With the 2008 tournament about to begin, I feel it necessary to provide a bit of context about the Rugby League World Cup, so here is the first in a three part series about the history of the competition. Due to a certain level of ignorance (partly due to not being alive for the first eight of them) a large portion of it is taken from research online at a variety of websites. They will all be listed at the end.
Blame it on the French. They have a pretty strong track record in initiating global expressions of sporting celebration, with Frenchmen being the prime movers and shakers behind both the Olympics (Baron de Coubertin) and the Football World Cup (Jules Rimet). They were also the driving force behind the formation of the Rugby League World Cup, although they had their reasons. The treatment of Rugby a XIII under the Vichy regime of World War II (particularly the seizing of all Rugby League’s assets) had left French Rugby League in need of cash and sustenance. President of the French Rugby League, Paul Barriere, was the leading figure in getting the other Rugby League nations to come round to seeing the potential of showcasing the world’s leading rugby talent on a grand stage. Ironically the Australians were among the least keen, but were convinced of the potential benefits.
And so it came to pass that on 30th October 1954 that France and New Zealand began the World Cup. Home town favourites, France won 22-13 and reached the final against Great Britain. The northern hemisphere sides had comfortably beaten their southern counterparts (with Australia handing the wooden spoon to the Kiwis with a 34-15 victory) and a draw between the two in the group stage left France and Great Britain level on points, so a Final was used as a tiebreak to determine the destination of the trophy. Over 30,000 people packed into the Parc de Princes in Paris to witness Great Britain take home the trophy with a 16-12 victory, all the more impressive due to the British team being weakened by a tough tour of Australia earlier that year. The World Cup was deemed a successful experiment and the template was set for the next few tournaments to come.
The next tournament took place in 1957 and was won by Australia on home turf. The format was a straight round-robin, which the Kangaroos completely dominated. They won all their games by a minimum of 17 points (even more significant in the three-point try era) and only conceded 20 in their three games. Considering the other three sides all won and lost one match against each other, there’s probably a case to be made for the 1957 Kangaroos being the most dominant World Cup winning side ever. Australia followed up their World Cup victory with a 20-11 win over a Rest of the World XIII, thus underlining their superiority.
The competition returned to the northern hemisphere in 1960, this time to England. Again, the competition utilised a round-robin format, with each side playing each other once. Even there was no official Final, the fact that Australia and Great Britain both beat France and New Zealand in their opening two games meant that the final group game between the Kangaroos and the Lions turned into a de facto World Cup Final. Britain (fielding many legends of the game such as Alex Murphy, Eric Ashton, Billy Boston and Vince Karalius, to name only a few) managed to overcome the Aussies 10-3 at Odsal and thus finished top of the group, becoming World Champions once more.
The next World Cup was due to take place in France in 1965, but a poor French showing against Australia during their 1964 tour Down Under led to the Tricolores postponing the tournament (fears were raised about whether the competitiveness of France would be able to sustain a viable and interesting competition, alas setting a precedent which would rear its head over the next few decades and even to this day). So it eventually returned in 1968 with the same four teams and nearly the same format, but with one key difference: for the first time there was a prearranged final, instead of a match used for a tie-break situation. Australia and France reached the final, and despite the fact that in the final group game France got their asses handed to them by the Kangaroos 37-4, a crowd of over 54,000 still turned up at the Sydney Cricket Ground to witness the repeat and see… France get their asses handed to them by the Kangaroos. A 20-2 victory was the exclamation point on their successful campaign where no team really came close to matching them.
So ends Part 1. Come back tomorrow for Part 2, was we look back on the 1970s and 80s, starting with one of the most brutal matches ever played…
With thanks to
- The Official Rugby League World Cup 2008 Website
- RL Hall of Fame
- Rugby League Project
- League Unlimited