Philip Barker

Next week, New Zealand begin their Rugby World Cup defence in Japan. The All Blacks have won the William Webb Ellis trophy three times since its inception in 1987, and are renowned throughout the world as the kings of rugby union.

A New Zealand captain also lifted a trophy 100 years ago, after the first rugby union tournament to bring together teams from different continents.

When war broke out in the European summer of 1914, organised sport initially continued as normal. As troops marched off to the front, attitudes changed and sportsmen were encouraged to enlist in "the greater game". Rugby union embraced the patriotic fervour.

"This is not the time to play games," Lord Roberts said. His words were even used on recruiting posters which insisted: 'RUGBY UNION FOOTBALLERS ARE DOING THEIR DUTY', over 90 per cent have enlisted."

The war soon took a terrible toll on sports stars from all nations. Twenty-four French internationals were killed in action, and half of the players from the 1914 French Cup quarter-final between Bayonne and Perpignan died in the fighting.

Dave Gallaher, skipper of the legendary New Zealand team which toured Europe in 1905-1906, died in 1917 at Passchendaele. Another casualty was the England international Edgar Mobbs, who led a battalion of rugby players.

A training battalion at the Queens Club for the rugby match between the Australian and London Australians in 1916 ©Getty Images
A training battalion at the Queens Club for the rugby match between the Australian and London Australians in 1916 ©Getty Images

Rugby was played behind the lines by ad hoc teams as a morale booster. The Northumberland Fusiliers recorded that "the rugger and soccer teams are now quite an institution and every Sunday afternoon sees an inter-company match or a match with a local battalion".

As the war continued, sport on the home front was acceptable if it raised funds for service charities.

Even before hostilities officially ended on November 11, there was a rugby match in which the "...headquarters of New Zealand defeated their Australian counterparts 6-0. The game was chiefly a struggle between the packs".

Finally the war came to an end. Demobilisation was needed for many thousands of troops stationed in Europe. This took time and sporting competitions were arranged in the meantime. Many were delighted to see the New Zealand forces rugby team embarking on a tour of the British Isles in early 1919.

A letter to The Times newspaper in London, signed by "A headmaster", extolled the contribution of rugby players to the war. "The distinctions that were won fell to those who had played in the 'XV' because rugby football is a game that above all others calls for instantaneity of decisions."

Plans were put in motion to arrange an inter-forces tournament. Sir Clive Liddell of the Army Rugby Union and General Charles Harrington, chief of staff to war leader General Haig, were important personalities in arranging a tournament.

"The King [George V], who is taking a great interest in the development of army sport, will present a challenge cup to the winning team," said a bulletin, reproduced in many newspapers.

Teams drawn from the military forces of New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa were all invited to participate. The home team was styled "Mother Country". They were awarded a scarlet cap with gold, embroidered with the initials GR "George Rex" (Rex being the Latin word for king). There was also a team drawn from the Royal Air Force. This included Wavell Wakefield, a man who became a prominent player and administrator in rugby.

King George V, left, was very involved with the Kings Cup. Here he is alongside US President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 ©Getty Images
King George V, left, was very involved with the Kings Cup. Here he is alongside US President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 ©Getty Images

The tournament was arranged as a round-robin league in which each team played every other.

The first match was played at Swansea's St Helen’s Ground. New Zealand beat the RAF, who lost three players to a bout of influenza.

The Mother Country beat Australia in a closely-fought match at Leicester, but lost in windy conditions to New Zealand at Inverleith, a suburb of Edinburgh.

The crowd, swelled by servicemen, topped 20,000.

"I never doubted the ability of our team to win but the gale made things tricky," said New Zealand captain Jimmy Ryan.

The home team included players from the home British unions, including Reverend William Havard, a Welsh international who had served as a military chaplain with the rank of Captain. He had been mentioned in despatches and was awarded the military cross. At full-back was Major Barry Cumberledge, who went on to win eight England caps and also played first-class cricket.

At Bradford in the north of England, Australia unexpectedly beat the All Blacks. The final table meant a play-off match at Twickenham was needed to decide the overall destiny of the Kings Cup.

New Zealand faced the "Mother Country" at Twickenham. King George V and Prince Albert both took their places in the Royal Box and the crowd was swelled by thousands of New Zealand soldiers. They were delighted to see their team win 9-3.

"The New Zealand superiority surprised everybody. They mastered the home team in every way," said a report by the Australia New Zealand Cable Association.

"The forwards played a magnificent game, repeatedly storming the English line," said newspaper reports.

"Victory aroused as much enthusiasm amongst the Australians as the New Zealanders."

The home crowd may have consoled themselves by taking advantage of the "teas provided on the ground".

There was one final match for the "winners of the championship". This was against the French Army at Twickenham a week later.

Advance tickets were on sale ranging from three to five shillings.

They saw a convincing victory for New Zealand. The match was again watched by King George V, who presented the cup to Jimmy Ryan.

The victorious team were enthusiastic about the competition. "I admired the clean sporting spirit in which the competition was played," said forward Dick Fogarty. 

But they were critical of the Northern Hemisphere officials. 

"The referees order far too many scrums which tend to slow the game down considerably," said Fogarty.

Alf West, another forward, made this damning observation: "Most of the referees are slower and older than the officials in New Zealand."

Intimidating and powerful. But can the All Blacks win a third successive World Cup? ©Getty Images
Intimidating and powerful. But can the All Blacks win a third successive World Cup? ©Getty Images

In Yokohama next week, New Zealand's rivalry with South Africa will continue in this year's World Cup, a century after the first meetings at the Kings Cup. In 1919 there was no tri-series, so this tournament had seen Southern Hemisphere nations meet for the first time.

"South Africa gave us the hardest game," admitted Billy Fea, a New Zealander who became a doctor.

New Zealand, Australia and South Africa were noticeable by their absence at the other international tournament held in 1919. This was a rugby competition held in France as part of the Inter Allied Games.

The official report noted sadly that, "England, the home of rugby and the British Dominions which have given the game some of its most-noted exponents, did not send entries."

Instead, the three teams taking part were France, the United States and Romania.

France and the US both opened with victories against Romania.

"The superior weight and physical condition of the Americans counted in their favour," said the official report.

In the decider, the French beat the US 8-3 to win the tournament.

Rugby union was also included in the next two Olympic Games, and the same three teams contested the medals.

New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the four home unions did not take part. This was partly because they considered rugby union a "winter" sport, and each time the Olympic tournament was scheduled for the summer months in Northern Europe. In 1924, the US won the gold medal and their success was recalled when rugby sevens was introduced at the Olympics.

The events of that 1919 Kings Cup remain relatively unknown, although historians Howard Evans and Phil Atkinson painstakingly reconstructed the details of a tournament they believed, with some justification, could be regarded as the first "World Cup".

It took until the 1980s for the international rugby authorities to grasp the nettle of an official tournament. It proved a success from the start and organisers now claim that after the Olympics and the men's FIFA World Cup, it is the next biggest global sporting event.