The World Cup is rugby union’s biggest tournament as 20 nations compete every four years to become the champions and take home the Webb Ellis Cup.
Despite a global tournament being suggested at various stages throughout the sport’s history – even as early as the 1950s – it was first held in 1987 and there has so far been nine versions of the competition.
The sport still had amateur status in 1987 but that all changed following the 1995 World Cup as it became professional. That has helped the sport increase in size with its low-key opening giving way to the global fanfare which greeted the most recent tournament in Japan.
Although four teams have only taken home the trophy, there are far more contenders than there used to be, while the sport’s profile has increased outside of the traditional powerhouses with the help of the Rugby World Cup.
Rugby World Cup history
The Rugby World Cup was first held in 1987 with Australia and New Zealand selected as hosts. Unlike the 20 that participate today, there were just 16 teams and it involved no qualifying process. Instead, the seven International Rugby Football Board (now known as World Rugby) members qualified automatically, while the rest were handed invitations for the competition.
Favourites New Zealand won the tournament, dominating throughout and comfortably defeating France 29-9 in the final. The one-sided affairs were a theme during the 1987 World Cup, but it was deemed a huge success and laid the platform for what we see today.
It gradually grew in size and stature, with qualifying introduced ahead of the 1991 World Cup, before it was expanded to 20 teams for the ’99 version of the tournament.
By that point, the World Cup had become the most important competition in rugby, particularly following the events in 1995. South Africa had been banned from the previous two but were handed a place back at the sport’s top table after the end of apartheid.
Rugby was used by new president Nelson Mandela as a way of healing the nation and bringing people of all colours, creeds and backgrounds together. It worked as the Springboks claimed the title, leading to the immortal image of Mandela handing the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar while draped in a South African shirt.
It was one of the iconic moments in sporting history and helped build rugby’s appeal, while they were also the first country to solely host the World Cup.
Between 1987 and 2003, there were usually co-hosts, or games would take place in a variety of countries but, from 2003 where Australia were selected, the games have taken place solely, or at the very least primarily, in one nation.
In 2019, Japan became the first Asian, and also first non-tier one country, to host the tournament as World Rugby once again attempted to broaden the sport’s appeal.
Rugby World Cup winners
It has been dominated by the southern hemisphere, with the ‘big three’ claiming eight of the nine titles. New Zealand and South Africa are level on three apiece, but the efforts of the Springboks are particularly impressive when you consider that they were banned for the first two World Cups – won by the All Blacks and then Australia.
England broke the northern hemisphere duck by overcoming hosts Australia 20-17 in the second final to go to extra-time. Jonny Wilkinson was the hero, landing that famous drop-goal in the final minute but, despite final appearances in 2007 and 2019, they haven’t added to their tally.
Instead, the Wallabies, winners in 1991 and 1999, sit behind New Zealand and South Africa on two World Cup victories.
Rugby World Cup on TV
It is often split between free-to-air and pay TV throughout the major rugby nations, but in the United Kingdom, it is available to all on ITV, who have broadcast the tournament since 1991. That was also the same for France as TF1 had all 48 matches available for the whole country to watch.
Most other nations, however, often see the World Cup shown on pay tv with the matches their country are involved in, as well as the knockout rounds, made free-to-air.
That was the case in 2019 with Australia, where Network Ten showed the Wallabies’ encounters, New Zealand, who had TVNZ to go alongside the subscription and streaming service Spark Sport, and Ireland, with their national broadcaster RTE showing their encounters free-to-air.
In South Africa, it is a different story, though, as SuperSport, who are a subscription service, had exclusive rights to the tournament, albeit the final was made free-to-air and shown on SABC.
The USA are also increasing their rugby coverage and the World Cup in Japan was shown on NBC Sports Gold, with select matches on NBCSN. The time zones didn’t necessarily make it conducive to watch for viewers in America, but the showpiece was repeated on free-to-air NBC.
There were also a variety of channels in Japan showing the global tournament but for the first time the domestic rights holder did not serve as the host broadcaster, with the International Games Broadcast Services instead using resources from the traditional rugby powers.
Rugby World Cup hosts
France will have the honour of hosting the tournament for the second time in 2023 after previously doing a tremendous job in 2007.
Although the quality of rugby was at times criticised – the final between England and South Africa was certainly one to forget – the 2007 competition was still regarded as one of the best.
The matches were extremely well supported while the World Cup as a whole was organised superbly. However, it did not end in victory for the hosts, who went out in the semi-finals.
They have yet to claim the Webb Ellis Cup, however, despite reaching three finals in 1987, 1999 and 2011, but are excited about their current team, who could well challenge in 2023.
The tournament will take place between September 8 and October 21, with the final unsurprisingly being hosted at their national stadium, the Stade de France.
The French will follow the first World Cup ever to be hosted in Japan. It was hugely successful for World Rugby, with the hosts reaching their quarter-final and a number of quality games, particularly in the knockout stages.
Although there was disruption in the shape of Typhoon Hagibis, which hampered the latter stages of the round-robin phase, it was a historic event for the sport.
Rugby World Cup venues
Such is the growth of the sport, as well as the popularity rugby has in France, the organisers will expect to fill the stadiums when the tournament takes place in 2023.
It is also a big couple of years for the country, with Paris set to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, and no doubt it will reach fever pitch.
The French capital is also the setting for rugby’s showpiece event, with the Stade de France hosting the final, while none of the grounds chosen for the tournament are below 33,000 capacity.
The smallest is in Toulouse, one of the great traditional powerhouses in French rugby, while it also heads to Marseille – the scene of England’s shock triumph over Australia in 2007 – Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne, Nice and Nantes.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of those venues are in the south of France, the heartbeat of the game in the country, with the Stade Velodrome in Marseille and Lyon’s Parc Olympique Lyonnais having capacities of 67,394 and 59,186 respectively.
Rugby World Cup rules
Akin to football’s equivalent, the first stage is a round-robin phase. The teams that have qualified for the global tournament are split up into four pools, all comprising five countries, and they go head-to-head looking to reach the quarter-finals.
Interestingly, the pools also help decide which teams compete in the next tournament as the top three nations in each group automatically qualify for the following World Cup, while the rest enter the qualifying format, which starts not long after the previous tournament has finished.
The sides that finish in the top two then qualify for the last eight as the competition enters its knockout stage. The winners of each game then progress through before the best countries face off in the final to decide who takes the honour of becoming world champions.
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