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The quadrennial (every four-years) global sports event began with the return of the Modern Olympics in 1896 when 14 nations convened in Athens to revive the ancient games. Soccer football under its FIFA auspices held its first tournament in 1930.
The idea of an international Rugby Union championship first appeared in the 1950s but garnered scant interest among the major countries. The perception was that a big tournament would not be in keeping with the historic amateur participation of the sport.
But an event occurred in 1967 that had a subtle influence on rugby some twenty-years later, as tony Wimbledon, the ne plus ultra of amateurism, voted to open the event to professionals. (Rod Laver beat Ken Rosewall in the final.) The times were changing for sport around the world.
During the mid-1980s, Australia and New Zealand proposed the idea of a rugby world championship, finally gathering enough votes in 1986 when the measure passed at the IRB ten for and five against.
In 1987, the first RWC occurred Down Under as the Wallabies and the All Blacks welcomed 16 teams. New Zealand defeated France in the final 29-3. The All-Blacks dominated the tournament, tallying 269 points versus 43 for their opponents.
The USA were 1-2 in pool competition, beating Japan 21-18. Playing that day were: Bailey, Everett, Paoli, Swords, Burlingham (C), Warhurst, Lambert, Vizard, Saunders, Clarkson, Hein, Helu, Higgins, Purcell, and Nelson. The USA lost the other two pool matches to Australia 47-12, and to England 34-6. (NB. South Africa were excluded from this RWC because of apartheid.)
After the event, US Coach Ron Mayes offered this evaluation, “The World Cup provided us with the opportunity to assess our standing with respect to the Big Eight. Our team did its best and the bottom line is that we still have a way to go. It will take another 10-15 years before we are competitive at the top level.” (He could not foresee that in 1995, the IRB would declare rugby an “open” sport, paving the way for paid professionals that would create a significant skill gap in the level and standard of play between amateur Americans and seasoned pros playing for money and bonuses in national leagues.)
That first RWC tournament in 1987 was followed by six more events, the participating teams increasing from 16 to 20 and featuring regional qualifying rounds for eight teams. To measure the success, here are data from 1987, 2007 hosted by France, and 2011, a return to New Zealand
Year Location Attendance Stadium Average % Stadiums Filled
1987 NZ/Aust. 604,000 20,500 60
2007 France 2,263,000 47,150 92
2011 NZ 1,477,000 30,777 85
This year’s RWC in England and Wales should break all previous records for attendance and revenue. It’s going to be a spectacular event with greater media coverage globally, and also in the United States. Watch this space.