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If rugby's World Cup had begun in the same era as football's

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Roar Guru
23rd May, 2019
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Just imagine the Rugby World Cup had kicked off in the 1930s, as football’s did when four European sides sailed to Uruguay to join nine teams from the Americas in the inaugural tournament.

The hosts won that event, and Italy would win the next two, before World War II sent the tournament into a 12-year hiatus.

Who would have been rugby’s winners in a dozen World Cups between 1931 and 1983? For certain there would not have been as much diversity, with the eight foundation members of the IRB (World Rugby) virtually a private club.

There is also the question of whether the Springboks would have been permitted to participate at all. But to keep things interesting, let’s say they had been. Chances are they would have won the first four tournaments straight, and perhaps half of them by 1983.

Anything might have happened and much would have depended on the host venue, of course. But South Africa were the dominant team of the amateur era, going unbeaten in a series during the first half of the 20th century.

The Springboks also completed four straight grand slams between 1912 and 1961. Quite a turn around for a nation which lost its first six Tests ever, all against the touring British Isles in the 1890s!

Nelson Mandela

Would this be South Africa’s first World Cup? (AP Photo / Jan Hamman)

In 1931 Wales won the Five Nations, but South Africa would win the second of its grand slams later that year, while New Zealand had defeated the Lions 3-1 in 1930. But whereas the Springboks boasted such legendary players as captain Bennie Osler, fullback Gerry Brand, halfback Danie Craven, prop Boy Louw and lock Flip Nel, the All Blacks were a relatively nondescript lot.

Most likely outcome: South Africa beats New Zealand in the final.

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In 1935, Ireland won the Four Nations (France were banned), but later that year New Zealand would beat the Irish on tour, only to lose themselves to Wales and England. Australia had beaten New Zealand in 1934. South Africa were not active around this time but two years later won a series in New Zealand with a resounding victory in the decider.

Most likely outcome: South Africa beats Australia in the final.

In 1939 England, Wales and Ireland finished first equal in the Four Nations. The previous year New Zealand had whitewashed Australia, and South Africa had defeated the Lions 2-1. A couple of wildcards might have been Germany, who beat France and Italy in 1938, and Fiji, who overcame the Maori All Blacks.

Most likely outcome: South Africa beats New Zealand in the final.

In 2051 Ireland won the Five Nations (France reinstated), while the All Blacks again whitewashed Australia. The previous year the All Blacks had all but whitewashed the Lions as well, though the year before that they had themselves been whitewashed in South Africa.

The Springboks would cruise to the third of their grand slams at year’s end, thumping Scotland 44-0, and beating France into the bargain.

A possible wildcard would have been Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), who had beaten the touring All Blacks in 1949. They were only considered a “provincial” team at the time, however, being part of the South African rugby set-up. It seems a shame they were not developed as a Test side during this era.

Most likely outcome: South Africa beats New Zealand in the final.

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In 1955 France won the Five Nations, New Zealand whitewashed Australia, and South Africa drew a series with the Lions.

The previous year Les Bleus had beaten the touring All Blacks, but in 1956 they lost to Wales and Scotland, while New Zealand battled to its first series win over South Africa.

Most likely outcome: New Zealand beats France in the final.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw

How many World Cups would NZ have? (Photo: AFP)

In 1959 France were again Five Nations champions. A year earlier they had become the first team to prevail in a series in South Africa in the 20th century, with a win and a draw. New Zealand won a series with Australia 2-1 but would themselves be beaten 2-1 in South Africa the following year.

Most likely outcome: France beats South Africa in the final.

In 1963 England won the Five Nations but lost a series in New Zealand 2-0. Australia also beat England and drew a series with the Springboks.

The previous year South Africa had all but whitewashed the Lions and New Zealand had won two Tests against the Wallabies. A wildcard might have been Romania, who drew with France.

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Most likely outcome: New Zealand beats South Africa in the final.

In 1967 France were Five Nations champions but lost a series to South Africa 2-1. Australia were thumped by New Zealand and also lost at home to Ireland. The previous year New Zealand had whitewashed the Lions, while South Africa would beat them 3-0 in 1968, with one Test drawn.

New Zealand had a great pack, led by Brian Lochore and including Colin Meads, Kel Tremain and Waka Nathan. South Africa also had legendary players such as flanker Jan Ellis and centre John Gainsford – just not as many.

Most likely outcome: New Zealand beats South Africa in the final.

In 1971 Wales were Five Nations champions and the Lions won a series in New Zealand for the first and only time. South Africa whitewashed the Wallabies in Australia and also beat France. The previous year they had won a series against New Zealand.

Most likely outcome: South Africa beats Wales in the final.

In 1975 Wales again won the Five Nations, Australia and South Africa won series’ with England and France, respectively, and New Zealand romped to victory over Scotland in the pouring rain.

The previous year the Lions had gone unbeaten against South Africa, but in 1976 the Springboks themselves would win a series against New Zealand.

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Most likely outcome: Wales beats South Africa in the final.

Wales line up during the NatWest Six Nations match between Wales and Italy at the Principality Stadium on March 11, 2018 in Cardiff, Wales.

In a different world, would Wales be RUWC champs? (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

In 1979 Wales won the Five Nations once more, Ireland triumphed 2-0 in Australia, France drew 1-1 in New Zealand and the Wallabies won the Bledisloe Cup.

Australia would again beat New Zealand the following year, this time in a series, and also blitzed Wales. South Africa weren’t in action in 1979, but the following year beat the Lions 3-1 and South America 4-0, then trounced France in a one-off test.

Most likely outcome: South Africa beats Australia in the final.

In 1983 France were Five Nations champions, New Zealand whitewashed the Lions, Australia lost to France and drew a series with touring Argentina, and Romania stunned Wales in Bucharest. South Africa were not in action that year but won a series with England in 1984.

Most likely outcome: New Zealand beats South Africa in the final.