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The Webb Ellis Cup

Infographic of the Webb Ellis Cup

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Followers of rugby eagerly await the presentation of the Webb Ellis Cup every four years, the prize awarded by the International Rugby Board to the winner of the quadrennial event since it was first held in 1987.  The elaborate design gives the trophy a unique, almost stately appearance, one befitting the kings of the rugby world. There are two versions, one dating to 1906 and a replica created in 1986, shortly before the inaugural competition in Australia and New Zealand.  Officially known as the William Webb Ellis Cup, it stands 15 inches tall and weighs 10 pounds, and is affectionately referred to by Australian fans as “Bill.”

History

Despite the sport’s widespread popularity, rugby had no official international competition well into the 1980s.  After John Kendall-Carpenter coordinated with the International Rugby Board to organize the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, he and a fellow Englishman, Bob Weighill (the IRB’s secretary) set about finding an appropriate trophy to mark the grandest achievement in the game.  They headed to the Regent Street storefront of London’s crown jeweler, Garrard’s, to see what was available.

Once inside, they were presented with a striking 1906 trophy created by Carrington and Co. of London, itself a copy of another cup designed in 1740 by Paul de Lamerie.  The elegant scrollwork of the gilded silver trophy, marked by the head of a satyr on one handle and a nymph on the other, made it quite obvious why this masterpiece had been secured in a vault for decades.  The two commissioned a replica and had the trophy officially approved for use during a vote in February 1987, just three months before the competition was due to start.

Soon after, the board settled on naming it the William Webb Ellis Cup to honor the inventor of the game who, legend has it, caught the football and advanced it against the rules during a game at the Rugby School in 1823.  Though there are claims of ancestral games with similar action involved, Webb Ellis is still pointed to as the man who broke the mold.  The Wallabies, Australia’s rugby team, thought the name a bit too stuffy after their 1991 triumph and began referring to the trophy as “Bill” to take the edge off.

Best Teams

New Zealand (1987)

In the early days of the tournament, there was a distinct lack of quality throughout the 16-team field.  The national teams of France, Australia, Wales and host nation New Zealand steamrolled much of the competition by wide margins.  When these four squads reached the semifinals, the French and New Zealanders stood out, but the “All Blacks,” as the home team is known, rode the wave of support to a comprehensive 29-9 victory in the final.  This group stands as the only squad able to win all of its matches by double digits in a single Rugby World Cup, an impressive feat even against weakened competition.

South Africa (1995)

There are few stories in the history of sport that have quite the political ramifications of the Springboks’ championship at this tournament on home soil.  Early in the first term of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, South Africa was struggling to unite after decades of apartheid.  The “Bokke,” a team comprised of players of both races, captured the heart of the nation as they defeated defending champions Australia in group play and the heavily-favored New Zealand squad in extra time of the final match.  From one match to the next, the squad gritted out close victories and garnered more attention from the native fan base.  The trophy presentation, in which Mandela presented captain Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Cup, is considered one of the most amazing across championship history – and led Clint Eastwood to tell the story in the 2009 movie Invictus.

Australia (1999)

At Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, more than 72,000 people packed the stands to catch the championship match between the Wallabies and the French national team.  France had been known throughout the tournament for a splendid attacking back line, the perfect counterpoint to Australia’s swarming defense.  No slouch with the ball themselves, the boys from Down Under got stronger as the match wore on, pulling away from France in the latter stages thanks to superior conditioning.  Other than an extra-time contest against South Africa in the semifinals, the Wallabies managed to beat their opponents by more than 20 points in every match on the way to claiming the Webb Ellis Trophy for the second time.

Winners

New Zealand (2; 1987, 2011)

South Africa (2; 1995, 2007)

Australia (2; 1991, 1999)

England (1; 2003)