A Heavily-Plagiarised History of the Rugby League World Cup: Part 2 – The 1970s and 1980s

In Part 1, we saw how the French initiated the World Cup only to lose to Great Britain in the inaugural final and see the Lions and Australia dominate the tournament throughout the 50s and 60s. At least then Britain were succeeding as well…

In the opening match of the 1970 World Cup, Australia absolutely dominated New Zealand to win by a score of 47-11. Little did they know it at the time, but the ludicrous margin of victory (at the time the most points scored in a World Cup match) proved to be vital in their quest for the title. Great Britain dominated the group stages by beating the other three teams, which along with their Ashes victory that summer meant they qualified for the Final as strong favourites. The other three teams managed to win one match each, thus meaning the points difference Australia accumulated in the match against the Kiwis was the deciding factor in their taking of second place in the group and the other berth in the Final.

Everybody getting along just fine at the Battle of Leeds

Everybody getting along just fine (especially in the background) at the Battle of Leeds

The Lions were obviously the favourites to win, but in the Final at Headingley they seemed to forget about playing Rugby League and instead decided to take up some form of bare-knuckle mud-fighting in what later became known as The Battle of Leeds. In a match that has gone down in legend as one of the most brutal to ever take place, Australia managed to overcome the odds and British strong-arm tactics to retain the trophy with a 12-7 victory, despite being overwhelmed in the scrum and conceding nearly three times as many penalties. Both sides ended the match a man down, as England’s Syd Hynes and Australia’s Billy Smith were sent off minutes from the final whistle. A brawl even started after the conclusion of the game as British winger John Atkinson headbutted ‘roos fullback Eric Simms, which started this whole thing, and it actually took the Police getting involved to stop the ruckus. Australia took the brunt of the punishment during the game with seven of their starting side battered in some way, but the pain only made their victory that much sweeter, having overcome the odds in more ways than one.

The 1972 event returned to France for the first time since the inaugural affair, and once again a victory in the group stages proved to be much more decisive than was thought at the time. In their opening fixture of the World Cup Great Britain managed to beat Australia 27-21, a result which would prove more important than originally intended. Since both sides managed to defeat France and New Zealand in their subsequent matches, the stage was set for a rematch between the two in the Final in Lyon.

It became a match remembered for two spectacular tries, one disallowed and one given. With Australia 5-0 up, they thought they had managed to land  a decisive blow when Graeme Langlands appeared to pluck a kick out of nowhere to score a try. Alas, the try was disallowed for Langlands being offside (television replays showed he was onside). Instead, as the Kangaroos tried to get a breakthrough, they dropped the ball inside the British 20 only to see Clive Sullivan pick it up and streak down the touchline in the process of scoring one of the greatest tries ever seen in a World Cup Final.

Australia pulled ahead again only to see Mick Stephenson (you may know him as Stevo) score a converted try, meaning that for the first time ever the World Cup Final went into extra time. The additional 20 minutes still couldn’t separate the sides, and Britain were declared the winners of the World Cup due to finishing top of the qualifying group. So far, this is the last time the trophy was out of Aussie mitts.

For  the 1975 affair there were radical changes made. Firstly, Great Britain were split up into England and Wales. Secondly, instead of having a tournament in one country within a month or so, the 1975 competition saw each side play the other four both home and away over the course of the whole year. This consisted of three main phases: In March, the three European teams started playing against each other, in June they went down to the southern hemisphere to take on the Kiwis and the Kangaroos, and finally the tournament concluded in the autumn with the southern hemisphere sides making the trip north. At the end of all this globe-trotting Australia led the table by a point over the England and were declared World Champions. The English were disgruntled as they hadn’t actually lost to the ‘roos (drawing in Sydney and winning in Wigan), and so a ‘Final Challenge ‘ match was arranged less than a week after the conclusion of the league phase. Australia ended any doubt as to who the real World Champions were by thrashing England 25-0.

Unfortunately the burden of travelling and expense put an end to the ‘World Series’ format, and for the 1977 event things returned to normal with a single round-robin and Final taking place in Australia and New Zealand, the two host nations being joined by France and a reformed Great Britain. With New Zealand and France both under-performing at the tournament, it was left to Australia and Great Britain to contest the Final once more in Sydney. The game proved to be a very close affair, with the Kangaroos scraping a 13-12 victory with a last minute John Kolc try. This time it was Great Britain’s turn to feel aggrieved by the refereeing, as winger Stuart Wright was stopped in the process of returning an interception because the referee had already blown for a British penalty, whereas playing advantage would have resulted in a try.

The tinkering in formats had left the League watching public a little weary of the World Cup, and with the increased commitment to full tours by the main nations the World Cup was placed on the back-burner. When it returned in 1985, it was to every one’s surprise in a modified version of the 1975 ‘World Series’ model. With the Test-playing nations all playing three-match series against each other on a regular basis, and with Papua New Guinea now deemed worthy of stepping up in competition and joining the World Cup party, it was decided that the final match of each individual series would contribute to a league table, a move which both allowed the five sides to play each other home-and-away and also added interest to potential dead rubbers. At the end of a four year cycle of home-and-away matches, there would be a Final between the top two teams in the league.

On the one hand, the competition’s credibility was dealt an enormous blow by the French cancellation of their tour to the southern hemisphere due to financial constraints, meaning that they had to forfeit their away games against Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (they also failed to score a point against the Kiwis and the Kangaroos at home). On the other hand Papua New Guinea justified their inclusion with a victory over the Kiwis in Port Moresby, even if they didn’t acquit themselves particularly well on their travels. As well as that, the decision to make the 3rd Test of each series count towards the World Cup proved a shrewd decision when in the final Test in Sydney Great Britain got their first win in 10 years over Australia, thus enlivening an already lost series essentially turning their one-off Test against New Zealand in Christchurch into a Final Eliminator, a tough encounter which the Kiwis scraped 12-10. The Final took place in Eden Park, Auckland, as over 47,000 (the largest ever crowd for a Rugby League match in New Zealand, and remarkably when you think about it today was larger than the attendance for the first Rugby Union World Cup Final a year before at the same venue) turned up hoping to see the Kiwis shock the Kangaroos. Alas, the Green and Golds were led by a particularly inspired Wally Lewis who directed them to a 25-12 victory over the home team, with his half-back partner Alfie Langer helping himself to two tries.

Technically, the next World Cup also took place in the 80s, as the home and away cycle  began in 1989 . However, because the Final took place in 1992 I classify as part of the 1990s for the purposes of this article, meaning you’ll have to come back tomorrow to read about it in the concluding part of this series (SPOILER ALERT – Australia do pretty well).

Once again, props to


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