Zealand launched its provincial championships in 1976, but clubs in the British unions still played only ‘friendlies’.

Amateurism under threat 

By the early 1980s winds of change were threatening to blow in the house of cards of amateur rugby. The debacle of the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, the simultaneous Football World Cup qualifying success of New Zealand’s All Whites and the continuing loss of Australia’s top union players to league were all signs that rugby was vulnerable even in its southern hemisphere strongholds. In response, the Australian and New Zealand unions made separate proposals to the IRFB for a rugby world cup. 

In 1982 the South African Rugby Board (SARB), now effectively isolated from world rugby as a result of that country's apartheid policies, threatened to launch a professional circuit. The same year, nine Australian players refused to tour New Zealand because the daily allowance they were offered was so small. In 1983 Australian David Lord hatched a plan to pay more than 200 top players to play in a travelling eight-nation competition, but it didn’t get off the ground. This was an attempt to emulate his countryman Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, which had revolutionised another staid English-dominated game. Lord had no backer with deep pockets, and pay television did not yet exist in several of the key markets.

In 1984 the French put up another proposal to hold a world cup. Forced to do something, the IRFB asked Australia and New Zealand to come up with a feasibility study. With 1987 the only southern winter free of major sports events for the rest of the decade, there was no time to waste. If a world cup was not approved at the IRFB’s March 1985 meeting, the concept would go on the back burner for years.

Putting it to the vote 

Each of the eight full members of the IRFB (France had joined the three main southern hemisphere unions in the inner sanctum as recently as 1978) had two votes, so the four home unions would all but have a veto if they stuck together.

South Africa was the great unknown. The sports boycott made it impossible for the country to play abroad. As always, SARB president Danie Craven (an IRFB delegate) thought ahead. He realised that favours given at no real cost now might well pay off later. His decision to support the proposal in effect guaranteed that South Africa would later host a similar tournament – if the first one succeeded and apartheid was relaxed. The wily former Springbok captain thus set the stage for the 1995 World Cup (won by South Africa at home), which cemented the place of rugby, until then a symbol of Afrikaner supremacy, in the multicultural nation.

That left France – in effect, French rugby president Albert Ferrasse – as the power broker. Ferrasse decided to vote for a world cup provided non-IRFB countries were included. (He chaired FIRA, a grouping of the outsiders.) D-Day was 21 March 1985; the venue was French railway headquarters. The delegates were whisked by TGV to a lunchtime cruise on the Rhône. After intense lobbying, the vote was taken back in Paris. Delegates from England and Wales broke ranks with the naysayers. A rugby world cup would be held in 1987.

A body with no paid staff – or even any money to call its own – had just two years to organise rugby’s first global tournament.

How to cite this page

'The long road to the cup', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/1987-rugby-world-cup/the-world-cup-is-born, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012