The forgotten story of the first-ever rugby ‘World Cup’
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In 1919, in the aftermath of WWI, a group of international rugby teams gathered in Britain for the King’s Cup, a tournament unprecedented in its time but little remembered today.
On October 31, the two finalists of the 2015 Rugby World Cup will take to the hallowed turf of Twickenham for what will be the finale of, officially at least, the 8th edition of a tournament that began in 1987. But on the same pitch on April 19, 1919 – some 96 years ago – military teams representing New Zealand and Great Britain faced off in the final of what, for all intents and purposes, was a World Cup in all but name: the King’s Cup.
Along with the two finalists, military teams from Canada, Australia and South Africa took part, as well as an RAF side made up of players from various nations. It was a gathering of international rugby talent that had never been seen before.
“Never before had so many rugby players from all the rugby nations of the world been in the same place,” says Stephen Cooper, author of “After the Final Whistle”, a book on the tournament and rugby during the First World War. Before the conflict, there had been few international tournaments because of the distances involved and the cost of travel, says Cooper.
The war’s heavy toll on rugby
But bringing these teams together after the Great War was also a remarkable feat. The First World War had changed the face of the world and that included sport, and rugby. Nearly 140 internationals had paid the ultimate price between 1914-18. Scotland alone lost 31 members of its international squad, the most of any rugby-playing nation.
“It's acknowledged that some 10 percent of all British combatants were killed. However, anecdotal evidence from photographs and teams that have researched their members suggests that rugby paid a higher price, with between 30-35 percent (of players) being killed,” says Cooper. He puts this high rate of slaughter down to the typical background of rugby players and the spirit the sport had instilled in them.
“Rugby players were fit, physically strong, accustomed to teamwork and discipline and often educated members of the middle-class. They were natural leaders as officers and when the regular army was all but wiped out in 1914 they found themselves in early command at the front.”
But rugby was not completely forgotten about in the trenches. Playing the occasional game helped soldiers stay fit and distract them from the horrors of war.
“After the mutinies in the French army, it was realised that sport and rugby had a role to play in troop morale,” says Cooper.
Matches were organised just a few miles back from the front. One saw the England captain Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, the scorer of four tries in a match against France in 1914 shortly before the outbreak of war, play his last ever match among a group of fellow internationals at Pont de Nieppe in northern France. Just one month later, he was killed by a sniper in Ploegsteert, Belgium.
After the war ended, survivors from the four corners of the British Empire found themselves stuck in Europe for several months as they waited to be transported home. It was the perfect opportunity to hold a major international sports tournament and celebrate a military victory at the same time: the King’s Cup was born.
“King George V knew the political value of sport as a statement and was very keen to celebrate the achievements of the Empire’s troops as well as make a statement about keeping the Empire together in sporting and political union,” says Cooper. For the Commonwealth countries, meanwhile, the King’s Cup was ”the first sporting expression of [their] new nationhood, playing on equal or superior terms to the British”.
The fact that the British team was officially billed as “the Mother Country” added to the distinctly Empire-centric feel of the tournament, as did the fact that there was one notable absentee among the teams taking part – France.
The country had been participating in the Five Nations tournament since 1910, though had yet to emerge as a major force in world rugby and had only won one international before the start of the war.
Nevertheless, France’s omission also had something to do with politics, says Cooper.
“The British Army organisers thought of this as a Military and Dominions event and probably simply did not include France.”
But that oversight was rectified at the end of the tournament, with the victor going on to have a showdown with France, also at Twickenham.
‘Extraordinary physical prowess’
The tournament consisted of round-robin format, with the two top ranked teams taking each other on in the final. A total of 15 games were held at various locations in England, Wales and Scotland, with each drawing thousands of fans eager for a chance to enjoy a sporting spectacle after the long, hard years of the war, as well as show their appreciation for the soldiers who had fought for the Empire.
New Zealand and Great Britain came out on top, setting up a momentous final pitting the colonial master against its antipodean dominion. It was a closely fought contest but in the end the “Mother Country” was vanquished 9-3. The victorious Kiwis were handed the cup by King George V himself.
They went on to defeat the French 20-3 at Twickenham and then again in the return match in Paris in May that year, winning 16-10.
The French newspaper La Vie au Grand Air proclaimed the incredible show of force put on by the New Zealand side in their triumphs of that year.
“From an animal point of view, this superiority of the English colonials, if I dare say it, was seen during the war, when under the khaki outfits of the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), their uniformly beautiful muscle structure and their extraordinary physical prowess revealed itself,” it declared.
But despite the success of the competition, no other tournament would bring together the best international teams from the northern and southern hemispheres until the birth of the modern rugby world cup in 1987, with the sport remaining amateur for decades to come.
“Only a major world crisis like the war would provide a reason to have all the nations conveniently in one place. As an amateur sport, it would have been impossible for players to have given up 3-4 months of work to travel to play again,” says Cooper.
“I also suspect that the British rugby authorities feared that the major superpowers like South Africa and New Zealand would win too easily, as they had proved in their tours, but I cannot prove that!”
When rugby did finally get around to hosting another global tournament in 1987, it was, fittingly, once again New Zealand that were crowned world champions, 68 years after their King’s Cup triumph.