The William Webb Ellis Trophy – An in-depth look at the history of the Rugby World Cup


Argentina’s shock victory (17-12) over hosts France at the Stade de France in Paris, September 7 2007, marked the opening of the sixth IRB Rugby World Cup. It also heralded the twenty-year anniversary of the tournament’s birth in 1987, when the concept for an international competition in which rugby union teams from across the globe would compete for one prize, was finally realised.

Over the years, the Rugby World Cup (RWC) has continually developed in stature. The competition has become a modern day sporting classic. From beginning as an amateur celebration of the sport, the RWC has become the third largest international sports event, trailing only the Football World Cup and Olympic Games. Every four years, audiences watching their television screens and fans inside the various stadia are able to watch the best players on the planet showcase their rugby skills in high-octane drama.

Thirty men – fifteen on each side – take to the field to spill their blood and guts: to show national pride. But most importantly, they compete for the bragging rights of being the best rugby country in the world, and for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy.

Problems setting up

However, establishing the creation of such a tournament initially proved unsuccessful. The International Rugby Board (IRB) had rejected the idea of a Rugby World Cup in 1968. Northern hemisphere sides, including England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were also opposed to such a proposal.

It is thought that the earliest suggestions for creating the RWC had come courtesy of Australian Harold Tolhurst – who later became a Test referee – in the late 1950s. Indeed the southern hemisphere – Australia in particular – would play a major role in establishing the now historic competition.

After the IRB’s refusal of 1968, Australian Rugby Union president, Bill McLaughlin, in 1979 recommended a Rugby World Cup occur in 1988. In 1982, Neil Durden-Smith, an Englishman who had been working in New Zealand, hinted at a Rugby World Cup to be played in Great Britain in 1985 or 1986.

Another IRB discussion in March 1983 saw another rejection for a RWC tournament. Reasons included any such championship becoming ‘too commercial’.

This would not deter either Australia or New Zealand from applying to be hosts for a first ever rugby union world cup. Yet more IRB talks in Paris, March 1985, would finally lead to a vote on the matter.

Australia, New Zealand and France had always been in favour of creating a worldwide rugby competition. Key votes from South Africa (though banned from the international sporting arena) plus a change of heart from England and then Wales meant that the Rugby World Cup was approved and Australia with New Zealand would be joint hosts for the debut RWC in 1987, with the tournament being staged every four years.

Naming rugby union’s ultimate goal was simple. It would be known as the William Webb Ellis trophy in recognition of the perceived inventor of the game. Born in Manchester on November 24 1806, a young William Webb Ellis is said to have moved to the English town of Rugby with his mother, following the death of his father.

Traditional stories believe William Webb Ellis had a renowned dislike for the rules of football, and so picked up the ball and ran with it. Whether the claim is true or just myth is up for debate. Yet with dates set in place and a prize to play for, the inaugural Rugby World Cup was ready to kick-off.

1987 and 1991 – the early years

In 1987, sixteen countries were invited to compete and become the first individual winner of the William Webb Ellis IRB Rugby World Cup, 116 years after the first ever rugby union Test match.

They were: Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, Fiji, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Romania, Scotland, Tonga, USA, Wales and Zimbabwe.

A half-empty Eden Park stadium in Auckland witnessed the premiere RWC match between New Zealand and Italy, ending in a thumping All Black victory (70-6). All in all, due to the semi-professional nature of the game at the time, the World Cup was not really competitive.

With only Australia, France and New Zealand having a realistic chance of winning the tournament, the All Blacks eased to victory 29-9 against the French in Auckland to become the inaugural winners of the William Webb Ellis trophy.

Star names to arise would include David Campese, Sean Fitzpatrick, John Kirwan and Serge Blanco. Yet despite a lack of competitive intensity, the 1987 Rugby World Cup would act as stepping-stone for things to come.

Four years on in 1991, hosts England would meet Australia in the final at Twickenham. Again the tournament was not hugely competitive though its allure was rapidly growing. Shocks would also occur – mainly Wales falling victim to Western Samoa and bowing out at the pool stages.

Despite the encouragement of a 60,000 crowd, England would suffer a narrow 12-6 loss to the men in gold – meaning the two countries who had played major roles in creating the Rugby World Cup (Australia & New Zealand) had lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy on the first two occasions.

1995 Springbok success

Rugby World Cup history was made in 1995 when South Africa played hosts, with the tournament probably producing the most iconic moment / image in rugby union to this very day. The Springboks would be playing in their first RWC following a ban from all international sports due to the political scene in the country – where black South African citizens were in effect suffering racial abuse in preference to their white counterparts.

It would be the last RWC tournament before the game of rugby union turned fully professional on 27th August 1995.

1995 was also the catalyst for producing rugby’s first ever global superstar in the form of New Zealander, Jonah Lomu. Standing at 6ft 5 and approximately 16 stone at least, the colossus wing famously scored four tries in a crushing semi-final win over helpless England. One of the tries Lomu scored remains in rugby folklore as he literally trampled over his opposite wing, Rory Underwood, before crossing the line.

The victory helped set up an all southern-hemisphere clash between the All Blacks and hosts South Africa. In a tense and dramatic final that went to extra time, Joel Stransky’s drop-goal meant a Springbok success of 15-12. Iconic memories of Nelson Mandela presenting the William Webb Ellis trophy to winning captain, Francois Pienaar, would be created.

The occasion is seen as a pivotal moment in the healing of rifts in the newly branded "Rainbow Nation".

1999 and 2003: Australian and English glory

1999 saw the rugby goldfish bowl of Wales play host with their newly constructed national Millennium Stadium. The tournament – with pool games also played across England, France, Ireland and Scotland – would be the first after the game of rugby union turned professional.

The competition had been expanded to 20 entrants who had qualified from 65 unions in over 133 qualifying matches. It attracted over 1.7million fans to the various arenas, with over 3billion watching from their homes

History was again made as Australia became the first nation to be crowned world champions for the second time, captain John Eales lifting the trophy. In doing so he joined his fellow Australian’s Tim Horan, Jason Little, Phil Kearns and Dan Crowley as the first players to win two Rugby World Cup’s. However their 35-12 victory over France paled in comparison to the French’s epic semi-final against New Zealand – considered by many experts as the best ever game in RWC.

Seemingly out of contention at half-time, France staged a memorable comeback to secure a 43-31 victory and a final berth against the Australians. The win extended New Zealand’s (now thought of as the best rugby union Test side) wait for World Cup glory for another four years.

Northern hemisphere teams had been starved of real success in World Cups until 2003. With the tournament now becoming even bigger than ever (commercially, in competitiveness and prestige) England would gain revenge against hosts Australia for their 1991 final anguish.

The star of the show would be England’s Jonny Wilkinson – who had obviously learnt lessons from South Africa’s Jannie De Beer during England’s last RWC campaign. With seconds on the clock in extra-time, Wilkinson – whose kicking had been perfection itself throughout the competition – landed a drop-goal to seal a famous 20-17 victory for the English.

In doing so, England had finally ended southern hemisphere domination and became the first northern hemisphere team to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy. They had also prevented Australia from becoming the first nation to successfully defend a World Cup.

France RWC 2007 and the future

Finally, last September witnessed France host the sixth IRB Rugby World Cup. In arguably the best World Cup to date, expectation was high from the French crowd for a triumph on home soil.

Their campaign would, however, start in the worst possible fashion on the opening night, when France succumbed to a shock 17-12 loss to the Pumas of Argentina. Despite another famous win over the All Blacks – who failed to get beyond the quarter-finals for the first time in their history – the hosts would again slump to England in a RWC semi-final.

Failure also hit both Ireland and Wales – who failed to get past the group stages – Wales losing an epic pool match to islanders Fiji.

England, now defending champions, had been more than just ordinary en route to the knockout stages of the tournament. Yet after grinding past Australia and France, they would meet South Africa in Paris, bidding to do what Australia could not do against them and defend their title.

Yet South Africa who had thrashed the English, whitewashing them 36-0 in the pool stages, were victorious once more. Though star winger, Brian Habana, was kept quiet this time round, the boot of full-back, Percy Montgomery, guided the Springboks to a 15-6 win and a second World Cup triumph.

The next RWC heads back to where it all began – New Zealand. Bookmakers are again stating that surely the All Blacks will end their 20-year World Cup voodoo on home soil. Whatever the outcome, as in previous years, the 2011 Rugby World Cup promises to be the biggest and best yet.


  • 1987 – New Zealand 29-9 France (runners-up); 3rd Wales and 4th Australia
  • 1991 – Australia 12-6 England (runners-up); 3rd New Zealand and 4th Scotland
  • 1995 – South Africa 15-12 New Zealand aet (runners-up); 3rd France and 4th England
  • 1999 – Australia 35-12 France (runners-up); 3rd South Africa and 4th New Zealand
  • 2003 – England 20-17 Australia aet (runners-up); 3rd New Zealand and 4th France
  • 2007 – South Africa 15-6 England (runners-up); 3rd Argentina and 4th France


Most RWC Points

  • Gavin Hastings (Scotland): 227 points
  • Michael Lynagh (Australia): 195 points
  • Jonny Wilkinson (England): 182 points
  • Grant Fox (New Zealand): 170 points
  • Andrew Merthens (New Zealand): 163 points
  • Gonzalo Quesada (Argentina): 135 points
  • Matt Burke (Australia): 125 points
  • Thierry Lacroix (France): 124 points
  • Gareth Rees (Canada) 120 points
  • Frederic Michalak (France) 103 points

Most RWC Tries

  • Jonah Lomu (New Zealand): 15 tries
  • Rory Underwood (England): 11 tries
  • David Campese (Australia): 10 tries
  • Brian Lima (Samoa): 10 tries
  • Gavin Hastings (Scotland): 9 tries