- The King’s Cup 1919: Rugby’s First “World Cup.” by Howard Evans and Phil Atkinson
The call to war in August 1914 was answered all over the British Empire. In an act of patriotic fervor, the governing bodies of rugby-playing nations agreed to halt regular playing seasons until the end of hostilities, leaving only military competitions and charitable friendlies to sustain the sport. Rugby was not restored to the playing calendar until 1919. One of those military competitions took place in 1919 to satiate popular appetite for the sport, with royal patronage and many of the world’s leading rugby players still stationed in Europe; thus, the King’s Cup was born. Following the work of Tony Collins in recovering the history of this long-forgotten competition, the King’s Cup has earned another moniker: rugby’s first world cup.
The story of this competition is told in detail by rugby historians Phil Atkinson and Howard Evans. It should be stated at the outset that this is a popular history full of illuminating detail but lacking in the conventional structures and appendages of academic history. It would take not inconsiderable effort to translate the nods in Atkinson and Evans’s narrative to the original sources into full references. Given the nature of the book and its intended audience, not to mention commercial imperatives, this is readily understandable, but it is perhaps frustrating and a limitation of this type of sports history.
The book is structured as a conventional narrative, taking readers through each of the matches, each of the teams, and an opening contextualization that provides a fair overview of the way in which rugby continued to be played during the First World War. However, such a structure does not allow for detailed consideration of whether the King’s Cup was genuinely rugby’s “first world cup”; nor is the case for perceiving it in this way ever properly made. More rigorous analysis may well have paused to consider what France made of playing against “the Mother Country.” For, at its heart, the King’s Cup was not a world cup as we understand the concept today but an imperial display of unity in a period when the British Empire was changing. A better case could be made for the Inter-Allied Games played in Paris in June 1919—a tournament that featured nonimperial nations such as the United States and Romania—and the authors might have made a useful comparison.
For all these academic caveats, this is an engaging and enjoyable insight into rugby’s international competitive history from two writers with a deep love and admiration for the game. It is visually a delight. Given the rich visual evidence presented throughout the book, academic colleagues interested in anything from cartoons to facial hair and clothing [End Page 107] will find much to make use of. There is even a photograph of an all-white New Zealand team in the midst of performing the haka (22), their uncertainty and unease contrasting with the highly stylized versions performed by the New Zealand All Blacks today. Read for its intended purpose, this is a fascinating book deserving of a wide audience.