The Rugby League World Cup was an initiative of the French, who had been campaigning for a Rugby League World Cup since 1935. The idea was further pursued in 1951 in post-war France, with the pioneer of the concept being Paul Barrière, the President of the French Rugby League. In January 1952 the idea gained momentum as Rugby Football League secretary Bill Fallowfield persuaded the Rugby League Council to support the concept.At a meeting held in Blackpool, England, November 1953, the International Board accepted Paul Barrière’s proposal that France should be the nation to host the first World Cup, the inaugural “World Cup” of either rugby code.In addition to the hosts, the tournament was intended to feature teams from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and America.The first World Cup was held the following year, with all invited teams playing except for America, and Great Britain defeated France in Paris on 13 November to claim the title.
The World Cup was initially contested by the four Test nations: Australia, Great Britain, France and New Zealand. The teams played each other in a league format. After a final was played between the top two teams in 1954, it was decided that the team that finished first in the league standings would be declared the winner for the second World Cup in Australia in 1957. Australia proved victorious on their home ground.
After the successful 1960 competition, in which Great Britain won the title for the second time, there would be no further World Cup for eight years. The competition had been scheduled to be held in France in 1965, this time with the inclusion of the South African team.However after an unsuccessful tour of Australia, the French withdrew. The tournament was next held in 1968, and followed a two-year cycle until the mid-1970s. The 1972 World Cup final ended in a 10-all draw, and the title was awarded to Great Britain by virtue of their superior record in the qualifiers.
In 1975 the competition underwent its most radical overhaul to date. It was decided to play matches on a home and away basis around the world, instead of in any one host nation. Furthermore, the Great Britain team was split into England and Wales. Australia won that tournament, and in 1977 it was decided that Great Britain should once more compete as a single entity. Although the final between Australia and Great Britain was a closely fought affair, public interest in the tournament waned due to the continuing tinkering with the format, and it would not be held again until the mid-1980s.
From 1985 to 1988, each nation played each other a number of times on a home and away basis. At the end of that period Australia met New Zealand at Eden Park. The match was a physical encounter, and Australian captain Wally Lewis played part of the match with a broken arm. The Kangaroos won the competition 25-12. This format was repeated from 1989–1992, and Australia won again, defeating Great Britain 10-6 at Wembley Stadium in front of 72,000 people. This crowd remains a Rugby League World Cup record.
In 1995 the competition was once again restructured, and the largest number of teams to date entered. New teams competing included Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and South Africa. Due to the Super League war, players aligned with the rebel competition were not selected by the ARL to represent the Kangaroos. This meant the absence of many star players from the Australian team’s line-up. The tournament, which was also held to celebrate the centenary of the sport in England, was highly successful with over 250,000 people attending the group stages and over 66,000 people attending the final to see Australia defeat England 16-8.
Following the Super League war, the subsequent re-structuring of rugby league’s international governing bodies meant that the proposed 1998 World Cup was postponed.
The 2000 World Cup expanded the field further, with 16 teams entering. Blown out score lines meant that this tournament was not as successful as the previous one. In the same year, the first Women’s Rugby League World Cup was held.
In 2008 Australia hosted the tournament again and New Zealand became only the third team to win the World Cup.