Just days after winning the inaugural Rugby Union World Cup in 1987, the All Blacks returned to their day jobs.

Captain David Kirk went back to working as a business analyst. Hooker Sean Fitzpatrick resumed his builder duties.

That was how it was back then. Rugby Union was an amateur game and was played for love of it rather than financial gain.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of this bruising sport turning professional. Fired by the success of the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, Rugby Union could resist the lure of professionalism no further.

In August that year, a new dawn of sponsorship money and advertising rights broke, allowing players to make a living out of it.

The pressure on rugby to modernise and go the way of its football counterparts had been increasing since around the time New Zealand and Australia jointly held the 1987 tournament.

Doping concerns for Rugby ahead of World Cup

Then, despite stiff resistance from Scotland and Ireland to change the ways of amateur rugby, the smell of money was already in the air.

Fast-forward 28 years from the first World Cup in the Antipodes, next month will see the world of Rugby Union congregate in England to celebrate the game’s eighth mega event.

The forthcoming 20-team tournament is being backed by some of the world’s biggest brands – Coca-Cola and Emirates among them – and an economic impact study estimated that it could generate as much as $3.44bn output for the UK economy.

However, this growing business, which has seen its sporting popularity spread to more than 117 countries, has had mixed fortunes. The two decades of professionalism have looked to bed down both on and off the rugby field.

“Professional rugby is still a baby,” Tom English, sports analyst and author of the rugby book The Grudge, told Al Jazeera.

“If you look at how long [football] has been professional by comparison, Rugby Union is but a pup. Has [professionalism] been successful? It has. But there’s been an awful lot of teething problems along the way.”

When rugby took off in the mid-19th century after its birth in England, it quickly expanded across the Empire, reaching New Zealand and Australia.

In 1895, the game was beset by a schism, which saw 21 clubs from England’s north form their own brand of paid rugby, which soon morphed into professional Rugby League.

World rankings (top-10)
1. New Zealand
2. Ireland
3. Australia
4. South Africa
5. England
6. Wales
7. France
8. Argentina
9. Fiji
10. Scotland

In the 20th century, Rugby Union saw everything from the birth of the European Five Nations (today’s Six Nations) tournament to USA’s gold-medal triumph at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

When the World Cup made its debut Down-Under, New Zealand society had been wracked by division over the country’s continuing international rugby links to apartheid era South Africa which was in international sporting wilderness then.

When professionalism arrived, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were already ahead of the curve. In Europe, France was likewise. In England, the transition from the amateur era, while not without its challenges, was soon negotiated.

In Scotland, from the highs of their famous Five Nations Grand Slam victory in 1990 and semi-final appearance at the following year’s World Cup, English said there "was a huge reluctance on the part of the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) to accept that the game had gone professional".

This led to years of infrastructural stagnation and on the pitch failure from which they are only now slowly re-emerging.

In lower tier nations like the USA, professionalism initially hit hard as it struggled to keep pace with the more established unions. But, seen by many today as the sleeping giant of the international game due to the country’s size, wealth and potential fan base, US rugby has soared.

“We’re the fastest growing team sport in America,” USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville said.

“We developed youth programmes in 2008 and on the other side of it we’ve had the Olympic [Rugby Sevens] inclusion [for Rio 2016]. Being an Olympic sport in America is a pretty big deal and being an Olympic sport gives credibility to our sport.”

We’re the fastest growing team sport in America

Nigel Melville, USA Rugby CEO

Last November, a 61,500 sell-out crowd watched USA’s clash with the All Blacks in Chicago. Such is the current confidence surrounding USA rugby that Melville is already eyeing a second place in their 2015 World Cup group that contains Japan, Samoa, Scotland and South Africa.

The biggest talking point in Rugby Union is that of international eligibility.

The three-year residency rule as laid out by the sport’s governing body World Rugby allows for uncapped players to relocate around the globe with a view to launching an international career outside their country of origin.

The All Blacks, in particular, have often been the target of blame for depriving the Pacific Island nations of their top talents via this residency rule. Yet, other nations have taken advantage of a World Rugby provision that the organisation’s chief executive, Brett Gosper, announced earlier this month was now under review.

But the story of Rugby Union over the last two decades has largely been one of expansion and commercial success.

At the 1987 World Cup, most of the 16 teams that took part were invited by the old guard unions. Witnessing the likes of Zimbabwe and Romania strut their stuff on the world stage was not usual back in the amateur era.

Today, competitive qualification for lower-tier nations to qualify for the World Cup has added drama.

Comparatively weaker countries shocking the big boys - a relative rarity - has become less of a shock. Italy’s inclusion to form the European Six Nations in 2000 and Argentina’s move to form the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship in 2012 have reaped benefits.

And while many have lamented the diminishing status of the traditional club teams in the old rugby nations of Scotland and Ireland in favour of their professional successors, the global reach of professional club rugby is another indicator of the game’s burgeoning success.

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera