Rugby League World Cup – History
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1935–1960: Establishment and Early World Cups:
The Rugby League World Cup was an initiative of the French who had been campaigning for a competition since 1935. The idea was raised in 1951 by Paul Barrière, the President of the French Rugby League. In 1952, Rugby Football League secretary Bill Fallowfield persuaded the Rugby League Council to support the concept. At a meeting in Blackpool, England in 1953, the International Board accepted Paul Barrière’s proposal that France should be the nation to host. the first tournament to be officially known as the “Rugby World Cup”.In addition to the hosts, the tournament featured teams from Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The 1954 Rugby League World Cup was won by Great Britain who defeated France in Paris on 13 November to claim the title.
Following the success of the maiden World Cup three years later another tournament was held in Australia, marking 50 years of rugby league in the country. Unlike the previous tournament, teams played each other in a league format. It was then decided that the team that finished first in the league would be declared the winner. Australia proved victorious on their home ground.
Another three years would pass until the next World Cup in 1960, this time held in England. It would be the second time Great Britain won the competition. Despite a home nation victory the World Cup suffered from poor crowds due to the live broadcast of games for the first time.
1960–1974: Sporadic competitions
After a disappointing attendances in 1960, the World Cup would not be played for another eight years. The competition had been scheduled to be held in France in 1965, this time with the inclusion of the South African team. However, after an unsuccessful tour of Australia, the French withdrew, effectively postponing the tournament until 1968, when Australia and New Zealand hosted and the World Cup Final made a return.
The World Cup found more success in the 70s with four tournaments being played. The first, the 1972 World Cup where the final was contested between Great Britain and Australia ended 10–10, and the title was awarded to Great Britain by virtue of their superior record in the qualifiers. Great Britain were captained by Welshman Clive Sullivan who was the first black player to captain any British national sports team. The final at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon witnessed what is (as of 2021) the last British team to win the Rugby League World Cup.
1975–1990s: No host nations
In 1975, the competition underwent a radical overhaul. It was decided to play matches on a home and away basis around the world instead of one host nation and the Great Britain team was split into England and Wales meaning that the tournament would be increased from the four teams of previous tournaments to five, this number also taking part in the two future internationally held tournaments. There was not a final held to decide the champions of the 1975 tournament and so Australia won by virtue of topping the group standings. As Australia had not beaten England in that tournament a ‘final challenge match’ was hastily arranged which Australia would win 25–0.
In 1977 it was decided that Great Britain should once more compete as a single entity. Although the final between Australia and Great Britain was a closely fought affair, public interest in the tournament waned due to the continuing tinkering with the format and it was not held again until the mid-1980s.
From 1985 to 1988, each nation played each other a number of times on a home and away basis with a number of these games also being considered part of various international tours that took place during the years in which these world cups were being played. At the end of that period, Australia met New Zealand at Eden Park. The match was a physical encounter, and Australian captain Wally Lewis played part of the match with a broken arm. The Kangaroos won the competition 25–12 in front of a capacity crowd of nearly 48,000 spectators.
This format was repeated from 1989 to 1992 (with games once again also being part of tours) and Australia won again, defeating Great Britain 10–6 at Wembley Stadium in front of 73,361 people. This crowd remained a Rugby League World Cup record (and a record for any rugby league international match) until beaten by the 74,468 crowd which attended the 2013 World Cup Final at Old Trafford.The fifth nation to compete in these two tournaments was Papua New Guinea, where rugby league is the national, and most popular, sport.
1995–2008: Birth of the modern World Cup
In 1995, the competition was once again restructured, returning to the traditional ‘host’ format with ten teams entering. Unlike previous tournaments where the top two teams in the table playing in the final, a knockout stage was added with a quarter and semi final. New teams competing included Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and South Africa. Due to the Super League war, players aligned with the rebel competition were not selected by the ARL to represent the Kangaroos. This meant the absence of many star players from the Australian team’s line-up. The tournament, which was also held to celebrate the centenary of the sport in England, was highly successful with over 250,000 people attending the group stages and over 66,000 people attending the final to see Australia defeat England 16–8.
Following the success of 95’ plans were drawn up to have a World Cup every three years rather than the sporadic staging of the competition in the past. However, the Super League war and the subsequent re-structuring of rugby league’s international governing bodies meant that the proposed 1998 World Cup was postponed.
It wouldn’t be until 2000 when the World Cup returned and expanded the field further, with sixteen teams entering. This tournament included a New Zealand Maori representative team, the only time this team has taken part. However numerous issues including poor organization and blown-out scorelines meant that this tournament was seen as highly unsuccessful with an average attendance just half that of the previous tournament. Due to these problems the competition was put on indefinite hiatus. Australia won the tournament by beating New Zealand 40–12 in the final at Old Trafford, Manchester. In the same year, the first Women’s Rugby League World Cup was held with New Zealand defeating Great Britain.
After the failure of the 2000 World Cup no plans were made for another tournament until 2008 with the competition reverting to a 10-team format. Australia hosted the tournament and New Zealand were crowned champions for the first time by beating the host nation at Lang Park, Brisbane. The tournament was once again seen as a success with a 91% average attendance increase on the previous competition. New Zealand became only the third team to win the world cup and the first other than Australia since 1972.
2009–present: Regular competition
Five years on from the 2008 World Cup there was still an appetite for a regular World Cup. 2013 saw England and Wales host the tournament and expanded to 14 teams. This was considered the most successful competition since 1995 in terms of attendances, exposure and financial output. Australia took the title again after defeating New Zealand in the final by a score of 34–2. The final attendance became the record international rugby league attendance at 74,468.
Following the success of the 2013 tournament, it was decided that the World Cup would be scheduled to take place every four years, 2017 Rugby League World Cup taking place in Australia, New Zealand and for the first time in Papua New Guinea. While Australia would claim the title once again and for an eleventh time, the tournament was considered highly successful in terms of competitiveness. The tournament would see Tonga beat New Zealand in the group stages with a score of 28–22 to top the group, the first time a team from outside the top 3 had beaten a top 3 nation in over two decades. New Zealand went on to play Fiji in the quarter-finals and lost once again with a score of just 4–2, knocking New Zealand out in the quarter-finals, the first time a tier 1 nation had exited the tournament at this early stage. Tonga played England in the semi-finals and while conceding 20 unanswered points, they would score 3 tries in just the last seven minutes to pull the score back to 20–18, eventually losing by this close margin. The final was contested between Australia and England at Lang Park, Brisbane and Australia won by just 6–0, the lowest score in world cup final history.
England were chosen to host the 2021 tournament which was postponed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with organisers expressing a desire to see a total of one million fans attend games. This tournament will see the number of teams increased to 16 once again.
A proposal was put forward in 2016 to hold the 2025 Rugby League World Cup in the United States and Canada, but in December 2018 plans for the tournament to be held in North America were scrapped due to financial concerns.
On 11 January 2022, it was announced France would host the tournament for the first time since the 1960s.
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