Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

1987: Long road to global rugby supremacy

Winning the inaugural World Cup looked a long way off during the All Blacks' tough 1986 series in France.
Photo / AFP
Winning the inaugural World Cup looked a long way off during the All Blacks' tough 1986 series in France. Photo / AFP

It was a day of camaraderie, fine dining, TGV travel and rugby persuasion.

When members of the International Rugby Board returned to Paris from their high-speed train trip to sample Lyon's epicurean delights, they gathered for a formal vote on a global rugby tournament.

On that day - March 20, 1985 - the eight members of the IRB decided by a 6-2 margin to hold a World Cup in New Zealand and Australia two years later.

New Zealand, Australia, England, Wales, France and South Africa agreed while Ireland and Scotland were the dissenting countries.

Repeated resistance to the idea had been pared away as the IRB collected information on a variety of plans to start professional circus troupes.

A year earlier, New Zealand and Australia had each suggested concepts about a World Cup. The IRB denounced the schemes because it wanted to retain the traditional fixture lists.

New Zealand and Australia pushed on, setting their targets for a 1987 start and avoiding other global events like the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

It became known as the Nick and Dick show, with Australian Nick Shehadie and New Zealander Dick Littlejohn at the forefront of presentations.

They struggled to persuade the Home Nations or even get fair hearings, but the growing and real threat of David Lord's rebel venture succeeding, brought a reluctant change.

The eight founder IRB nations were invited to the initial World Cup, though South Africa declined because they were forbidden entry to the host countries, and Zimbabwe were invited to take their place.

Others on the list were Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Italy, Japan, Romania, Tonga and the USSR, who demurred and were replaced by the United States.

The timetable was tight.

West Nally was appointed to control the tournament marketing after putting forward a US$5 million guarantee while New Zealand and Australia gained the gate money and a share of the commercial income.

Littlejohn only clinched a US$3.25 million sponsorship deal with communications company KDD in Japan in the month leading into the event, alongside other deals with Rank Xerox, Steinlager and Mazda.

Former showbiz personality and Auckland chief executive Lew Pryme, with choreographer Lynette Perry, organised the opening ceremony on just three weeks' notice.

Tickets were set from $1 to $44 in a tournament which claimed 600,000 spectators, was watched on television by 300 million people in 17 countries and made the IRB a $3 million profit.

The tournament was scheduled for a Friday, May 22 start at Eden Park and a June 20 conclusion at the same venue, with three pools of four teams playing in New Zealand and the other four sides playing in Australia.

The Wallabies and France were favoured to do well in the tournament, especially after their work against the All Blacks the year before.

The rebel Cavaliers' tour to South Africa in 1986 had split the nation's loyalties and rugby resources. It caused serious divisions in the game and when those tourists returned they were banned for two tests, forcing coach Brian Lochore to pick his Baby Blacks.

They beat France in a one-off test but when the Wallabies defeated the youngsters then the mix-and-match mob to claim a test series in New Zealand for the first time in 37 years, there was huge concern.

That grew when the All Blacks were battered and beaten 16-3 in Nantes by France at the end of the year. Winning the inaugural World Cup looked a long way off.

The Wallabies and their caustic coach Alan Jones were optimistic, confident their success against the All Blacks and attention to skills and conditioning would serve them strongly.

Jones was in vocal overdrive as he lauded the 1986 series win as bigger than the Grand Slam triumph two years earlier.

"Unreal, fantastic, phenomenal," he intoned. "Bigger than Quo Vadis, bigger than anything."

France had shown they could beat anyone, but there were questions about whether they could sustain that form for an entire tournament.

The Irish, Scots and Welsh squads filled the same plane en route to New Zealand, all with uncertain form and almost wide-eyed confusion about the tournament and their role in it.

England were whisked off to Australia. While they had upped their coaching crew and intensified their efforts, they were still a serious play-and-pint mob, men who loved the game and their social time.

Fiji were touted as a team who would bring high excitement but lacked the setpiece solidity to nail a tournament.

They showed remarkable resilience to reach New Zealand just days after Colonel Rabuka's coup and even more strength during the tournament.

Meanwhile New Zealand pondered their nation's chances. The All Blacks had not played for six months since being smashed at Nantes.

Bullish provincial coaches Alex Wyllie and John Hart were picked for the coaching panel in place of Colin Meads and Tiny Hill as Lochore guided their combined energy in the same direction. The trio had experience, rugby savvy, new ideas and skill. They laid down their strategies from fitness to gameplans and made their selections.

Scotsman Jim Blair was picked to bring his rugbycentric fitness plans to bear; his methods laid a strong foundation for the side's eventual triumph.

Strong setpiece work was non-negotiable, the loose forwards were multiskilled, the backs had an array of dynamic skills and Grant Fox was a master goalkicker. Eight recent players, including captain Jock Hobbs, who had fallen to repeated concussions, were overlooked. Hobbs' replacement, Andy Dalton, fell to injury days before the tournament.

Eventually IRB delegate John Kendall-Carpenter opened the event to reveal the 108 ounces of goldplated silver trophy, known as the Webb Ellis Cup. Today, it is the quadrennial symbol of global rugby supremacy.

1987
Video: Great World Cup moments - 1987
In the beginning: Remembering our last victory drink
How we won: The All Blacks - Getting the nation back into black
Setting the scene: Long road to global rugby supremacy
A sending off that made Wallaby history
All Black memories: 'Dawn of a new era'
Tournament star: Michael Jones - Keeping up with Jones
Tournament action: Fans' lukewarm start fast turned to fervour

- NZ Herald

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