The destination for history

The King’s Cup 1919


War has many unintended consequences, very few of them happy. But the ‘greatest imperial emergency’ of the Great War and the influx of Dominion troops into Europe happily made the period 1916-19 a golden age for international rugby - or at least a gunmetal one. The gilding, by royal patronage, would come in the spring of 1919.

In January, the War Office decided on a rugby competition in Britain for the Services and Dominions or, in the language of the hated trench stores return, an ‘Army Football Competition (Rugby)’. On 8 February, representatives met at the Junior United Services Club, London, with General Harrington (former Chief of Staff to Field Marshal Haig) presiding, to finalise arrangements, grounds and fixtures for an ‘Inter-Services Competition’, to be played under the auspices of the Army Rugby Union. The event was given the royal seal of approval – and a snappier name - by the offer from His Majesty of a cup to be presented in his name. The King’s Cup would see the only ‘international’ rugby played in Britain during a 1918-19 season whose first months were spent overseas on shell-pocked pitches under raining lead.

The King’s Cup would be the jewel in an extraordinary crowning of rugby, as touring military teams from the Dominions took on renascent clubs and home units awaiting demobilisation. In wartime, rugby was approved therapy for shattered men from the front; it would now play a part in the entire nation’s recovery. In this new, still uncertain peace, it was an opportunity to restate the values that had carried it through the conflict – this, after all, was the game that won the war, in the view of one headmaster who urged on 26 February that:

‘It is timely to press forward the claims of the greatest game of all. It is not only national but imperial; it is the game of the most vigorous of our Colonies; it is the game of the Army that has won the hardest and grimmest of all wars; it should be the universal game of our new educational system because it is a maker of men.’

At Richmond that afternoon, spectators might read his letter whilst perusing the morning Times over a pint while awaiting kick-off. ‘Hear, hear!’ they would murmur before enjoying a double-header of New Zealand and Australian Services A and B teams, in final rehearsal for the royal command performance of the King’s Cup.

Every aspect of this sporting celebration was carefully considered. This was the world’s first international tournament for team sports; football’s first foray was still eleven years away. The King’s Cup, it was decided, should be an opportunity for all of Britain to applaud the Dominion troops who had defended the empire and British values. Venues were chosen to reach a wide population – not easy when clubs had closed grounds when rugby ceased in 1914. A commitment was made to rugby grounds: no need to press into service football or athletics stadia, like Stamford Bridge or White City. Seventeen games were played at eight venues by seven teams; this was an early template for what we now recognise as the World Cup format. Not until 1930 did fast-growing association football play its first tournament, and it was not much bigger: thirteen teams played eighteen games, all in one city, Montevideo.

Six teams of soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the RAF and the British Army (under the name of the Mother Country and fielding the grandfather of Sebastian Faulks in the pack) played a round robin, with a narrow Australian victory at Bradford preventing an outright New Zealand tournament victory. The showpiece playoff was held at Twickenham on 16 April, but the men in black were too much for the home Mother Country team and won 9-3. As a final diplomatic coda, the French allies were invited over to play the winner, but fared no better, defeated by 20-3 by the New Zealanders. A pattern was set for another century of rugby dominance.

By Stephen Cooper

Stephen′s book After the Final Whistle: The First Rugby World Cup and the First World War has been shortlisted for the Cross Sports Book of the Year 2016 and is now available in paperback.

Victorious New Zealand Services team beat Mother Country after a 'ding dong' match by 6 points to 3

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books