Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Peter Bills' Rugby World Cup blog: Memories of '87

France looked impressive against Ireland in their World Cup warm-up match in Dublin

The Qantas lunchtime flight to Sydney and a chance to hit the memory rewind button.

Is it really 24 years since we clambered up the steps of an aircraft and headed out to Australia and New Zealand for something called the 1st ‘Rugby World Cup?



Back then on that particular journey, my wife and I carried our 4-week old baby daughter onto the Qantas flight. She was a dream in the air, sound asleep the whole way. But travellers walking in Bahrain and Singapore airports had their hearing damaged by the hour long bawling before we re-boarded and took off again.



That was how it was back then. But for sure, we had no idea what the Rugby World Cup would be about. In 1987, it was shared between Australia and New Zealand. The Aussies played their games in some dire stadium out in the western suburbs at a place called Concord Oval. It was pretty bog-standard.



Leaving my wife and daughter in Sydney, I went over to New Zealand for a month. It was fun and livelier there, in a rugby sense. But still no-one quite knew what was going on or what to expect.



Mind you, as soon as we arrived, it was pretty clear what was going on in the southern hemisphere. The game was supposedly still strictly amateur. Yet here were New Zealand players brazenly advertising tractors and such like on national television ...and presumably donating the proceeds to the New Zealand National Lifeboat Institute ...or not.



Players in New Zealand were clearly already driving a coach and horses through the old amateur laws. Anyone could see that the World Cup would just hasten that process.



In the event, it was 8 more years before professionalism was at last embraced. And although I greatly lament the loss of so many key elements of the old game, such as player loyalty to clubs, their inter-action with fans and the friends we media guys could make with the players, it had to happen.



Just as you can’t be half pregnant, rugby could not continue to be half professional. The old game was living a lie and something radical and above all honest had to be done about it.



When I think about it, I realise how far the game has come since those days. It is a better product overall and earns all manner of people a financial income; a very lucrative one in many cases.



Is that good? Well, why shouldn’t a sport reward excellence? If you want to buy the best car, it will cost you. If you want to buy the world’s best outside half that will cost a lot too. But the way income and support can now be generated in the sport from so many directions, is remarkable.



In 1987, there was a stunning semi-final between Australia and France in Sydney, won dramatically by France through Serge Blanco’s fantastic try which swept right across the field. It was the inventive French at their best.



In all the talk and build up to this World Cup, we have tended to focus on New Zealand, England, South Africa and Australia etc. But not the French. Yet they looked terrific for half an hour in Bordeaux against Ireland and even better in the return match in Dublin a week later.



They are in the same half of the draw as England and Australia. One of those three should reach the final and it will be fascinating to see who emerges.



So much, then, to think about on the long flight down to Sydney, where I’ll spend a few nights before hopping over the Tasman to New Zealand next Monday afternoon.



I’ll tell you later in the week who I’m staying with in Sydney and give you his views on the World Cup. He should know – he won a World Cup for the Wallabies.

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