May 22 - 1987 First Rugby World Cup kicks off

The first Rugby World Cup kicked off at Eden Park, Auckland on May 22 1987 and as everyone expected, resulted in a big win for New Zealand over Italy, 70 – 6. And eventually New Zealand won the final, clearly being the best of the 16 teams involved.

But the real achievement was just not the triumphal rugby played, it was also the success of New Zealand and Australia in persuading the IRB, against the opposition of some Northern Hemisphere unions, to sanction the tournament. It was a major step for World Rugby and a great credit to the two Australasian unions.

Organisation of the tournament was the responsibility of the 1987 Inaugural Rugby World Cup Committee, led by Joint Chairmen Sir Nicholas Shehadie (Australia), Dick Littlejohn (New Zealand) and John Kendall-Carpenter (IRB). The marketing rights were sold to Westnally for US$5 million. US$1 million was paid on the signing of the contract and that sum was invested and the interest earned paid all travel expenses. KDD, a Japanese communications company, became the major sponsor, providing US$3.25 million.

The military coup in Fiji in May 1987 raised doubts over whether they would be able to participate. Western Samoa was placed on standby in case Fiji, or any other country, defaulted but none did.

The New Zealand Rugby union history was matter of fact in its recording of the World Cup:

“THE 1987 SEASON This was one of the most memorable seasons in the history of the game. The highlight was the inaugural World Cup Tournament, matches played in Australia and New Zealand. The organisation of tournament was excellent and for the most part the matches produced football of a very high standard. The 16 finalists were seeded into pools, with the winner and runner-up in each pool proceeding to the quarter-finals. The four winners of the quarter-finals contested the semi-finals, the winners of these games meeting in the final and the losers playing off for third place.

From New Zealand’s point of view the tournament was especially memorable since the All Blacks won the cup by defeating France by 20 points in the final. At no stage did New Zealand appear in danger of losing a game, all six matches played by the All Blacks being won by substantial margins. Wales took third place with a surprise win over Australia.”

From “The History of New Zealand Rugby Football Vol. 4 1980-1991” by R H Chester & N A C McMillan. Published 1992 by Moa Publications Ltd. P. 54.

Journalist Keith Quinn placed the event in a historical context:

“WORLD CUP It is a measure of rugby’s conservatism, or at least reluctance in some areas to progress, that it was the last major sport in the world to embrace a world championship. Certainly, rugby had featured three times at the Olympic Games, but the rugby powers paid scant regard to those competitions, only Australia, France, Romania and the United States fielding ‘national’ teams.

Yet rugby-playing nations were enamoured with the idea of being world champion, especially those who fancied themselves at the top of the pile at the time! In the 1980s, the balance of power was in New Zealand, though sometimes most sorely tested by Australia, as South Africa became increasingly isolated. And at this time, the hints and suggestions from the South Pacific for a world championship became more powerful arguments.

There was much resistance at IRB level. British unions had a long history of regarding organised competition as anathema, and the first steps to professionalism. Perhaps they also saw no need for a ‘world cup’ as they already had their own self-styled ‘international championship’.

A private sports promoter, Neil Durden-Smith, had proposed a World Cup in 1982, 24 years after the IRB had passed a resolution specifically forbidding member nations getting together in such a tournament!

By then, however, the major objection seemed to be to such a tournament not being under the wing of the IRB, rather than towards the tournament as such. By 1984, both Australia and New Zealand had presented proposals for a World Cup, and the IRB approved a feasibility study that was accepted at the IRB’s Paris meeting in 1985.

The organisers had two frantic years to make it work. The next year, 1986 was the preferred timing, but was too soon; 1988 was an Olympic Games year so, almost by default, 1987 was chosen. New Zealand and Australia were to stage the competition jointly, New Zealand the senior partner, but Australia having a slice of the action because of its unfailing support.

That was one mistake — not the support, but spreading the tournament between two countries. Another, perhaps, was in appointing John Kendall-Carpenter, an England international forward of the 1950s, as chairman of the organising committee. The argument was not with the individual, but with the nonsense of having a man living 20,000km away attempting to direct operations.

As it happened, herculean efforts by locally-based officials and administrators made the first World Cup a resounding success. Unlike World Cup competitions in other sports, however, there was no qualification for attending: the choice of 16 nations was made at IRB level. For strictly political reasons, and with that country’s agreement, South Africa was excluded, and for commonsense reasons, the field included established rugby-playing powers: New Zealand, France, Australia, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Argentina was an automatic choice after the growing stature of its performances against strong nations, and the other choices were made geographically. Canada and the United States represented North America; Japan was there for Asia; Fiji and Tonga were the Pacific representatives; Zimbabwe from Africa; Italy and Romania from mainland Europe.

Countries which considered themselves hard-done by included Spain, South Korea, Western Samoa and Malaysia — and, of course, more than a few South Africans.

It was perhaps no coincidence that the IRB broadened its vision and its membership in the lead-up to the tournament, admitting associate members for the first time. At the time of the 1987 World Cup, only Fiji, Romania and Tonga did not have membership.

The tournament opened in damp conditions at Auckland’s Eden Park on May 22 1987. New Zealand marked the occasion by defeating Italy by a record score, 70—6. A penalty try was the first score, and new All Black flanker Michael Jones, was the first to cross the line. But the match feature was an astonishing 70m try by wing John Kirwan.

The World Cup was alight, and for the next month matches were played at 11 different New Zealand venues, while the pool containing Australia, England, United States and Japan played its matches at Sydney and Brisbane.”

From “The Encyclopedia of World Rugby” by Keith Quinn. Published 1991 by Shoal Bay Press Ltd. Pp 314-5.

Twenty eight years after that first World Cup rugby historian Ron Palenski recorded:

“……….. the IRB had reluctantly agreed a joint proposal from New Zealand and Australia to launch a World Cup. Ireland and Scotland opposed a cup, but the vote got through with the support of South Africa, even though it was clear that its playing days were over until apartheid ended. The IRB used to meet at the East India Club in St James’s Square in London, a place reeking of English tradition and history. The IRB was suitably clubby for its first hundred years and was forced to change only because a modern sporting world ruled by money and television demanded it. It and the dominant British and Irish components had several times rejected the prospect of any form of international tournament such as a world cup. It also strongly opposed any involvement with the Olympic Games. The advent the cup in New Zealand and Australia changed not just rugby but the IRB itself.

While the British may not have understood this, New Zealanders did.


By the time of the first World Cup in 1987, change was inescapable. South Africa was not invited because of its unwanted status both in New Zealand and elsewhere; the Lange government would not have allowed the South Africans in, the Hawke government in Australia would probably have done the same, and other countries may not have wanted to play against the South Africans anyway. But the rest of the small rugby world came to play, united in a tournament for the first time. Besides the other IRB countries, also taking part were Japan, Tonga, Zimbabwe, the United States, Fiji, Argentina, Italy, Canada and Romania. The IRB’s reluctant hands were forced by matches in the cup being full internationals — how could they be otherwise? If the All Blacks playing Australia was a test match, so would have to be the All Blacks playing Fiji, or Italy or Argentina. The rugby world expanded rapidly because of the cup. For the first time, administrators had to organise a tournament rather than just a tour; the old way of meeting all the costs and taking all the profits could not work any more. New systems had to be worked out, new financial backers had to be found and, inevitably, the IRB needed a slice of the tournament it did not really want.

The first tournament was a resounding success given the short time in which New Zealand and Australia had to organise it and given the novelty of the whole thing. It was a success too for rugby because it helped restore the game’s standing in the eyes of the public after the odorous years. Parochially, it helped of course that New Zealand won; not just won, but dominated. Perhaps the majesty of an end-to-end try in the opening game against Italy by John Kirwan showed the rest of the world that the All Blacks were the pre-eminent team.”

From: “Rugby: A New Zealand History” by Ron Palenski. Published 2015 by Auckland University Press. Pp 381-2.