When did the tournament start? How many have there been? How different was the game in the past compared to now? There are a lot of questions around our Rugby World Cup history.
So below, we’ve got a potted Rugby World Cup history. Consider it fast facts. Read on…
How the Rugby World Cup started
As with all things in Test rugby, it began with canvassing the unions. For years, the Aussies had been trying to get the idea of a World Cup off the ground, but it wasn’t until they joined forces with New Zealand for a joint proposal in 1985, that they pushed through the International Rugby Football Board (laterally the IRB and today World Rugby) to land the event.
It is believed the biggest swell of support came from the southern unions and France, with England and Wales in the north reportedly won over. In the end, the vote scraped past at 10-6 with Australia and New Zealand named co-host the inaugural tournament in 1987.
The first ever Rugby World Cup
That first tournament in 1987 was held across 11 venues in Australia and New Zealand, with the final held at Eden Park, Auckland.
There were 16 teams taking part. This included the seven member unions of the then IRFB – Australia, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales (South Africa were isolated and boycotted due to the apartheid regime). Plus the invited nations: Argentina, Canada, Italy, Fiji, Japan, Romania, Tonga, USA and Zimbabwe.
New Zealand became the first-ever winners of the Webb Ellis Cup, beating France 29-9 in the final.
Kiwi Grant Fox was the tournament’s top scorer with 126 points (rugby’s scoring system was different in 1987), while compatriots Craig Green and John Kirwan were joint-top try-scorers, with six apiece.
Multiple hosts for 1991 World Cup
Four years later, the next world cup was hosted jointly by England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and France. And gone was the invitation system.
After qualification, the host nations were joined by: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Italy, Fiji, Japan, Nw Zealand, Romania, USA, Western Samoa and Zimbabwe.
After matches played across 19 venues, Australia defeated England 12-6 at Twickenham.
Irish fly-half Ralph Keys was top point-scorer, with 68, while the mercurial David Campese of Australia was joint-top try-scorer alongside France’s Jean-Baptiste Lafond, with six.
Springboks become part of Rugby World Cup history
A tournament of firsts. First time there was a single host nation. First time South Africa were involved.
Zimbabwe and the US didn’t qualify this time, so amongst the 16 sides was Ivory Coast for a first time, while Tonga made a return.
And South Africa won the whole thing, defeating New Zealand 15–12 in the final.
It was a tournament for icons too – so while France’s Thierry Lacroix was top points-scorer, and NZ’s Marc Ellis was one of two top try-scorers, there are other men who stand out in history. The first is the great Jonah Lomu, who exploded onto the scene and was the other top try-scorer. And the second was, of course, Nelson Mandela. The image of him handing the trophy to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar will never be forgotten.
An Aussie double
In 1999, Wales were the official host nation (although matches were also held in England, Ireland, France and Scotland). This was also the first tournament we had 20 participants, with Namibia, Spain, and Uruguay competing for the first time.
In the final, in Cardiff, the Wallabies defeated France 35-12. The Australians made Rugby World Cup history, becoming the first side to lift the title twice.
Pumas ten Gonzalo Quesada was top points-scorer – just, pipping Matt Burke by a point. And guess who top try-scorer was… Lomu, with eight.
England win Rugby World Cup 2003
The final went down to the wire. With hosts Australia taking on England in Sydney, it came down to a shoot-out between Elton Flatley and Jonny Wilkinson. And we all know what happened…
After England won their first-ever Rugby World Cup 20-17, in extra time, the image of Wilkinson’s winning drop-goal went global. He shot off to another level of fame.
Unsurprisingly, Wilkinson was top points-scorer, with 113. Doug Howlett and Mils Muliaina, both NZ, were joint for most tries, with seven each.
By the way, this tournament was the first time we saw Georgia in a Rugby World Cup. Good on ’em…
France host World Cup for first time
Firstly, let’s address the yin and yang of the 2007 Rugby World Cup – hosts France were embarrassed in their big opening night, when Argentina stunned les Bleus, 17-12. And los Pumas became the darlings of the tournament, eventually finishing third (beating, you guessed it, France again in that bronze match). Portugal made their World Cup bow, too.
Last World Cup’s winners England also got off to a stinking start, humbled in their second match 36-0 by the Boks. But they regrouped and would see the same South African side in the final in Paris.
There were no tries in the final – though the ‘Oh no, was he in touch?!’ moment with England wing Mark Cueto gripped us all – and it was settled 15-6, with Percy Montgomery and Frans Steyn doing the business for the Boks. Their second world title.
Montgomery top scored in the tournament, 105, while Bryan Habana got the most tries, with eight.
New Zealand host again
Having gone through what felt like a perpetual cycle of being the best team on the planet between World Cups but not making the cut in the big tournaments, the All Blacks got the monkey off their back in 2011, on home soil.
They beat France 8-7 in a nervy final, though, and it all fell down to an unlikely hero. Fly-half Stephen Donald wasn’t in the initial World Cup squad, but after a string of unfortunate injuries saw Donald called into the squad for the semi-finals – famously, coming in from a fishing trip – it was written in the stars. He was unused in the semis, but an injury to Aaron Cruden saw him come on in the final, and he landed one telling kick…
The stuff of legends. Morne Steyn scored the most points, with 62, while Christ Ashton and Vincent Clerc had six tries each. But Donald’s were the most important.
…And then win a third World Cup
New Zealand made Rugby World Cup history, becoming the first side to lift the trophy three times. At England 2015, they saw off Australia 34-17, with the great Dan Carter man of the match.
The tournament will also be remembered for England crashing out of their own tournament in the group stages. Oh, and Japan beating the Springboks in the ‘Miracle fo Brighton’ – surely the greatest upset the tournament has ever seen.
Nicolas Sanchez of Argentina top scored with 97 points, while Julian Savea of the All Blacks nabbed the most tries, with eight.
Springboks win their third title
In 2019, the Rugby World Cup was held in Asia for the first time, with Japan the host nation.
And they got out of the group stages for the first time in their history, after defeating Ireland and Scotland (the latter would not progress from the group).
Japan would come a cropper against the Springboks in the semi-finals, and from there the Boks would carry on winning. Fuelled by their loss to New Zealand in the groups, they built and built until they met England in the final, blitzing them in a way not seen for the rest of the tournament. They triumphed 32-12, with the tournament blessed with another iconic image, as Siya Kolisi hoisted the trophy.
Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.