Ross Roche

By Ross Roche

Senior sports writer

Brief history of the Rugby World Cup: 1987 to 2019

There have been nine previous World Cups, starting with the first back in 1987 and ending with the most recent in Japan in 2019.

The 10th edition of the Rugby World Cup is set to battled out in France over the next two months, with the best rugby teams in the world vying for the coveted Webb Ellis Cup.

Some thrilling action is on the cards and with three of the top five teams in the world set to be eliminated before the semifinals, it opens up the tournament for a surprise team to come through and sneak the title.

ALSO READ: Bok pack bracing for battle with compatriots in Scotland clash

There have been nine World Cups, starting with the first back in 1987 and ending with the most recent in Japan in 2019. Here we take a brief look at those tournaments:

The 1987 World Cup: Co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia

The first-ever Rugby World Cup was co-hosted jointly by New Zealand and Australia Down Under in 1987. Sixteen teams battled it out over 32 matches across the two countries. Seven of those teams were International Rugby Football Board (IRFB) members, namely New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France, with the other nine sides all invited.

The All Blacks were heavy favourites for the title and they duly stormed through the competition without breaking a sweat to win the inaugural trophy. The host nations both reached the semis, with France beating the Wallabies 30-24, while the All Blacks thumped Wales 49-6.

Wales then edged the Wallabies 22-21 to clinch third place, while the All Blacks sealed a dominant tournament with a 29-9 win over France in the final.

The Springboks did not feature at the 1987 event due to them still being banned from international sport because of Apartheid.

The 1991 World Cup: Co-hosted by England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France

The 1991 Rugby World Cup was the first to be held in the Northern Hemisphere, with five countries across the UK and Europe sharing the hosting duties. Again 16 teams took part playing 32 matches, with each pool given to a different country as England hosted pool one, Scotland and Ireland pool two, Wales pool three and France pool four, while the final was hosted at Twickenham. This World Cup was notable for some stunning pool phase upsets.

The 1987 third place finishers Wales did not reach the knockouts after they were stunned by Samoa, while 1987 quarterfinalists Fiji, despite being drawn in a weak pool, didn’t win a game as they were upset by both Canada and Romania, with Canada reaching the knockouts.

The final four games of the tournament were all very tight, low-scoring affairs as England edged Scotland 9-6 and Australia beat the All Blacks 16-6 in the semis. The All Blacks won the third place play-off 13-6 against Scotland, while Australia beat England 12-6 in the final. The Springboks again missed out due to Apartheid.

The 1995 World Cup: Hosted by South Africa

The 1995 World Cup was the first to be hosted by a single country, with South Africa given the rights after finally emerging from the Apartheid years and being welcomed back into international sport. It proved to be an amazing tournament and one that inspired and helped the country start to heal from many years of terrible oppression.

The standard 16 teams played 32 matches at nine venues across SA, with the final hosted at the iconic Ellis Park Stadium. It was a pretty straightforward World Cup with most of the favourites reaching the knockouts.

Samoa continued their good work reaching the quarterfinals for a second successive time. Highlight matches included Ireland edging Wales 24-23 to reach the quarters, the All Blacks smashing Japan 145-17, and the Springboks cruising through their pool unbeaten.  The semis saw the Boks beat France 19-15 in a hard fought match, while the All Blacks beat England 45-29 in a high scoring affair.

The final was then one for the ages as the Boks stunningly beat the All Blacks 15-12 thanks to a Joel Stransky drop goal in extra time, with an iconic moment seeing President Nelson Mandela walk out in a Bok jersey and cap to hand the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar.

1995 Springbok team
The triumphant Bok team of 1995. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Allsport/Getty Images

The 1999 World Cup: Hosted by Wales

The 1999 World Cup was the first to be hosted in the sports professional era, with Wales winning the rights to stage the quadrennial showpiece, although matches were also played in England, Ireland, Scotland and France.

The competition was expanded to 20 teams, with 41 matches being battled out and the final held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Due to the expansion, five pools of four teams each had to play the pool stage, which led to a convoluted system that saw quarterfinal play-offs being held for certain teams to reach the quarters.

The Springboks, All Blacks, France, Wales and Australia all automatically reached the quarters, while they were joined by England, Scotland and Argentina after their play-offs. The semis eventually saw Australia clinch a thrilling 27-21 extra time win over the Boks, while France upset the All Blacks 43-31.

The Boks took third place with a 22-18 win over the All Blacks, while the Wallabies became the first two time winners after a thumping 35-12 win over France in the final.

The 2003 World Cup: Hosted by Australia

The 2003 World Cup was meant to be co-hosted Down Under again but a contractual dispute between New Zealand Rugby and World Rugby led to all the games being shifted to Australia, and the final held at Stadium Australia in Sydney.

Twenty teams were again in action, but this time the format shifted back to a four pool system, with five teams in each and the top two progressing to the quarterfinals. The tournament pool stages went completely to script as Australia, Ireland, France, Scotland, England, South Africa, New Zealand and Wales all made the quarterfinals.

The Springboks, due to finishing second in their pool after losing to England, were comfortably beaten 29-9 by the All Blacks in the quarters. The other three quarterfinals were also emphatic with Australia beating Scotland 33-16, France thumping Ireland 43-21 and England beating Wales 28-17.

The semis also saw comfortable wins as the Wallabies cruised past the All Blacks 22-10 and England past France 24-7. This led to the tournament hosts facing the tournament favourites in the final, with England emerging as first time champs, edging an epic match 20-17 after extra time.

The 2007 World Cup: Hosted by France

The 2007 World Cup saw France pick up the hosting rights as 20 teams competed across 48 matches, with 44 held around 10 venues in the country, while four games were held in Cardiff, Wales and two in Edinburgh, Scotland. The same format was followed with four pools of five teams, with the top two reaching the knockouts, while the final was held at the Stade de France in Paris.

The pool stage saw two big upsets with Fiji qualifying for the quarters ahead of Wales, and Argentina enjoying a stunning pool phase to win all their games, beating both the hosts and Ireland to finish top of the group.

The semis were however contrasting affairs with England claiming a tight 14-9 win over France, while the Springboks destroyed Argentina 37-13. The South Americans did enjoy their best ever finish though as they beat France 34-10 to finish third.

The Boks went on to clinch a 15-6 win over England in the final to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time.

Jake White and Bryan Habana
Bok coach Jake White and player Bryan Habana after the 2007 final. Picture: Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images

The 2011 World Cup: Hosted by New Zealand

The 2011 World Cup in New Zealand was met with much enthusiasm by their fans as they pinned their hopes on their team finally winning a second World Cup after only triumphing in the inaugural edition back in 1987. Since then the All Blacks had played second fiddle to both the Springboks and Wallabies, who had triumphed twice each, while England had also won it once. 

As had become standard 20 teams competed in 48 games across 12 venues in the country, with the final held at Eden Park in Auckland.

The All Blacks immediately flexed their muscles in the pool stages, picking up a bonus point win in every game, with their lowest winning margin 20 points in their 37-17 win over France, who also progressed to the knockouts.

The Boks stumbled in the quarters, beaten 11-9 by the Wallabies, while the semis saw the All Blacks beat Australia 20-6 and France edge Wales 9-8. A low scoring, nerve wracking final then saw the All Blacks finally clinch their second title with an 8-7 win against the French, while Australia finished third, beating Wales 21-18.

The 2015 World Cup: Hosted by England

The 2015 World Cup was the first to be solely hosted in England after they were joint hosts in 1991 and also hosted a few games in 1999. In all, 20 teams played 48 games across 13 venues with the final held at Twickenham.

The pool stages saw a number of upsets that shook up the tournament. The biggest was arguably the Springboks losing to Japan in their opening match of the competition, going down 34-32 which at the time was considered the biggest upset in rugby history. Despite the early slip-up the Boks bounced back to finish top of the pool, with Scotland going through with them.

The other big surprise saw the hosts knocked out in the pool stage as they lost to both Australia and Wales who progressed to the quarters. The All Blacks, Argentina, Ireland and France rounded out the last eight.

For the first time in Rugby World Cup history no Northern Hemisphere team made it past the quarters, as the All Blacks beat the Boks 20-18 and Australia beat Argentina 29-15 in the semis. The All Blacks then became the first defending champs and first three-time winners, beating Australia 34-17 in the final while the Boks ended third.

The 2019 World Cup: Hosted by Japan

The 2019 World Cup was the first ever to be held on the Asian continent and first to be held outside of Tier 1 nations. The usual 20 teams were set to feature in 48 matches across 12 venues, but for the first time ever three games were cancelled due to the safety concerns over a typhoon, leading to 45 matches in the tournament.

The only upsets in the pool stage came in pool A where the hosts stunned everyone to cruise through unbeaten to finish top, beating Ireland and Scotland along the way and leading to Scotland not reaching the knockouts.

The All Blacks, Springboks, England, France, Wales and Australia all progressed. Despite being pre-tournament favourites the All Blacks were then stunned 19-7 by England in the semis, while the Boks edged Wales 19-16.

An amazing final then followed as the Boks trounced England 32-12 to clinch their third title and complete an amazing turnaround since Rassie Erasmus and his coaching staff had taken over the team in 2018.

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