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A Guide to Rugby World Cup History

2023 sees the Rugby World Cup in France, the tenth time the tournament has occurred since its inception in 1987. The Rugby World Cup sees the top rugby union nations battling to lift the prestigious William Webb Ellis trophy every four years.

The first three Rugby World Cups saw 16 nations participating, but this was extended to 20 in 1999, and the standard format sees four pools of five teams, with the top two nations in each pool qualifying for the knockout stages.

So, as we head into its tenth instalment, we look back at the rich Rugby World Cup history and explain more about one of the most popular events on the sporting calendar.

Rugby World Cup History

The Rugby World Cup is organised by World Rugby, which is the international rugby football board, and the first tournament was held in Australia and New Zealand in 1987. Before the Rugby World Cup, there was no global international rugby union competition, but the tournament has grown to be a hugely popular event in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Rugby World Cup History

Tournament Setup

Nations automatically qualify for the Rugby World Cup if they finish in the top three of their pool in the previous tournament. The remaining eight slots are filled through a regional qualification system.

The eight teams that have qualified in 2023 are Uruguay, Namibia, Tonga, Romania, Georgia, Portugal, Samoa, and Chile. They will join Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, France, Italy, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, and Wales.

The Beginning

Australia and New Zealand were the co-hosts of the inaugural tournament in 1987, with 16 teams competing, in four pools of four teams. The top two in each group qualified for the quarter-finals, and the All Blacks were eventually crowned champions after defeating France 29-9 in the final at Eden Park Auckland.

One notable absence at the Rugby World Cup in 1987 was South Africa. The Springboks did not compete due to their international sporting ban at the time, but the tournament was deemed a huge success and showcased that the Rugby World Cup was viable as an ongoing event.

It was decided that like the World Cup, the Rugby World Cup should be held every four years and 1991 saw the second tournament taking place in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France, with Australia winning the tournament.

Stats & Records

As we head towards the tenth Rugby World Cup, we look back at some of the key stats and records from the last 36 years of the tournament.

🌏 International

  • Twenty-five nations have featured at the Rugby World Cup over the years.
  • Only four countries have lifted the trophy – Australia, England, New Zealand, and South Africa.
  • Only two host nations have won the Rugby World Cup – New Zealand in 1987 and 2011 and South Africa in 1995.
  • The most tries scored at one Rugby World Cup is eight – a record shared by Jonah Lomu, Bryan Habana, and Julian Savea.
  • England’s Jason Leonard and New Zealand’s Richie McCaw share the record for the number of appearances at a Rugby World Cup with 22 each.

🇳🇿 New Zealand

  • New Zealand is the only nation to successfully defend the Rugby World Cup, winning the tournament in 2011 and 2015.
  • New Zealand’s Grant Fox is the top points scorer at one tournament, with 126 in 1987.
  • The highest number of points scored by a nation in Rugby World Cup history is the 145 New Zealand put past Japan in 1995.
  • The match also saw New Zealand’s Simon Culhane score the most points in Rugby World Cup match with 45, and the most tries in one game by a player – Marc Ellis crossing the whitewash six times.
  • From his 22 appearances at the Rugby World Cup, Richie McCaw was on the winning side 20 times.

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 England

  • The top-points scorer in Rugby World Cup history is England’s Jonny Wilkinson with 277 points.

🇫🇷 France

  • France have reached three Rugby World Cup finals and have lost on each occasion.

🇦🇺 Australia

  • Australia holds the record for the widest winning margin in Rugby World Cup history – defeating Namibia by 142 points in 2003.

South Africa

  • South Africa have won all three Rugby World Cup finals that they have contested.

Past Tournaments

The eyes of the sporting world will be on France in September and October as the 2023 Rugby World Cup kicks off.

Twenty nations will battle it out to be crowned champions, and many experts expect France to finally lift the Webb Ellis Cup, having been defeated in the final on three occasions.

This year’s edition will be the tenth in Rugby World Cup history, and we look back at the last two tournaments.

2019 World Cup

2019 saw Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup for the first time. The Cherry Blossoms exceeded expectations, defeating Ireland and Scotland in the pool stages to reach the quarter-finals before losing to South Africa. The final in Yokohama saw South Africa beat England, the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup for a record-equalling third time.

2015 World Cup

Having lifted the trophy on home soil in 2011, New Zealand headed to England in 2015 looking to become the first nation to win back-to-back Rugby World Cups. And after six exhilarating weeks of action, the All Blacks did just that, defeating their trans-Tasman rivals Australia 34-17 in a one-sided final at Twickenham. In addition, the victory saw New Zealand become the first country in Rugby World Cup history to lift the trophy three times.

Past Winner’s List

The table below shows the key details of the last seven Rugby World Cups, including the host country, winners, and runners-up.

2019JapanSouth Africa32-12England
2015EnglandNew Zealand34-17Australia
2011New ZealandNew Zealand8-7France
2007FranceSouth Africa15-6England
2003AustraliaEngland20-17 (AET)Australia
1995South AfricaSouth Africa15-12 (AET)New Zealand

Only New Zealand have successfully defended the Rugby World Cup, winning it in 2011 and 2015. So will South Africa again emulate the All Blacks this year by winning the tournament?


Here we cover some of the most frequently asked questions about Rugby World Cup history.

❓ Who has won the most Rugby World Cups?

South Africa and New Zealand have won the Rugby World Cup three times.

❓ What teams have won the Rugby World Cup?

Only four nations have been crowned Rugby World Cup Winners – Australia, England, New Zealand, and South Africa.

❓ In what years did NZ win the Rugby World Cup?

New Zealand have won the Rugby World three times – in 1987, 2011, and 2015.

❓ How many editions of the Rugby World Cup have there been?

There have been nine previous Rugby World Cups, and the 2023 tournament will be the tenth time it has been held.

❓ Who won the first ever Rugby World Cup?

New Zealand won the first ever Rugby World Cup in 1987, defeating France in the final.

❓ Who won the last Rugby World Cup?

South Africa won the 2019 Rugby World Cup, defeating England in the final.

❓ Have France ever won the Rugby World Cup?

No, France have never won the Rugby World Cup but have reached the final on three occasions.

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