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Rugby World Cup

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Rugby World Cup
Webb Ellis Cup.jpg
The Rugby World Cup trophy, the Webb Ellis Cup
Sport Rugby union
Instituted 1987
Number of teams 20
Region Worldwide ( IRB)
Holders  New Zealand ( 2011)
Most titles  New Zealand (2 titles)
  Australia (2 titles)
  South Africa (2 titles)

The Rugby World Cup is a rugby union tournament contested every four years between the top international Test teams. The tournament was first held in 1987, when the tournament was co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia. The most recent tournament was held in New Zealand in 2011; with their national team — the All Blacks — winning after defeating France in the final.

The winners are awarded the William Webb Ellis Cup, named after William Webb Ellis, the Rugby School pupil who — according to a popular myth — invented rugby by picking up the ball during a football game. Three teams have won the trophy twice, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa; while England have won the tournament once.

The tournament is administered by the Rugby World Cup Limited, who are themselves wholly owned by the International Rugby Board (IRB) — the sport's international governing body. Sixteen teams were invited to participate in the inaugural tournament in 1987, however since 1999 twenty teams have taken part. Hosting of the 2015 World Cup has been awarded to England, while Japan will host the event in 2019.



Qualifying tournaments were introduced for the second tournament, where eight of the sixteen places were contested in a twenty-four-nation tournament. The inaugural World Cup in 1987, did not involve any qualifying process; instead, the 16 places were automatically filled by seven eligible International Rugby Football Board (IRFB, now, International Rugby Board) member nations, and the rest by invitation.

The current format allows for twelve of the twenty available positions to be filled by automatic qualification, as the teams who finish third or better in the group (pool) stages of the previous tournament enter its successor (where they will be seeded). The qualification system for the remaining eight places is region-based, with Europe and the Americas allocated two qualifying places each, Africa, Asia and Oceania one place each, with the last place determined by a play-off.

The previous format, used in 2003 and 2007, allowed for eight of the twenty available positions to be filled by automatic qualification, as the eight quarter finalists of the previous tournament enter its successor. The remaining twelve positions were filled by continental qualifying tournaments. Positions were filled by three teams from the Americas, one from Asia, one from Africa, three from Europe and two from Oceania. Another two places were allocated for repechage. The first repechage place was determined by a match between the runners-up from the Africa and Europe qualifying tournaments, with that winner then playing the Americas runner-up to determine the place. The second repechage position was determined between the runners-up from the Asia and Oceania qualifiers.


The opening game of the 2003 Rugby World Cup between Argentina and Australia at Telstra Stadium in Sydney

The current model features twenty nations competing over a month in the host nation(s). There are two stages, a group and a knock-out. Nations are divided into four pools, A through to D, of five nations each. The teams are seeded before the start of the tournament, with the seedings taken from the IRB World Rankings. The four highest-ranked teams are placed in pools A to D. The next four highest-ranked teams are then drawn into the pools at random, followed by the next four. The remaining positions in each pool are filled by the qualifiers.

Nations play four pool games, playing their respective pool members once each. A bonus points system is used during pool play. If two or more teams are level on points, a system of criteria is used to determine the higher ranked; the sixth and final criterion decides the higher rank through the official IRB World Rankings.

The winner (first position) and runner-up (second position) of each pool enter the knock-out stage. The knock-out stage consists of quarter- and semi-finals, and then the final. The winner of each pool is placed against a runner-up of a different pool in a quarter-final. The winner of each quarter-final goes on to the semi-finals, and the respective winners proceed to the final. Losers of the semi-finals contest for third place (called the 'Bronze Final').> Should a draw result during a match in the knock-out stages, the winner is determined through extra time. Should that fail, sudden death begins when the next team to score any points is declared the winner; as a last resort, a kicking competition is used.


Prior to the Rugby World Cup, there were only regional international rugby union competitions. One of the largest and oldest is the Six Nations Championship, which started in 1883 as the " Home Nations" championship, a tournament between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It became the Five Nations in 1910, when France joined the tournament. France did not participate from 1931 to 1939, during which period it reverted to a Home Nations championship. In 2000, Italy joined the competition, which became the Six Nations.

In the southern hemisphere, the equivalent competition is The Rugby Championship, involving Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It began in 1996 as the Tri Nations with the latter three countries participating; Argentina debuted in the renamed competition in 2012.

Rugby union was also played at the Summer Olympics, first appearing at the 1900 Paris games and subsequently at London in 1908, Antwerp in 1920, and Paris again in 1924. France won the first gold medal, then Australasia, with the last two being won by the United States. However rugby union was soon removed from the Summer Olympic program.

The idea of a Rugby World Cup had been suggested on numerous occasions going back to the 1950s, but met with opposition from most unions in the IRFB. The idea resurfaced several times in the early 1980s, with the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) and the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) independently writing to the IRFB seeking to conduct a World Cup tournament. In 1985, Australia, New Zealand and France were in favour of a world cup and, despite knowing that the international sports boycott of the apartheid regime would prevent their participation, the South African delegates also voted in favour, which was vital in tying the vote 8–8. When one English delegate followed by a Welsh delegate switched sides, the IRFB finally approved the inaugural cup, by 10 votes to 6.

The inaugural tournament, jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, was held in May and June 1987, with sixteen nations taking part. The All Blacks (New Zealand) became the first ever champions, defeating France twenty-nine points to nine in the final. The subsequent 1991 tournament was hosted by England, with matches being played throughout Britain, Ireland and France. This tournament also saw the abolition of invitation qualification, with a qualifying tournament being introduced which involved thirty-five nations. Australia won the second tournament, defeating England, twelve points to six in the final.

The 1995 tournament was hosted by South Africa and was the first in which South Africa participated, following the end of the international sports boycott. The tournament had a fairytale ending, as South Africa were crowned champions over the All Blacks, with then President Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey and matching baseball cap, presenting the trophy to South Africa's captain, Francois Pienaar. The tournament in 1999 was hosted by Wales with matches also being held throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. The tournament included a repechage system, alongside specific regional qualifying places, and an increase from sixteen to twenty participating nations. Australia claimed their second title, defeating France in the final.

The 2003 event was hosted by Australia, although it was originally intended to be held jointly with New Zealand. England emerged as champions defeating Australia in extra time. England's win was unique in that it broke the southern hemisphere's dominance in the event. Such was the celebration of England's victory, that an estimated 750,000 people gathered in central London to greet the team, making the day the largest sporting celebration of its kind ever in the United Kingdom.

The 2007 competition was hosted by France, with matches also being held in Wales and Scotland. South Africa claimed their second title by defeating defending champions England 15–6. The 2011 tournament was awarded to New Zealand in November 2005, ahead of bids from Japan and South Africa. The All Blacks reclaimed their place atop the rugby world with a narrow 8–7 win over France in the 2011 final.

Rugby World Cup Limited recommended to the IRB that the 2015 and 2019 World Cups be held in England and Japan, respectively, and in July 2009 it was announced that this proposal was adopted.


The Webb Ellis Cup is the prize presented to winners of the Rugby World Cup, named after William Webb Ellis. The trophy is also referred to simply as the Rugby World Cup. The trophy was chosen in 1987 as an appropriate cup for use in the competition, and was created in 1906 by Garrard's Crown Jewellers. The words 'International Rugby Board' and 'The Webb Ellis Cup' are engraved on the face of the cup. It stands thirty-eight centimetres high and is silver gilded in gold, and supported by two cast scroll handles, one with the head of a satyr, and the other a head of a nymph. In Australia the trophy is colloquially known as "Bill" — a reference to William Webb Ellis.

Selection of hosts

Tournaments are organised by Rugby World Cup Ltd (RWCL), which is itself owned by the IRB. The selection of host is decided by a vote of the IRB Council members. The voting procedure is managed by a team of independent auditors, and the voting kept secret. The allocation of a tournament to a host nation is now made five or six years prior to the commencement of the event, for example New Zealand were awarded the 2011 event in late 2005.

The tournament has been hosted by multiple nations. For example the 1987 tournament was co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. The IRB requires that the hosts must have a venue with a capacity of at least 60,000 spectators for the final. Host nations sometimes construct or upgrade stadia in preparation for the World Cup, such as Millennium Stadium – purpose built for the 1999 tournament – and Eden Park, upgraded for 2011. The first country outside of the traditional rugby nations of SANZAR or the Six Nations to be awarded the hosting rights was Japan, who will host the 2019 tournament.

Tournament growth


Year Host Total Attendance # Matches Avg Attendance % Change Max Possible Attendance  % of Capacity
1987  Australia
 New Zealand
604,500 32 20,156 N/A 1,006,350 60.1%
1991  England,  Wales,
 France,  Ireland
&  Scotland
1,007,760 32 31,493 +56% 1,212,800 78.6%
1995  South Africa 1,100,000 32 34,375 +9% 1,423,850 77.3%
1999  Wales 1,750,000 41 42,683 +24% 2,104,500 83.2%
2003  Australia 1,837,547 48 38,282 -10% 2,208,529 83.2%
2007  France 2,263,223 48 47,150 +23% 2,470,660 91.6%
2011  New Zealand 1,477,294 48 30,777 -35% 1,732,000 85.3%
2015  England -- 48 -- -- -- --
2019  Japan -- 48 -- -- -- --


  • The 1999 RWC average attendance exceeded even the average attendance (42,269) of the following FIFA World Cup in 2002.
  • The 2011 RWC in New Zealand saw the largest drop in attendance, averaging lower attendance than the 2011 Tri Nations competition (46,497).
  • England's Rugby Football Union has predicted the 2015 RWC will result in 2.8 million total attendance (57,000 average) for the 48 matches, a projected 85% increase over New Zealand 2011.


1987 1991 1995 1999 2003 2007 2011
Gate Receipts -- -- 15.1 55 80.5 147 97.8 (est.)
Broadcasting -- -- 18.8 44 60 82 --
Sponsorship -- -- 7.7 18 16 28 --


  • Revenue numbers listed are in millions of British pounds sterling.
  • Gate receipts are revenues for the host union. Broadcasting and sponsorship are revenues for the RWC.



Year Host(s) Final Bronze Final Number of teams
Winner Score Runner-up 3rd place Score 4th place
Australia Australia &
New Zealand New Zealand

New Zealand

England England,
France France,
Ireland Ireland
Scotland Scotland &
Wales Wales


New Zealand
South Africa South Africa
South Africa
( aet)

New Zealand

Wales Wales

South Africa
New Zealand
Australia Australia
( aet)


New Zealand
France France
South Africa

New Zealand New Zealand
New Zealand

England England 20
Japan Japan

Performance of nations

Map of nations' best results, excluding nations which unsuccessfully participated in qualifying tournaments.

In total, twenty-five nations have participated at the Rugby World Cup (excluding qualifying tournaments). Of the seven tournaments that have been held, all but one have been won by a national team from the southern hemisphere. New Zealand won the inaugural World Cup in 1987, with Australia winning in 1991, South Africa in 1995, Australia again in 1999, South Africa again in 2007, then New Zealand again in 2011. The southern hemisphere's dominance has been broken only in 2003, when England beat Australia in the final.

Thus far the only nations to host and win a tournament are New Zealand (1987 and 2011) and South Africa (1995). The performance of other host nations includes England (1991 final hosts) and Australia (2003 hosts) finishing runners-up. France (2007 hosts) finished fourth, while Wales (1999 hosts) failed to reach the semi-finals. Of the twenty-five nations that have ever participated in at least one tournament, twelve of them have never missed a tournament.

Team records

Team Champions Runners-up Third Fourth
 New Zealand 2 ( 1987, 2011) 1 ( 1995) 2 ( 1991, 2003) 1 ( 1999)
  Australia 2 ( 1991, 1999) 1 ( 2003) 1 ( 2011) 1 ( 1987)
  South Africa 2 ( 1995, 2007) 1 ( 1999)
 England 1 ( 2003) 2 ( 1991, 2007) 1 ( 1995)
  France 3 ( 1987, 1999, 2011) 1 ( 1995) 2 ( 2003, 2007)
 Wales 1 ( 1987) 1 ( 2011)
  Argentina 1 ( 2007)
 Scotland 1 ( 1991)

The following teams have reached the quarter-finals but never progressed beyond that stage:

  •  Ireland (five times)
  •   Fiji (twice)
  •   Samoa (twice)
  •   Canada (once)

Success rate

Team Appearances Won Win rate (Tournaments) Win rate (Matches)
South Africa 5 2 40% 86%
New Zealand 7 2 29% 88%
Australia 7 2 29% 85%
England 7 1 14% 73%

Records and statistics

The record for most overall points accumulated in the final stages is held by English player Jonny Wilkinson. Grant Fox of New Zealand holds the record for most points in one competition, with 126 in 1987; Jason Leonard of England holds the record for most appearances with 22 between 1991 and 2003. Simon Culhane holds the record for most points in a match by one player, 45, as well as the record for most conversions in a match, 20. Marc Ellis holds the record for most tries in a match, scoring six. New Zealander Jonah Lomu holds the records for overall tries in the final stages — 15 altogether from the 1995 and 1999 tournaments. Jonah Lomu and South African Bryan Habana share the most tries in one competition, with 8. The record for most penalties in a match is 8, held by Matt Burke, Gonzalo Quesada, Gavin Hastings and Thierry Lacroix, and the record for most penalties in a tournament, 31, is held by Gonzalo Quesada. Most drop goals in a match (5) is held by South Africa's Jannie de Beer. The most points scored in a game is 145 — by the All Blacks against Japan in 1995, with the widest margin being 142, held by Australia in a match against Namibia in 2003.

A total of 16 players have been sent off during the tournaments with Welsh lock Huw Richards being the first.

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