Rugby League World Cup’s 50 historic highlights – Part One

The Rugby League World Cup is about to be staged for the 16th time in 68 years and, not untypically of the sport, its story is most unusual.

There have been eight trophies, the most famous of which went missing for twenty years.

Gaps between World Cup Finals have ranged from two years to eleven.

There hasn’t always been a final. Some World Cups were played over three weeks, although two of them went on for three years.

Participation numbers have ranged from four teams to sixteen. Great Britain entered sometimes; on other occasions it’s been England.

The Australians have largely dominated, but the British, the Kiwis, the French and others have all had moments to celebrate, as RICHARD de la RIVIERE examines in this chronological list of the 50 most famous moments of the Rugby League World Cup, starting with the first 25.

1953: The conception of the World Cup

The idea of a Rugby League World Cup came from across the Channel. Still buoyant at France winning a series against the Australians in 1951, Paul Barrière, the boss of the Federation Francaise de Jeu à Treize (French authorities forbade them from using the word ‘rugby’), successfully persuaded his English counterparts of the merits of such a competition. 

It was tougher to convince Australia and New Zealand, but they succeeded, and the first World Cup was scheduled for 1954. The tournament would be a triumph and a second World Cup was pencilled in for 1957. A legend was born.

1954: The World Cup is underway

The first World Cup match was played on Saturday 30 October at the Parc des Princes in Paris between France and New Zealand. Captained by the legendary Puig-Aubert, the hosts triumphed 22-13. Puig kicked the first points, although the honour of scoring the World Cup’s first try befell the Kiwi winger Jim Edwards.

France hit back with tries by Raymond Constrastin, Guy Delaye, Joseph Crespo and Jean Audobert. Cyril Eastlake, the Kiwi captain, and Ron McKay also crossed for the tourists. 

Every match was played in a major city – Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Nantes and Bordeaux – and all before a five-figure crowds.

1954: GB’s World Cup debut

Most of the 1954 Lions squad elected to miss the first World Cup, but, under the captaincy of Scotsman Dave Valentine, they showed in their opening match against Australia in Lyon that they would be a force, despite some leading players having opted out of the tournament.

Stand-off Gordon Brown and centre Phil Jackson, who passed away in 2022, each scored two tries. Wingers Frank Kitchen and David Rose, another Scot, also crossed. Harry Wells (two) and Ken Kearney touched down for the outclassed Green and Golds.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” reflected Valentine.

“I wonder how some of the chaps back home are feeling now.”

1954: GB win the first World Cup

It is so typical of Rugby League that one of the greatest occasions in its history was staged by accident, not design.

The team that topped the four-team table would be crowned the winner, but Great Britain and France each got five points. Instead of awarding the trophy to Great Britain on points difference, a final was arranged at just two days’ notice. And what an inspired decision it proved to be!

A crowd of 30,368 flocked to the Parc des Princes in Paris to witness Great Britain win 16-12, with tries by Gordon Brown (two), Gerry Helme and David Rose.

1957: Brian Carlson sacked

Australiams have occasionally been known to adopt an insular attitude to international Rugby League, and there is no better example than their 1957 fullback, Brian Carlson being sacked by his club for taking part. 

Having not made the 1954 final, the Aussies were determined to make amends when they hosted in 1957 – a fine way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the sport down under.

But Queensland side Blackall refused to allow their captain-coach Carlson to take part. He ignored them, so they sacked him! Carlson had the last laugh, helping Australia win all three games to be crowned World Champions. 

1960: GB win their second World Cup

Great Britain regained the World Cup, the first to be held in the UK, after a scrappy 10-3 win against Australia in 1960 when the destination of the trophy was still decided by the round-robin matches. 

Both sides had seen off the Kiwis and the French, so the Odsal decider, played in front of 32,773 spectators, was effectively a final. A strong Great Britain team boasted Alex Murphy, Billy Boston and Vince Karalius.

In a match described as a “gloomy, muscular battle in the black bowl of Odsal,” tries from Boston and Mick Sullivan earned Britain the title of World Champions.

1968: The first official final

A World Cup Final was scheduled for the first time in 1968. It was won by Australia against France in Sydney before a huge crowd of 54,290.

The fourth World Cup should have been held in 1965, but it was postponed by the Australians after the dismal French tour of 1964. When the Tricolores beat the 1967-68 Kangaroos, the Aussies finally agreed to host the competition.

Great Britain, captained by Bev Risman, were a disappointment, losing a crucial match in Auckland to France, who qualified for the final, where they lost 20-2 to Australia with Lionel Williamson scoring twice.

1970: World Cup stolen

The original World Cup was used four times before a new trophy, sponsored by Vehicle & General Insurance, was commissioned for 1970. But the old trophy still made headlines when it was stolen from the Australian team’s hotel. 

Twenty years later, a man called Stephen Uttley found the 25-kilo silver trophy in a Bradford rubbish tip. No one had a clue what it was until the writer and historian Trevor Delaney read about it in a newspaper. It was reused for the 2000 World Cup, minus the cockerel on top of the lid, which, happily, will be back in place in 2022.

1970: France beat Australia

France once had a happy knack of beating Australia, and turned them over for the 12th time in 19 years in the 1970 World Cup. 

Australia had an eclectic mix of players, which included an Immortal (Bob Fulton), a Roman Catholic priest (Father John Cootes) and a future armed robber (Garry Sullivan).

After Fulton’s 15th-second try, Serge Marsolan scored his third and fourth tries of the tournament, with Jean Capdouze adding another as the Tricolores won 17-15

Australia, France and the Kiwis finished level on two points with the Aussies proceeding to the final on points difference. 

1970: “Get these thugs off our TV screens!”

With three wins in a row against Australia, Britain were firm favourites to win the underwhelming V&G Trophy in 1970, but with Roger Millward absent, they lacked creativity and lost the final 12-7. 

Winger Lionel Williamson and centre John Cootes scored the tries, with John Atkinson replying for the hosts. Billy Smith and Syd Hynes (pictured top) were sent off for fighting. More should have followed, given the disgraceful scenes which continued after the game.

Such was the appalling nature of the 1970 World Cup Final, the Daily Mail’s headline was “Get these thugs off our TV screens!”

1972: “Me kicko ballo over posto?”

An Amusing story in Mike Stephenson’s autobiography described the World Cup’s first seven-point try.

Great Britain won their opener 27-21 against Australia in Perpignan, thanks to tries by Clive Sullivan, Phil Lowe, John Atkinson, Dennis O’Neill and Stephenson. The great Bob Fulton scored three tries in response.

Atkinson was hit late by second-rower John Elford when he scored, which sparked a huge brawl. Terry Clawson converted from touch but Claude Tissière, the French referee, wouldn’t allow the game to restart. Clawson eventually twigged and, perhaps thinking the referee was Italian, asked, “Me kicko ballo over posto?” Tissière nodded and he duly obliged.

1972: “Go! Go! Go!’ And he goes!”

The break-up of the Great Britain team in the early seventies was quite incredible, as only John Atkinson started both the 1970 and 1972 World Cup Finals. Nevertheless, Great Britain rebounded in style. 

Mike Stephenson scored the crucial try, but the final against Australia, played in Lyon, is remembered for Clive Sullivan’s wonderful 90-metre try and Eddie Waring’s iconic commentary, “Everybody’s saying ‘Go! Go! Go!’ And he goes!”

The final ended 10-10 after extra-time, and Great Britain won the beautiful one-off silver trophy, which Stephenson found many years later under a pile of rubbish in a Chapeltown Road cellar, courtesy of their round-robin record.

1975: Sullivan denies England

Rugby League’s new Hall of Famer, Clive Sullivan, won Great Britain a World Cup – and cost England one.

The seventh World Cup was played over eight months in both Hemispheres and was called the World Championship with no final. England and Wales entered separately and it was their game early in the tournament that ultimately decided the destination of another new trophy.

In a rough-and-tumble encounter at Brisbane, a Welsh pack comprising Jim Mills, Tony Fisher and Colin Dixon laid the platform for a 12-7 win, with Clive Sullivan scoring the winner, which proved very costly for Alex Murphy’s England.

1975: England and Australia draw in Sydney

England’s frustration at finishing a point behind Australia the 1975 World Championship was exacerbated by the fact they didn’t lose to them.

Another “if only” moment came in Sydney in June. Keith Fielding’s try put England ahead, but Ron Coote and Chris Anderson responded. Steve Nash sent Ken Gill over for a brilliant late try, but a 10-all draw would ultimately prove insufficient as England were left cursing a Roger Millward injury and four missed goals by George Fairbairn.

England beat the Aussies 16-13 at Wigan in November, but it was too little, too late in another tournament with no final.

1975: Jim Mills sparks a diplomatic incident

One of the most controversial moments in World Cup history came in the penultimate match of the 1975 tournament in a dead rubber featuring Wales and New Zealand.

Captained by new Hall of Fame member David Watkins, the Welsh won 25-24 in Swansea, to finish above the Kiwis, but the result was overshadowed by Jim Mills stamping on the face of John Greengrass, who had just gone over for a try.

Mills was sent off and suspended for two months. The Kiwis banned him from playing in their country, which would cause all sorts of future problems. Happily, the two players are now firm friends.

1977: GB reach the final

The 1977 tournament – the fifth in nine years – reverted to four teams with a final. With Australia firm favourites and France outsiders, the key match came in Christchurch in June when the Kiwis and the British met for a place in the final. 

Great Britain had been unimpressive in an 18-14 friendly win Northern Māori, but they demolished New Zealand 30-12, with Roger Millward in characteristically excellent form. The Hull KR legend scored a wonderful 70-metre try and was joined on the scoreboard by Stuart Wright with two tries, Bill Francis, George Nicholls and Cumbrian Eddie Bowman.

1977: GB pipped at the post

There have been a few World Cups in which Great Britain or England just fell short, but none more so than the 1977 World Series, as it was called, when they lost a thrilling final 13-12 to Australia in Sydney.

Leeds prop Steve Pitchford was outstanding, scoring one and setting up a try for Ken Gill, but Billy Thompson’s failure to play advantage when Stuart Wright was clean through and George Fairbairn missing a goal kick from in front were costly. Australian tries were scored by Alan McMahon, Russell Gartner and John Kolc. 

1985: NZ finally beat the Aussies

The 1985 Trans-Tasman Test series is one of the greatest ever played, with Australia winning the first two games with last-minute tries before New Zealand hit back in style in Auckland.

What few people know is that the match was “World Cup rated”, as were 16 other random international matches between 1985 and 1988, as the competition moved to a very different format.

The Kiwis had lost all nine of their previous World Cup matches with Australia, but lowered their colours in the opening match of the 1985-88 tournament with a brace from Clayton Friend and another from James Leuluai in a stunning 18-0 triumph.

1985: Crooks earns GB a draw

After demolishing Australia, the Kiwis flew to the UK, where the third Test with Great Britain was also deemed a World Cup-rated match. Another thrilling series was played with the sides level at one game each before the decider. 

The tourists led 6-0 following a try by Mark Graham, widely rated the world’s best forward, but Lee Crooks came off the bench to kick a trio of penalties with the last one from the touchline in the closing moments to earn a draw. The match was brutal, with police coming onto the field to break up a second-half skirmish.

1986: PNG make glorious debut

Having made such an impressive start to the 1985-88 campaign, the Kiwis stalled in 1986 as they lost to Australia and then, surprisingly, newcomers Papua New Guinea. 

Many felt the Kumuls should have entered World Cups earlier and, indeed, they thrashed France 37-6 in a warm-up before the 1977 tournament. They were finally given the green light for the 1985-88 World Cup and made an immediate impression. 

At a packed Lloyd Robson Oval in Port Moresby in August 1986, two tries from winger Darius Halli and others by Bobby Ako and Lauta Atoi earned the Papua New Guineans a wonderful 24-22 victory.

1988: Lions win in Sydney

The Lions’ stunning third-Test victory in 1988 is one of the great international matches, but few remember that it was hugely important in the context of the 1985-88 World Cup, as it unexpectedly put them within 80 minutes of making the final, setting up what was effectively a semi-final with the Kiwis eight days later. 

With Andy Gregory pulling the strings, Great Britain were magnificent, dominating the match from start to finish. A wonderful 26-12 win was capped by second-half tries by Henderson Gill and Mike Gregory that have been replayed repeatedly down the years.

1988: Kiwis deny Lions

Alas, the injury-hit Lions fell just short in that ‘semi-final’ with New Zealand, going down 12-10 in Christchurch.

Coach Mal Reilly had barely been able to field a side in Sydney, but could at least welcome back hooker Kevin Beardmore. However, it was a step too far for an exhausted touring squad, who were beaten by a brace of tries from the Kiwi substitute Gary Freeman.

Paul Loughlin scored a try and goal with David Hulme also crossing, as Great Britain were denied the chance to play in a World Cup Final at a packed Wembley. 

1988: Aussie party poopers

Public interest in the 1988 World Cup Final – the first between two Southern Hemisphere nations – was immense as 47,363 spectators crammed into Auckland’s Eden Park, hoping to see the Kiwis win their maiden World Cup. It remains a record crowd for an international in New Zealand.

The three-year tournament had kicked off in Auckland with the Kiwis thrashing the Australians 18-0, but the outcome was very different in the final. Skipper Wally Lewis played on until the break with a broken arm, but the hero was Alfie Langer, whose two tries helped his side win 25-12.

1989: GB edge out Kiwis

The new format had been far from ideal, with France forfeiting their matches in the Southern Hemisphere, but it was maintained for the 1989-92 competition, the tenth Rugby League World Cup.

The second match proved to be vital as Great Britain and New Zealand would end up level on points at the end of the competition, separated only by points difference. 

The Test series was level at one win apiece and so the decider at Wigan was important for two reasons. Tries by Martin Offiah and Alan Tait handed Great Britain a 10-6 win in a match of the highest intensity.

1992: Renouf breaks GB hearts

Australia again gave up the home advantage they had earned by topping the table, and so flew to London to play Great Britain in the 1992 World Cup Final at Wembley before a crowd of 73,631.

Great Britain had come so close to winning the Ashes in 1990 and 1992, but the decision to shift in-form skipper Garry Schofield from stand-off to centre backfired as his impact on the game was minimal. 

Three Deryck Fox penalties put Great Britain 6-4 up late on before Kevin Walters’ magnificent pass saw Steve Renouf score near the corner. Mal Meninga converted to make the final score 10-6.

1995: Diana Ross and Andy Farrell steal the show

Ten nations converged in England and Wales in 1995 to provide three weeks of the most magnificent entertainment, starting at Wembley where, in a genuine coup for the code, megastar singer Diana Ross headlined the opening ceremony as she had done a year earlier for the FIFA World Cup in the USA. 

And to cap a perfect day, England went on to beat Australia, who had refused to pick players aligned with the breakaway Super League organisation, 20-16 with tries scored by man of the match Andy Farrell, Chris Joynt, Jason Robinson and Paul Newlove in front of 41,271 spectators.

See Part Two for further World Cup highlights up to the present day.

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