Friday, September 11, 2015

The Rugby World Cup: 1987

I'm With the World Cup just one week away, we are revisiting and reliving previous tournaments and some music from that year. We start – as all good things do – at the beginning.
The Background
OK, so 1987 isn’t exactly the beginning of the World Cup. It was in 1983 that the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB)  agreed that the possibility of a world wide international show piece should be investigated with France proposing a Rugby World Cup. At the time, the IRFB contained only eight members and New Zealand and Australia were given the green light to further research the prospect. 

With the game still in the amateur era, some were already trying to pull the game into a professional age. However, the home nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) were happy to continue with the amateur tradition, the way the game had always been played. A World Cup was seen as the first step toward professionalism.

By March 1984, the plans were agreed to give the sport its chance to take its place among the heavyweights. Wales and England came on board with the SANZAR nations and France. Australia and New Zealand would host the inaugural tournament with 16 teams to take part at the request of France – who felt the tournament should contain second tier nations. 
However, controversy struck before a ball was even kicked.
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The Controversy
With only eight members in the IRFB, more nations were needed to make the fill the gaps in the proposed 16 nation tournament. The IRFB had another problem, one of it’s members were South Africa who were subject to an international sports boycott due to apartheid in the country.

Rugby – and particularly the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) - had found themselves in hot water before for ignoring the boycott. A 1981 Springboks tour of New Zealand caused protests in the nation and the involvement of the police and government. A tour to South Africa 4 years later was cancelled, but a group of All Blacks nicknamed the Cavaliers made the trip in 1986 – risking their careers and reputations. Not to mention the reputation of the game, just one year before it’s new showpiece. This time there would be no such trouble; the IRFB upheld the ban on the Springboks taking part in the competition.
Despite the ban on South Africa, the USSR rejected an invitation to be part of the World Cup on moral grounds. They were unhappy at  South Africa’s continued involvement with the IRFB. That left the IRFB searching for 9 nations to join the remaining 7 members. However, they curiously choose to omit Western Samoa. The Samoans were and are a nation of rugby players; a team with ability, form and reputation beyond some who were invited.
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The Black Behemoth
After the controversial Cavaliers tour, the NZRFU set out to punish the players who had defied them, flouted sanctioned and breached rugby laws by accepting payments. Bans from the game were issued to players who made the trip to South Africa and with just one year to rebuild the team. 

What they built was nothing short of majestic. If the old team was Windsor Palace, the new team were the Taj Mahal. Lead by coach Brian Lochore, the All Blacks squad contained the likes of Zinzan Brooke, John Kirwan, Sean Fitzpatrick, ‘Bucky’ Shelford, Grant Fox and Michael Jones. Fox finished top points scorer, Kirwan top try scorer and Jones top dog. 

Jones reinvented the flanker role as the All Blacks had reinvented themselves; he took something good and made it spectacular. Jones was a man of God – he refused to play on a Sunday – but to many a rugby fan he is a kin to a deity himself. An all-round athlete who thrived in the game he was the fore runner for the modern openside. Without him this year’s World Cup may not have seen the likes of David Pocock, Sam Warburton and, dare I say it, Richie McCaw. 
From their first game, the All Blacks hit the ground sprinting. On a rainy Friday afternoon at Eden Park, the first ever Rugby Would Cup kicked off. New Zealand put Italy to the sword with a six try, 70-6 thrashing the would act as an omen for all who dared cross the All Blacks path. Kirwan scored two tries that day and would add another 4 to his tally throughout the tournament. 

By the time the All Blacks beat France in the final four weeks later they had racked up 298 points – 126 from Grant Fox – scored 43 tries and conceded just 4. New Zealand were unstoppable; untouchable. 

The competition had set out to find international rugby’s pecking order. There could be no doubt who sat at the top, the All Blacks were head and shoulders above all other competitors.
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The Result
The tournament would be the first step towards professionalism in rugby union; though it would take almost a decade for the change to actually occur. 

Other rugby unions joined the existing eight IRFB members and the board became ruling body over the sport and became simply the IRB. In 2014 the IRB rebranded itself as “World Rugby” and boasts 100 official members  and 17 associate members.

The World Cup has now staked it’s claim as a truly international event. It is third behind only the combined Olympics and FIFA World Cup in terms of attendance, whilst the 2011 format was available on TVs in 207 countries worldwide… and it keeps getting bigger.
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