The first regular international rugby was the annual England versus Scotland match that kicked off in 1871. The other Home Countries – Ireland and Wales – soon joined in. The first round-robin among all four teams, in 1884, was won by England. Two years later the British unions appointed themselves as the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB). These were men on a mission to keep ‘their’ game amateur and middle-class.
Professionalism had taken over association football (soccer), which had captured the British masses. This, the IRFB declared, must not be allowed to happen to rugby – any form of payment for playing the game would destroy it. Less than 10 years later, though, a northern union broke away from the (English) Rugby Union. This new body let working men be compensated for the time they took off work to play the game. A rival code, rugby league, had been born. Traditional rugby men were bitter. Players who ‘went north’ – converted to league – were barred for life from any further contact with the union game.
In the late 19th century rugby caught on across the English Channel. Its biggest French booster was Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. He was keen to perk up the nation’s manhood in the aftermath of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Rewarding intelligence yet requiring brutality, rugby was seen as perfect training for the anticipated military rematch.
In 1900 Baron de Coubertin gratified two of his obsessions at once by getting rugby into the modern Olympics. France won the first tournament, played in Paris. Rugby survived in the Olympics while Baron de Coubertin remained president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Only two or three countries, sometimes represented by regional teams, entered each of the four Olympic Games at which it was played. The current Olympic rugby champions are the United States, whose 1924 team was dominated by players from California’s elite Stanford University. Attempts to return rugby to the Olympics began in the 1980s. They finally succeeded in 2009 when rugby sevens for both men and women was added to the programme for the 2016 summer Olympics.
When the Olympic champions, France, played the touring All Black Originals on New Year’s Day 1906, they were soundly beaten 38–8. (Captain Dave Gallaher apparently told his team to let the French score a couple of tries.) England then decided to play France, and the other home unions followed suit. France joined an expanded Five Nations Tournament in 1910. This was played annually except during the world wars. Like the earlier contest among the home unions, officially it did not exist. These matches were, in theory, unrelated, friendly fixtures, and a champion was crowned only by the press.
France – for whom winning was everything – was banned from top-level rugby throughout the 1930s. There were two main reasons: revulsion at especially thuggish play in one test against Wales, and the widespread French practice, dubbed ‘shamateurism’, of giving star club players highly paid jobs with few actual duties. In response, the French fostered rugby elsewhere in Europe. Their main opponent in the 1930s was Germany. Ominously for adherents of Baron de Coubertin, the Germans improved rapidly, winning a match in 1938.
Beyond the Five Nations Tournament, international rugby was a network of bilateral rivalries. The game had spread with British settlers in the late 19th century. New Zealand’s rapid progress was clearly demonstrated during northern hemisphere tours by a Native side in 1888–89, the All Black Originals in 1905–06 and the Invincibles in 1924–25.
South Africa’s Afrikaners also took to rugby with a passion after the Anglo-Boer War. For most of the 20th century, world rugby’s heavyweight championship was contested roughly once a decade between New Zealand and white South Africa. Both were convinced of their superiority to the ‘hidebound’ British and ‘erratic’ French, but these claims were hard to prove on the basis of irregular one-off tours for which the home side made all the arrangements, including providing the referees.
The closest thing to a rugby world cup before 1987 was organised at the end of the First World War. There was a precedent in 1917 when a New Zealand Division team won the Somme Cup by beating English, Welsh, Irish and French teams representing divisions serving on this sector of the Western Front. (The New Zealanders’ 3–0 defeat of Wales neatly reversed the result of the controversial 1905 match in Cardiff.)
In early 1919, delays in getting troops home were temporarily forgotten amidst the excitement of the King’s Cup tournament in Britain. The New Zealand Division beat a Mother Country XV 9–3 at Twickenham in the final. It had already defeated these British Army representatives, the Canadian and South African expeditionary forces and the Royal Air Force in round-robin play. The New Zealanders had, however, lost 6–5 to the Australian Imperial Forces.
Among world rugby’s heavyweights, only France was missing. Given the scale of mobilisation by the end of the war, and the amount of rugby played behind the lines, these teams were probably not far off full international strength. Eighteen of the New Zealand Division’s 36-man squad were former or future All Blacks.
Many thought that such an essentially British sport should be played at the Empire (later Commonwealth) Games that began in 1930. The counter-argument was that adding more team sports would make the games too unwieldy. A solution was at last found with the admission in 1998 of rugby sevens, a fast-paced offspring of the 15-a-side game with wide spectator appeal. New Zealand has won all three Commonwealth Games titles so far.