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September 2011

Rugby takes centre stage
7th September 2011

And to think it nearly didn't happen. The Rugby World Cup, which kicks off on Friday when hosts New Zealand face Tonga, and whose opening weekend features England against Argentina and Wales against South Africa, is the third most popular sporting event on the planet. Less than three decades ago, it was more likely that pigs would fly than the tournament would get off the ground.

Rugby fans must thank the Lord that it did. David Lord was an Australian entrepreneur who, with a very pale imitation of the blueprint with which Kerry Packer had revolutionized the world of cricket, proposed a travelling 'circus' involving the world’s best rugby players in a series of fixtures in a number of venues around the globe.

It was irrelevant that Lord’s figures failed to stack up, or that his plans, at even the most cursory of glances, were unworkable. He threatened to take the control of the game from out of the hands of the unions.

For some of the game’s governing bodies, the only way to reassert control, and at the same time to retain the loyalty of the players, was to offer a competition that would be infinitely more prestigious, more popular and more all-encompassing than anything that could be put together by an individual entrepreneur. In short, a World Cup.

Even then, not everyone was convinced. Of the eight founder members of the International Rugby Football Board, both Ireland and Scotland voted against the concept when it was proposed at a board meeting in the spring of 1985. When rugby’s main broadcasting partner, the BBC proved itself to be as shortsighted as it was hidebound and dismissed the idea as unworkable, it was initially decided that the first World Cup - to be staged jointly in New Zealand and Australia in 1987 - should be a one-off.

It was a spectacular success. Even though the crowds were, by today’s standards, tiny and even though television audiences were, by virtue of the fact that matches were played in floodlight-free Antipodean stadiums in the middle of the European night, unremarkable, interest was huge.

That first tournament - with New Zealand beating France at Eden Park in Auckland - removed any doubts as to rugby’s potential as a television spectacle. Although the BBC did get over their initial misgivings to cover the tournament with the safe, reliable expertise that had become their trademark, their executives had completely overlooked both its significance in the development of the game and its potential to attract enormous audiences.

ITV - who have broadcast every tournament since and who will beam back every single minute of the action this year - had no such uncertainties. By bidding three times as much for the rights to broadcast the 1991 tournament, they blew the BBC out of the water and, as audiences have soared into the billions, have been cashing in ever since. And so have the players.

The first World Cup made professionalism likely.The second global tournament - played in Europe with its larger stadiums, burgeoning sponsorship and an ever expanding television audience - made it probable. The third, when All Black wing Jonah Lomu burst onto the world stage and former pariahs South Africa marked their return to the fold with a glorious success in their own backyard, and in front of iconic president Nelson Mandela made it inevitable. By the time the tournament was over, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation had stumped up a massive $555 million for the rights to broadcast rugby in the southern hemisphere for the next ten years. There was no going back - for rugby, or for the World Cup.

The 1999 competition - staged once again in Europe, with Australia beating France in the Final at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff - posted staggering increases in crowd figures, television audiences and profits. 2003 , of course, was England’s year and the triumph over Australia in Sydney provoked a huge spike both in interest and participation in the sport in this country. 2007 was significant in that it was the first time the World Cup had been staged in a country where English was not the first language.

The commercial success of the tournament - with South Africa beating England in the final - was such that it’s unlikely that the IRB will ever again consider staging the tournament in a country as small as New Zealand.The second World Cup to be staged in New Zealand will almost certainly be the last. In less than a quarter of a century, the competition has certainly come a very long way.