Remembering the Kings Cup

The inaugural Rugby World Cup that took place in New Zealand and Australia in 1987 started a competition that has since grown into the third largest sporting event in the world. But it was not the first international rugby tournament.

The 6 Nations Championship can trace its roots right the way back to the very first international rugby football fixture, between England and Scotland in 1871, and is therefore irrefutably the world’s oldest international football contest of any code.

Rugby first featured at the Olympics in 1900. Initially club and county sides were nominated to represent their country. In 1908 Great Britain was represented by Cornwall, the champion county at the time. The United States were the surprise winners of both the 1920 and 1924 Olympic rugby competitions. Since the sport has not featured in a summer Olympic games since the US remain the reigning XV-a-side champions.

1924 USA Olympic side

1920 USA Olympic side

Neither of these tournaments can claim to be a truly representative global tournament in the way that the Rugby World Cup is, however there is one competition that can.

The King’s Cup was held in the aftermath of the First World War and involved rugby teams from Europe, America, Africa and Australasia. The following narrative is an extract from our Lest We Forget: Rugby and the First World War special exhibition:

Hostilities may have finally ceased with the signing of the Armistice on the 11th of November 1918 but the naval blockade of Germany was maintained until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on the 28th of June 1919. Then began the slow process of demobilisation as thousands of men from Britain, and her Commonwealth allies were gradually returned home.

Throughout the War rugby and other team-sports had been used as a way of keeping the men occupied and fit during their long months behind the front-lines. In early 1919 rugby administrators decided to make use of the large numbers of overseas men by arranging a one-off series of matches at Twickenham and other venues around the United Kingdom.

A round-robin format was approved between six teams who would contest the ‘Inter-Services and Dominions Rugby Championship’. The six teams were the British Army, the New Zealand Army, the Australian Imperial Forces, the South African Forces, the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and the Royal Air Force.

The British Army won all of their games but lost to New Zealand, who looked set for a clean sweep until they were defeated by Australia. The Australians were knocked out of contention by a defeat to the Royal Air Force, which left the British Army and New Zealand joint top of the table.

A decider was arranged and New Zealand defeated the British Army 9-3 at Twickenham. Three days later they defeated the French Army at the same ground before receiving the King’s Cup from King George V.

It would be many years before football and rugby world cups would become commonplace but such was the multinational nature of this tournament that it can lay justifiable claim to having been the first.


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7 Responses to Remembering the Kings Cup

  1. rhymboy1 says:

    Read much more on this with upcoming book. See

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And also ‘After the Final Whistle’ by Stephen Cooper. Great to see this long forgotten tournament finally getting the attention it deserves!


  3. The King’s Cup 1919 – Rugby’s First ‘World Cup’ by Howard Evans & Phil Atkinson (pb – 192pp – £14.99) will be published in November by of Cardiff.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Larry Freitas says:

    Rugby had replaced American football as a sport in California from 1906 to about 1918, with secondary schools and universities taking up the game during that time. A few athletic clubs did as well, most notably the Olympic Club of San Francisco. So just about all the players in that photo were from California, and the same was true of the 1924 team. Standing 5th from the left with his arms crossed is Rudy Scholz, who played his college rugby at Santa Clara University, graduating in 1917, and then going on to play for Olympic Club. The third from the right standing is the captain of both the ’20 and ’24 Olympic winners, Colby Slater of the University of California. An English writer, Mark Ryan, has written a book about these two men and the two Gold Medal winning teams: “For the Glory.” Slater saw action in Belgium the last few months of the Great War, and Scholz, though getting commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the US Army, did not get orders to go overseas, but did finally get experience in warfare in the invasion of Okinawa in 1945. When the 1920 Americans were in Belgium, Scholz tried to get Slater to talk about life in the trenches, since he had missed out, and Slater was rather mum on the subject, refusing to say much about the horror he witnessed.
    I met Rudy Scholz in 1974, as he had bought Santa Clara’s team jerseys that year and attended some of our matches, and the after-match get-together. The fact that rugby had been a major campus sport some seventy years earlier was news to us on the team that year.


  5. rhymboy1 says:

    Please accept this open invitation, sent on behalf of Howard Evans & Phil Atkinson, to the launch evening for their new book ‘The King’s Cup 1919 – Rugby’s First World Cup’, held in association with The Friends of Newport Rugby and the Rugby Memorabilia Society

    Join us at Newport’s Rodney Parade for 7 pm on Monday 14 December 2015, you are most welcome. RSVP before 10 Dec to

    ‘An intriguing retelling of a significant but largely forgotten chapter of rugby union history, superbly illustrated,’ says Huw Richards, author of ‘A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union’

    On 15th March 1919, Rodney Parade hosted Australia v South Africa, as part of the post-World War One, inter-military ‘King’s Cup’.

    The world of rugby celebrated the 8th Rugby World Cup in 2015, but a tournament held in 1919, The King’s Cup, can rightly claim to be rugby’s first competitive ‘World Cup’, with military teams from: Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the RAF, South Africa and the British Army [Mother Country]. The King’s Cup 1919 is the first book to tell the full story of the tournament, won by New Zealand after defeating the British Army & France in play-off games. After beating Wales 3-0 in a hastily arrange challenge match a few days later, New Zealand then toured South Africa for the first time, but without their Maori players.

    Meticulously compiled by Howard Evans and Phil Atkinson, The King’s Cup 1919 is the first book to tell the full story of rugby’s first ‘World Cup’ and is essential reading for all rugby enthusiasts and military historians. With over 140 photos and illustrations, and chapters focusing on the competing teams, the players, and every game in the tournament, the authors have provided a comprehensive and attractive record of a long-forgotten but historically important competition of which most rugby supporters are completely unaware.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: One of Us: England’s Greatest Rugby Players- Cherry Pillman | World Rugby Museum: from the vaults

  7. Pingback: On This Day 100 Years Ago… | World Rugby Museum: from the vaults

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