They run, kick and toss a ball. They collide like mastodons. No, it’s not the NFL. It’s the Rugby World Cup, and it starts this weeks and runs through October. Here’s an introduction for the uninitiated.

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR LAND ROVER – Land Rover floats a giant 8.2 metre high rugby ball along the Thames under Tower Bridge to reveal the bespoke Rugby World Cup 2015 Land Rover Defender which features a tailor-made display cabinet to showcase the Webb Ellis Cup on Friday, May 22, 2015, in London, England. The custom-built Defender will be transporting the Webb Ellis Cup on a 100-day tour around the UK and Ireland in the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2015. Further details can be found at ( and ( (Jeff Moore/Land Rover via AP Images)
A mammoth rugby ball on the River Thames, 22 May 2015 (Jeff Moore/Land Rover via AP Images)

By John Mehaffey

An Olympic quiz question, which usually surprises sports followers, is to name the current rugby union gold medalists.

The answer is the United States, victors over France at the 1924 Paris Games.

Rugby was dropped from the Olympics after the Paris Games. The simplified, seven-a-side version of a 15-man running, kicking and passing game will be introduced next year at the Rio de Janeiro Games.

In the meantime, the United States will be one of 20 countries taking part in the latest edition of the four-yearly Rugby World Cup, hosted by England and starting on September 18.

The problem for the organizers, who claim on flimsy evidence that the tournament ranks behind only the summer Olympics and the soccer World Cup in global popularity, is that the Americans will be among the majority of the teams essentially making up the numbers.

Similarities with American football, Gaelic football and Australian rules

It is a leading sport in Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, Ireland (where north and south combine as one team), Japan, New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, Tonga, Wales (where it is the national game) — and in the south of France.

But even from this restricted base, only defending champions New Zealand, South Africa, Australia (twice each) and England (once) have won the World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987.

Rugby union — so called to distinguish it from rugby league, a 13-a-side variation which was the professional offshoot of a then amateur game in 1895 — has similarities with American football, Gaelic football and Australian rules.

It takes its name from Rugby School in England, which was one of the public schools where the rules were devised. Rugby was also one of the places where the founder of the modern Olympics, French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, drew his inspiration to revive the ancient Greek Games.

At its best, rugby is a thrilling spectacle, with the New Zealand’s All Blacks setting the pace since the game went professional in 1995.

An act of pure political genius

New Zealand produced the game’s first superstar: Jonah Lomu, a giant of a man of Tongan extraction, blessed with explosive speed, who either ran through, or over, hapless opponents at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.

New Zealand were favorites in the final against the hosts. But in an act of pure political genius, President Nelson Mandela attended and wore a green South African Springbok jersey, previously a symbol of the hated Afrikaner apartheid (racial separation) regime to the majority non-whites.

As recorded in the Clint Eastwood-directed film “Invictus”, an inspired Springbok team neutralized Lomu and won the match.

In England, the All Blacks will attempt to win the Cup for the first time on foreign soil.

They have two great players in captain Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, albeit both in the twilight of their careers, but they have been upset twice by both France and Australia in the knockout stages. Hosts England and South Africa, too, could spoil the party.

(For more News-Decoder articles on rugby or rugby union, click here.)


John Mehaffey has worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.


Here comes the World Cup — rugby union style

  1. Thank you, Mev. You’re quite right that our 600-word guideline can be challenging and even frustrating. But we don’t want to drive anyone crazy! With that in mind, here’s a link for more information on the Rugby World Cup:

    We’re delighted that the piece sparked questions in your mind. Let us put our heads together to consider what the best next step by us would be as the first match approaches. Keep tuned in.

  2. Your 600-word limit is driving me crazy, and I think it does a disservice to your readers, as you appear to assume that they can’t hang on for some in-depth information. This article in particular reads like excerpts pulled from a much longer article. The wrong excerpts. It raises more questions than it answers. All I know for certain is that the Rugby World Cup takes place in England starting on the 18th. How long will it last? What format? Will the games just be in London, or will they be sprinkled around the whole country. If it’s not the 13-man, Rugby League-type play, then what is it? 7s? 15? You never clarify. What exactly is the American problem? If it’s a world championship, then wouldn’t the US have one national team? Is there an overwhelming number of Americans on the other teams? Too many American spectators? Are there too many teams from “the Americas”? Are you saying that US club teams rather than national teams are participating? If there aren’t enough national teams to make up a 20-team tournament, has there been talk of changing the format? Is returning champ New Zealand the favorite to win this year? Or just the author’s favorite? If they were beaten by both France and Australia in the knock-out stages, why weren’t they knocked out? Does the returning champ get a free entry? Does the host team get a free entry? Perhaps you should clarify the factual bits about the tournament before you detail one historical match. I LOVE the story of the SA v. NZ game that’s made famous in “Invictus,” and it would be a wonderful inclusion for a longer piece, but it is out of place in a brief overview piece like this.

    Your stories always leave me needing more information. Is that your goal? To make me search out more information on the internet on my own?

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