World in Rugby Union

Posted on November 4th, 2015


It is only a few days now since the final match of this year’s Rugby World Cup after which the winners, New Zealand’s All Blacks, were presented with the Webb Ellis Cup.  No doubt those Rugby aficionados amongst my readers will know that the current Rugby Union World Cup process was only begun in 1987 ; prior to that date fans had to be content with the Six Nation’s Championship which itself is an expansion from the Five Nations Championship when Italy joined at the end of 1999 season!  But in fact, the first truly international rugby championship was played in 1919.

When war was declared in August 1914, the rugby season had barely begun and, not least because so many players at all levels were either already members of the Territorial Force – and so had been called up immediately – or had volunteered in the first surge of enthusiasm – in the wild hopes that the war would over by Christmas – the season was cancelled immediately.

Rugby recruitment poster

Rugby recruitment poster


Indeed Rugby’s governing body threw it’s not inconsiderable weight behind Kitchener’s recruiting programme and in fairly short order clubs offered their grounds as either recruiting centres or early assembly points for those first 100,000 men who flocked to the colours.  Only one ‘international’ rugby game was played between England and Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1915, specifically to raise money for military charities and to continue to encourage enlistment in the forces ; by this time the hallowed grounds at Twickenham had been turned over as stabling for just some of the millions of horses which were still the backbone of military transport.

Grand Military Rugby Poster

Grand Military Rugby Poster

Such was the Union’s support for the war that, although there was never a specific Rugby Battalion – unlike from within Football where the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment would become known as ‘The Football Battalion’ after 35 players had volunteered and became its first recruits – by the end of the war 27 English Rugby International players alone had been killed.  Indeed the very first rugby player to be killed was James Watson, who had won three caps during the 1914 Five Nations season.  As a surgeon, he was serving upon HMS Hawke when it was torpedoed and sunk off Aberdeen on 15th October 1914!

Having said that, what with troops arriving in Britain from across the rugby-playing empire – South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – it wasn’t long before a military rugby union league had been created and it was not unusual for crowds of up to eight thousand people to turn out in support.  So it was that, at the end of the war – and with those same troops still in Britain awaiting repatriation to their homelands – it was decided to stage a sixteen match inter-services competition.  Until the formation of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, the King’s Cup as it would become known, held the title for being the world’s first truly international rugby competition.

The qualifying round-robin games were played around the country until on 19th April 1919, at Twickenham, the final was played between New Zealand and Great Britain.  Amongst the spectators were numbered the King (George V) and his sons, Sir Douglas Haig and New Zealand High Commissioner ; some commentators note that it was but the first in a series of ‘Victory’ celebrations.  And, although on this occasion at least the ‘home’ team had got into the final – unlike last weekend –  the winners were the New Zealand team, the final score being 9-3.

Rugby winners trophy

The King’s Cup 1919

And, having given his name to the winner’s trophy, King George V was pleased to present his King’s Cup to the Captain of the New Zealand Services Rugby Team, James Ryan.



About the author

Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.

 Debbie Coupland

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