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Humble start spawns global giant

By CNN's Craig Francis

Rugby Union does not normally have a high profile in  Australia.
Rugby Union does not normally have a high profile in Australia.

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(CNN) -- If you can get the attention of your average armchair sports fan long enough to ask them what the third largest sporting event in the world is, its unlikely they'll name one that has only taken place four times.

The fact no team from the northern hemisphere has ever reigned as king of the sport has further added to the fascination of just how the competition for rugby union's Webb Ellis cup came to sit behind only the Olympics and soccer World Cup as the most watched sporting event in the world.

The conception of the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 was not unlike that of the latest, with Australia and New Zealand trying to get it off the ground without knowing much about what the other was up to.

But unlike the 2003 edition, that saw the Australians go it alone after a falling out with their trans-Tasman neighbors, the two countries managed to extract their heads from their respective scrums long enough to work together to stage a joint Australasian World Cup.

In 1983 some Kiwi and Wallaby officials must have been drinking in the same pub and talking too loudly with someone overhearing the other's conversation. The Australians told the International Rugby Board (IRB) they wanted to stage the first World Cup to coincide with the nation's bicentenary celebration in 1988. The Kiwis separately asked if they could host the event in 1987.

The IRB put the rugby rivals in touch with each other and in 1985 a secret IRB ballot was held in France to decide whether the event was warranted and viable.

The obstructionists from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales were quashed (the vote being a poorly kept secret) and two years later 600,000 spectators and 300 million televison viewers would roar their approval.

Subsequent cups in the United Kingdom and France, in 1991, and in South Africa, in 1995 and Wales (with some help from the rest of the UK and France) in 1999 have seen profits from the event swell from a humble $1.6 million to almost $80 million. (World Cup's the business)

Whole greater than sum of parts

In much the same way as the Olympics transcends the status of the individual sports it embraces, so too has the rugby union tournament generated interest above and beyond its regular place in the psyche of sports fans.

In Europe, soccer holds sway and a host of sports, such as cricket in England, Gaelic football in Ireland and tennis and cycling in France attract more local attention than rugby union.

South of the equator, only inaugural winners the All Blacks command the undivided attention of a nation.

The sport of rugby union holds an ambivalent place in the panoply of sporting addictions in Australia.

In summer the country is gripped by cricket, which itself has a pretty handy quadrennial world cup of its own.

When the winter arrives, Australians divide their sporting attentions along strictly demarcated state lines. The southern states (Western and South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania) and Northern Territory embrace the homegrown and wholly unique sport of Australian rules football, the country's biggest spectator attraction. (AFL grand final)

In the eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland, rugby league takes precedence.

Complex rules

In spectator terms, rugby union is relegated to a few thousand fans watching their local combatants, with the international Super 12s competition generating some extra bums on seats. Netball's national grand final crowd of 10,500 this year would rival most union games.

In player numbers, union also languishes behind the other codes, as well as soccer, golf and a host of sports. Mixed netball has as many men in its ranks, even if they lack a multi-million dollar World Cup.

In the rugby heartland, league has always been seen as the peoples' game, the working class pursuit that doesn't need a major international presence to capture the generation-to-generation fanaticism of a legion of fans.

Union on the other hand has been the perceived preserve of a small educated elite; a rugged but learned game arousing gentle applause in the leafy suburbs and universities of Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane.

Indeed, an education is useful given that union has evolved into a game rivalling cricket in the complexity of its rules.

Chances are, if you speak to one of the supposed three billion television viewers watching the 2003 World Cup spectacle, they won't know the rules, they won't ever have played or even been to a game, but they will be passionately and wholeheartedly switched on to their team's performance.


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