With this year’s edition of the World Cup being the eighth since its inception, we can often forget the history that goes hand in hand with the competition. We should all be aware of the hard work behind the scenes of players and administrators to get us to where we are today.
There were several attempts to organise a tournament far earlier than the inaugural 1987 edition, predominantly from Australian players and officials. Unfortunately the IRB had no intention of bringing nations together into a tournament that even remotely resembled a world cup. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that the ball started to roll and Australia and New Zealand joined forces in order to host the tournament. The home nations were actually opposed to the notion until South Africa voted that the tournament should go ahead, despite knowing that they would be unable to attend due to the sports boycott in place at the time.
The 1987 Rugby World Cup was contested by the members of the International Rugby Football Board (apart from South Africa, due to the sports boycott) and a number of teams who were invited to make up the 16 team tournament. With no qualifying competitions in place this meant that some teams were left out despite perhaps being ranked higher than some of the invited nations. With the growth of rugby as a popular sport we have now seen qualifying tournaments growing (sixty five teams competed for places at the 1999 World Cup) and presenting opportunities for new nations to compete at the World Cup, and further to this it provides teams with the chance to play regular test matches.
The seeding system may need to be looked at in the future, as the so called ‘group of death’ will lead to one of the major contenders leave at the pool stage; on the other hand however, this makes the pool stages far more exciting and if other pools were similarly drawn we could see more tier two nations breaking into the knock-out stages.
The competition has helped develop rugby around the world and grow the strength of nations where other sports take precedence. Argentina at the 2007 edition is a clear example of the progress nations and players can make; by finishing third and demolishing France twice on the way, they forced their way into the Rugby Championship and many of their players are now considered top players at their clubs in Europe and the Super 15. This was a far cry from the first world cup where there were several lopsided matches, with this theme continuing after the game turned professional after the 1995 World Cup when the so called minnow nations were still largely, if not completely, made up of amateurs. Things are only improving however, evidenced by Tonga defeating France at the 2011 World Cup, a huge upset in tournament history. Surely it will not be long before we see a Georgia, Romania or Canada in the Quarter Final stages with more recognisable players in domestic professional leagues around the world.
We also now have several nations bidding for the opportunity to host the tournament years in advance, with Japan’s successful bid to host the 2019 edition proving that the reach of rugby truly is spreading around the globe. They are even building a new stadium purposefully for the tournament, which is a clear indication of how serious this event is as a global showpiece.
By the 31st of October we will know who the eighth man to lift the Webb Ellis Cup is, and which team has navigated the pool and knock-out stages to win Rugby’s biggest event. Who do you think will be this year’s surprise package? Where will the biggest upset fall? And ultimately, who is your pick to win it all?