Last weekend marked the anniversary of the inaugural World Cup final, the tournament that not only changed the visage of rugby union but its entire appearance. Like many new competitions, it started slowly, but as it gained momentum its commercial success stormed amateurism’s fiercely guarded citadel, a cannon prevailing over a bow and arrow.
The final – between New Zealand and France in Auckland, which was not as close as the 2011 encounter between the sides at the same venue – was 33 years ago but the contrast between then and now is so stark it suggests a far longer gap.
At the start of the 1980s, the then International Rugby Football Board – which was ruled by eight countries: the four home unions, who set it up in the 1880s, the three major southern hemisphere nations, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, who took their places in 1949, and France, whose admission was granted in 1978 – had no income, no expenditure and no secretariat.
The Five Nations, as it was then, was not a tournament bound by formal rules and did not even have a trophy. The fixtures were by arrangement, a concept held dear by Scotland who, along with Ireland, voted against holding a World Cup in 1987; signing a participation agreement would make them obligated to play another nation.
It was not until 1993 that the championship nations became bound by formal rules, six years after the World Cup proved too successful, on the playing side and commercially, to remain a one-off. The 1987 tournament, played in New Zealand and Australia, made a profit of little more than £1m, but it was organised hastily and the IRFB had no commercial arm.
As Gerald Davies recounts in his 2003 history of the Rugby World Cup: “The IRB was no more than a servant of the eight member unions, but it would gain in influence and control and begin to behave as a world governing body and not merely to serve the whims and fancies of the separate unions.”
New Zealand and Australia had pushed for a World Cup from the end of the 1970s but there was a sniffy lack of enthusiasm in the four home unions, none of which had set up a national club league. Apart from France, whose long delayed membership of the Board prompted it to set up a rival union comprising what would now be called developing nations, countries they did not abandon after finally taking a seat at the top table, which is why the inaugural World Cup was made up of 16 teams not eight.
The fear, which turned out to be well founded, was that competition would hasten the end of amateurism and risk the game being run by those who did not have its best interests at heart. As Davies said, the IRFB then had three functions, which were carried out at its yearly meeting, often held in a gentleman’s club: the laws of the game, a framework for international fixtures and the maintenance of the game’s amateur status “with which they were becoming increasingly preoccupied”.
In one sense, the game has not moved on enough. World Rugby, as the IRFB is now called, is based in Dublin and effectively runs the game below tier one level. But the foundation unions, although having to submit to growing democracy, effectively remain in control.
It was a factor behind last year’s torpedoing of World Rugby’s plan for a Nations Championship. Some of the Six Nations countries, with Ireland and Scotland again in opposition, feared its consequences, as they had in 1985 when voting on the World Cup. The league would have required the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations to introduce relegation, providing a pathway for emerging unions – Japan and Fiji would have joined the former to take its number to six.
It provided the excuse to say no, never mind there would not have been relegation for at least 10 years. A more compelling reason was that the league would have further opened up the running of the game. The Six Nations outnumbers the Rugby Championship countries in votes on World Rugby; evening up the numbers would have ended that and made it far harder to trade on the past.
The Nations Championship is the equivalent of the World Cup in 1985, a tournament with the capacity to transform the game. An equal number of votes on World Rugby for the championship playing countries in both hemispheres would give the governing body’s executives the opportunity to act proactively.
If the lockdown has shown anything, apart from the need to establish, beyond doubt, the primacy of international rugby, it is the need to expand the game commercially. France and England combined generate 75% of rugby’s revenue, a percentage that needs to be reduced.
That will only occur if inroads are made into countries such as the United States, Germany and Brazil, not to forget Japan. That requires the focused, dynamic leadership that runs contrary to the way the game is set up. The past few months have given unions the chance to reflect as they watch their bank accounts shrink. If they do not appreciate now they are in this together, they never will.
The organiser of the 1987 World Cup, the late John Kendall-Carpenter, described it as an experiment. “Innocence, which had never been entirely pure in rugby, began finally to part company from amateurism,” wrote Davies. It has not quite completed the task.
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