Although international rugby has been played for well over a century, the Rugby World Cup is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first tournament took place in May and June 1987, with games played in both New Zealand and Australia. The final was held at Eden Park, Auckland, on 20 June, where the home team beat France to become the inaugural holders of the Webb Ellis Cup.
In a country where rugby is often referred to as a religion, hosting and winning the first Rugby World Cup was certainly a big deal. For much of the 20th century the All Blacks had been regarded as one of the best teams in international rugby, but without a world cup such claims were difficult to prove. Before 2011's triumph New Zealand had not won the four-yearly competition since 1987, a fact that weighed heavy on the hearts and minds of New Zealand fans. Photographs of captain David Kirk holding the Webb Ellis Cup aloft in 1987 became one of our most famous sporting images. Until Richie McCaw was able to repeat the scene in October 2011 many feared Kirk's image would remain our only proof of rugby supremacy.
In a remarkable case of history repeating itself the 2011 tournament (once more hosted by New Zealand) saw the same four teams compete in the semi-finals - New Zealand, Australia, Wales and France - and like 1987 the same two - New Zealand and France squared off in the final at Eden Park. This proved to be a much closer game than the 1987 final and indeed closer than most predicted. The All Blacks prevailed 8-7 in the lowest scoring final in the tournament's history.
What is less well known is how the first Rugby World Cup came about. This fascinating story highlights a number of key themes, including the struggle between the amateur ideal and creeping professionalism, tensions between the British home unions and southern hemisphere countries, and international protests over sporting contacts with South Africa. The story begins with a look at the 19th-century origins of international rugby.
Next page: Origins of international rugby