The Rugby World Cup is a quadrennial tournament staged between the top professional men’s teams worldwide. The first competition took place in 1987 with Australia and New Zealand serving as co-hosts, and with 16 teams taking part in a battle to win the Webb Ellis Cup. This trophy is named after William Webb Ellis, the purported founder of rugby while a student at the aptly named Rugby School, a previously all-boys (now co-ed) day and boarding school in England.
Naturally, the two hosts, Australia and New Zealand automatically were given a spot, and even if they were not hosting, they would have been given a berth because they have been International Rugby Football Board (IRFB) members since 1949. Five additional sports were granted to additional IRFB members, so the following teams got a place at the inaugural tournament: England, France, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. South Africa, who also joined the IRFB in 1949 alongside Australia and New Zealand technically was eligible for a spot but was snubbed due to their apartheid policies.
Interestingly, unlike other Rugby World Cups that would follow, the first edition of this quadrennial tournament did not have a qualification process for the other teams. Rather, the remaining nine competitors - Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Italy, Japan, Romania, Tonga, USA, and Zimbabwe – were all simply issued invites, which naturally raised some eyebrows as some teams with better records ended up being excluded.
Not surprisingly, due to teams not being picked based on their overall performance record, some of the matches ended up being rather lopsided instead of balanced affairs, with the IRFB outfits cruising to victory on several occasions. All three medal spots ended up going to IRFB teams, with New Zealand taking home the gold, France the runners-up, and Wales the consolation third prize.
32 games were played in total. New Zealand hosted 20, including the final, while Australia hosted 12, including both semi-finals. Unlike football, where quartets are referred to as “groups”, rugby uses the term “pools”, so the early stage matches are called “pool stage matches” instead of “group stage matches”.
During the tournament, the teams are split into four pools, and each team plays each other once. The winner and the runner-up of each pool get to advance to the knock-out rounds, which are the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals. Just like at the World Cup in football, there is a third-place consolation match between the two losers of the semi-finals for a chance to win a bronze medal.
Save for the 1991 tournament, which had a total of five co-hosts (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France), subsequent Rugby World Cups have generally shifted back to a one-host format. Starting in 1991, the process for securing a spot at the coveted competition began to change. The invitation concept was thrown out in favor of a qualifying process; however, eight teams still automatically qualified. The other eight teams now had to go through a 25-country qualifying competition to earn a ticket. By 1995, this competition had increased to 43 teams.
The Rugby World Cup has continued to dramatically change and evolve as the competition continues to grow in popularity worldwide. Over the years, the tournament has expanded from 16 to 20 teams, with regions like Asia and the Americas seeing more teams featuring in qualifying rounds due to the increased growth in talent with their national teams. This was demonstrated at the 2007 Rugby World Cup when Argentina made history as the first team from the Americas to clinch a medal by beating France in the third-place match.
Despite being excluded from the first two Rugby World Cups because of their apartheid policies, South Africa has become one of the most successful sides in this tournament to date. Another team that is also quite decorated is New Zealand, with the famous All-Blacks’ matches being live-streamed and watched by fans both locally and around the world during each tournament. Nipping at their heels in terms of titles won is Australia and hoping to break into the ranks of the top tier rugby teams is none other than England, who have been runners-up on multiple occasions, but have not gotten to lift the trophy as often as much as they would have liked just yet.
A women's competition, the Women's Rugby World Cup, was created in 1991 and was hosted by Wales, with the United States winning the first-ever title. Since then, however, New Zealand has quickly emerged as the undisputed top side in the women's game.
With a significant global following, fans have a plethora of options to stay on top of the action during the Rugby World Cup. Live broadcasts on TV, radio, and online streaming are especially popular for fans in markets that rugby has a massive following, with on-demand access being available in many international markets including the UK, Australia, Japan, and South Africa.