Rugby World Cup History | Records | Famous Moments

Rugby World Cup: Read all about it

The world's best Rugby nations gather every four years to battle for glory at the Rugby World Cup. It is the world's most prestigious tournament and it always provides a captivating blend of excitement, drama and controversy. Millions of fans from across the globe tune in to watch the action unfold, and they are always treated to a great show both on and off the pitch.

The 2019 World Cup begins when hosts Japan take on Russia in Tokyo on Friday, 20 September, and excitement is mounting among supporters. Heavyweights like New Zealand, England and Ireland are all in action on the opening weekend, and the action comes in thick and fast until a winner is crowned at the International Stadium in Yokohama on November 2. It promises to be an exhilarating tournament.

Rugby World Cup History

A brave new era began when New Zealand took on Italy at Eden Park in Auckland on 22 May, 1987. It was the opening game of the first ever Rugby World Cup, which was hosted by both Australia and New Zealand. It followed years of wrangling between the world's most powerful rugby nations, and it was a pivotal moment in the history of the sport.

The idea of an international rugby tournament featuring all the world's best teams was first mooted in the 1950s, but several attempts to organise it crashed and burned. Eventually the eight members of the International Rugby Football Board - Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales - converged upon Paris in 1985 to vote on whether a World Cup should take place.

The vote went 6-2 in favour of it going ahead, with Ireland and Scotland the only naysayers. South Africa voted yes, even though they would be banned from competing due to the apartheid regime. France gave it their approval provided teams from outside the IRFB would be invited to take part. Argentina took South Africa's place at the tournament, and Fiji, Tonga, Japan, Canada, Romania, Zimbabwe, Italy and the United States were also given berths.

Australia wanted it to be held in 1988 to coincide with the country's bicentenary, but the IRFB eventually settled on 1987 so as to avoid a clash with the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. The 16 teams were separated into four pools of four, with the top two nations progressing through to the quarter-finals.

After a great deal of planning, the action finally began. The All-Blacks performed the haka for the first time on home soil and then went on to thrash Italy 70-6. They breezed through to the quarter-finals, where they then beat Scotland to tee up a semi-final showdown with Wales. The hosts secured another comprehensive victory and ended up in the final against France, who did well to beat Australia courtesy of a late try from Serge Blanco. The All-Blacks won the final 29-9 to become the inaugural world champions.

The tournament proved such a success that the organisers sanctioned another one four years later. It took place in Great Britain, Ireland and France. England made it through to the final at Twickenham, but lost to Australia. South Africa hosted the World Cup in 1995 after the apartheid-inspired sports boycott ended. A mystery food poisoning incident ahead of the final left several members of the New Zealand team riddled with illness, and they lost 15-12 to the hosts. Nelson Mandela famously wore a Springboks jersey and hat as he handed over the Webb Ellis Cup to South Africa skipper Francois Pienaar.

The tournament has been held every four years since then. The number of teams competing rose to 20 in 1999, and it has stayed like that ever since. There are now five teams in each pool and the top two teams progress to the quarter-finals. The winner is still handed the Webb Ellis Cup, which is made of silver, stands 38cm high and features scroll handles depicting a satyr and a nymph. The members of the World Rugby Council, which has replaced the IRFB as the governing body, choose each host. The organisers say that it is the third largest sporting event in the world now, behind only the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics.

Greatest World Cup Moments

John Kirwan Goes it Alone, 1987

Kirwan dazzled fans inside Eden Park with a sensational display of pace, poise and agility as he scored a superb solo try during the first ever World Cup match. He gathered the ball deep in his own half and led the Italians a merry dance as he rounded the despairing pack and surged over the line for arguably the greatest try the World Cup has ever seen. It set the tone for a thumping victory and the footage went around the world, helping boost rugby's popularity. Kirwan had a great tournament and went on to score in the final as New Zealand swept France aside. It was his sixth try of the World Cup, but none could match that devastating, slaloming run against Italy.

Western Samoa Shock Wales, 1991

Hosts Wales were expected to annihilate the small island nation of Western Samoa when they met in the 1991 World Cup. Yet the Samoans had clearly not read the script, as they overpowered Wales with their sheer physicality and edged a 16-13 win that sent shockwaves through the rugby world. It was the first time an unseeded nation had ever beaten a seeded team and it sparked optimism among many of the less heralded sides.

Jonah Lomu Bulldozes Through the England Team, 1995

Lomu announced himself as the first genuine superstar in world rugby when he ripped England apart during the 1995 World Cup semi-finals. The hulking All-Black was just 20 years old, but he carried the All-Blacks to a superb victory, scoring four tries in the process. The pick of the bunch was a phenomenal solo effort that saw him ride a couple of challenges before steamrolling over Mike Catt to cross the line. It was a remarkable exhibition of power and England simply had no answer.

Mandela and Pienaar Unite a Nation, 1995

The 1995 World Cup final was the game that united the most divided nation imaginable. South Africa defied overcame the odds to keep Lomu in check and pull off a shock victory over favourites New Zealand. Pandemonium erupted around the stadium, bloodied players wept tears of joy and the outbreak of national pride was a sight to behold. Mandela then came out in a South Africa jersey, with Pienaar's number six on his South Africa jersey. The two men shook hands before Mandela handed him the cup, and it was a wonderful moment for the whole of South Africa.

France's Stunning Comeback, 1999

The world predicted a thumping victory for a Lomu-inspired All Blacks side when they locked horns with France in the 1999 semi-finals. New Zealand boasted world-class players like Andrew Mehrtens, and they were widely expected to sweep Les Bleus aside and then go on and win the tournament. They made a strong start and led 24-10 after 45 minutes, but then two drop-goals from Christophe Lamaison set France on their way to the greatest comeback in World Cup history. They ended up scoring 33 points without reply, and a late try from New Zealand proved to be a mere consolation as France won 43-31.

Australia Register 22 tries, 2003

The Aussies pulled off the most emphatic victory in World Cup history when they thrashed Namibia 142-0 at the 2003 World Cup. They crossed for an astonishing 22 tries during the match. Chris Latham scored five tries, while Lote Tuqiri and Matt Giteau both managed hat-tricks. They did not quite manage as many points as New Zealand in their 145-17 victory over Japan, but Australia's winning margin was higher and the match was more one-sided. Namibia never looked close to scoring, and it served to illustrate the size of the gap between the top teams and the rest of the world.

Jonny Wilkinson's Drop-Goal, 2003

The 2003 World Cup final saw hosts Australia take on England in Sydney. The English were bidding for their first ever World Cup triumph and they had pinned their hopes largely on talismanic fly-half Jonny Wilkinson. The game was heading for sudden death, with the scores level at 17-17, but Wilkinson collected a pass and silenced the partisan home crowd with a stunning drop goal. It was on his weaker right foot, but his aim was true, his connection was sweet and he sent England fans into a state of absolute delirium as Clive Woodward's team and the nation claimed their first ever World Cup title.

Argentina Topple France in Paris, 2007

Argentina left tournament hosts France stunned by pulling off a brilliant 17-12 victory on the opening day of the 2007 World Cup. The Pumas (Argentina) were in inspired form, and they outplayed France, whose performance was strewn with errors. Centre Felipe Contepomi was the star of the show, as his 12 points drove his team to victory. Argentina displayed great passion and pride throughout the game, and they erupted with jubilant celebrations when the final whistle was blown.

Stephen Donald Silences his Critics, 2011

The All-Blacks had to turn to third-choice fly half Aaron Cruden after suffering an injury crisis ahead of the 2011 World Cup final. Things went from bad to worse as Cruden was forced off with a knee injury, and fourth-string Stephen Donald was thrust into the fray. Donald was an unwelcome addition to the squad after his dismal in a 26-24 defeat to Australia the previous year, and many were dismayed to see him included in the squad. But Donald answered his critics in style by kicking the points that finally won New Zealand another World Cup. He became a national hero overnight and he should never have to buy another pint on home soil.

Japan Topple South Africa, 2015

Japan's triumph over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup ranks among the greatest sporting upsets of all time. The Japanese had never won a single World Cup game in 24 years and they were up against one of the beat sides in the business. Yet they went toe to toe with the Springboks throughout the game and ultimately prevailed thanks to the pace of their play. They were a lot smaller than South Africa, but the Cherry Blossoms played with a great deal of pace and nimbleness, while displaying great bravery throughout. Ayumu Goromaru put up 24 points and a last minute try from Karne Hesketh handed Japan a thrilling 34-32 victory.

Rugby World Cup Records

New Zealand have won the most World Cup titles over the years. They sauntered to victory in the inaugural tournament, and then endured a 24-year drought before Donald kicked them to victory in 2011. They successfully defended the trophy in 2015, beating Australia 34-17 in the final to win a third World Cup. That leaves them ahead of Australia and South Africa, who have two apiece, as the most successful team in the tournament's history.

The All-Blacks also hold the record for the most points scored in a match as they beat Japan 145-17 in 1995. Australia's 142-0 victory over Namibia came close to beating that record, and it is the highest winning margin ever seen. The 22 tries that the Wallabies scored in that game is also a World Cup record.

Jonny Wilkinson holds the record for the most points scored in World Cup history with 277. He played in 19 games across four tournaments - 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 - and scored just one try. The rest of the points came with his boot, including 28 conversions, 58 penalties and 14 drop goals. Credit must go to Scotland's Gavin Hastings, who made six fewer appearances than Wilkinson and still ended up second on the all-time list with 227 points. That includes nine tries, along with 39 conversions and 36 penalties. Australia's Michael Lynagh and All-Blacks duo Dan Carter and Grant Fox complete the top five.

Fox managed an astonishing 126 points at the 1987 World Cup. That remains a record for the most ever scored at a single tournament, ahead of the 113 that Wilkinson scored in 2003. Simon Culhane holds the records for the most points in a match, as he was responsible for 45 of New Zealand's 145 points against Japan.

Marc Ellis scored six tries in that match and that is also a World Cup record, ahead of Chris Latham and Josh Lewsey, who each managed five. Lomu, Bryan Habana and Julian Savea hold the record for the most tries in a tournament, with eight. Habana and Lomu each managed 15 tries overall, another record they share.

Jason Leonard and Richie McCaw share the record for the most World Cup appearances, with 22 each. McCaw has made the most winning appearances (20), while Romania¿s Ovidiu Tonita has been on the losing side 12 times at the World Cup, which is an unwanted record.

The youngest player to appear at the World Cup was Vasil Lobzhanidze of Georgia, who was 18 when he made his World Cup debut in 2015. Lomu played in the final at the tender age of 20, which is a record. The oldest player to appear in a World Cup match was Uruguay's Diego Ormaechea, who was 40, while the oldest World Cup winner was 36-year-old Brad Thorn.

England's World Cup Stories - The Highs & The Lows

Stats from World Rugby show that there are north of 1.4 million male rugby players in England. That is huge compared to their rivals. South Africa have the second largest player pool, with just 633,000. There are only 133,000 in New Zealand and 140,000 in Ireland. England's rugby set-up is also well funded, and the domestic league is excellent, so they really should dominate the World Cup.

Yet they have just the one World Cup title to their name. They crashed out in the quarter-finals at the inaugural tournament, before going all the way to the final in 1991. They acquitted themselves well, but ultimately lost 12-6 to Australia at Twickenham. The 1995 tournament was full of promise after a fine win over the Aussies in the quarter-finals, but they suffered a 45-29 defeat to New Zealand as Lomu scored four.

They suffered a crushing 44-21 defeat to South Africa in the 1999 quarter-finals, but roared back with that stirring victory over Australia in 2003. Wilkinson's role will be remembered forever, but that team was full of absolute titans: Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson, Mike Tindall, Phil Vickery, Jason Robinson, Josh Lewsey, Ben Cohen, the list of greats goes on and on.

England took a great team to the 2007 World Cup in France and they surged into the final after beating the host nation 14-9 at the Stade de France. They ended up losing 15-6 to the Springboks, but the match will always be remembered for TMO Stuart Dickinson's controversial decision to deny Mark Cueto a try. The 2011 tournament in New Zealand was an utter disaster for England, dominated by a dwarf-tossing fiasco and a lack of discipline in the squad.

In 2015, they looked on course for a strong tournament, but they ended up becoming the first host nation to ever crash out at the group stage. Stuart Lancaster was quickly axed and Eddie Jones - the mastermind of Japan¿s triumph over South Africa - was brought in to replace him. England have rallied in style and enjoyed some excellent results over the past four years years.

New Zealand are the clear favourites in the Rugby World Cup odds and the Rugby World Cup spread betting this time around, but England look like the team most capable of stopping the All-Blacks winning their third title in a row. It could be time for them to finally deliver on their potential and return to the summit of world rugby for the first time in 16 years.

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