At any sporting junket involving pretentious national prestige, you can guarantee that the ritzy no-expense-spared ‘resplendence’ of a dire and irksome opening ceremony matters far more than any of the actual sport which follows it. Rugby union’s World Cup curtain-up promises the full phonily festive fanfaronade next Friday (7 September) in the Stade de France in Paris. As the cast of thousands strut their swank and fly their flags in front of presidents, prime ministers and princes — all hands to the pomp — I’ll hope to catch the rheumy eye of a few old hands and we’ll sigh in sweet remembrance of the first innocent village-green fête which launched rugby’s inaugural World Cup only 20 years ago in Auckland.
It was the last week of May 1987. Only the hosts felt the need of such a novelty. Well, apart from its rugby religion, I suppose, New Zealand had only scenery. Certainly, the four teams from the British Isles didn’t take it too seriously — rugger’s just amateur fun, ol’ boy, not cold-eyed competition. The Brit players treated that first tournament as a lark, a free summer jolly. Auckland’s opening ceremony took place on a working-day Friday, as Paris’s will. The Eden Park stadium was less than half full. The gentle Kiwi drizzle was as relentless as ever: it made sad, damp squibs of a small pack of overture fireworks. A couple of freckled, frozen chorus lines from the local ‘academy of dance’ enacted an obligatory cheerleaders’ pom-pom greeting, a boys’ brigade brass band had a stretch and a blow, a few kilted bagpipers from the nearby Caledonia Club strangled a cat or two and, it goes without saying, a bunch of boa-twined barefooted Maoris writhed, wriggled, rolled their eyes and brandished their spears in the routine war-dance haka. Then the public-address disc-jockey turned up the sound for a tinpot roll of drums — and legendary Maori All Black wing-forward, Waka Nathan, jogged the perimeter of the soggy paddock to present the match ball for kick-off — after which the New Zealand XV cruelly put 60 points over humiliated little Italy.
We caught the bus back to the downtown hotel. World Cup bunting and balloons, forlorn and limp, decked a few lampposts. Strung across the city’s main Queen Street was just one solitary homemade banner — urging the world’s visitors not to miss a trip to that weekend’s performances of The Mikado by Auckland’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society.
Rugby’s first World Cup caused scarcely a ripple on Britain’s back pages. Fleet Street’s finest — sent for the one-off quaintness of it — were ordered home as soon as England had won their group match on 30 May against the USA (another 10-try 60-pointer). Well, the summer’s first cricket Test against Imran Khan’s Pakistanis began at Old Trafford on 4 June, didn’t it? As it happened, the rugby teams of England, Scotland and Ireland could almost have been back to watch the last day of that cricket Test had they hurried through the airport departures lounge. By 8 June each had been rudely dispatched from the rugby — New Zealand 30, Scotland 3; Australia 33, Ireland 15; England 3, Wales 16. And a week later, after the Welsh had been laid to waste by 49-6 by Australia in the semis, their coach, good Clive Rowlands, said, no worries, ‘Wales’s sole rugby destiny was only to beat the English’ and, anyway, a World Cup would never catch on. We all totally agreed with him.