It was a tour like no other - the time Wallabies great Tim Horan and Jason Little took the William Webb Ellis trophy on a tour of rural and regional Queensland
There’s never been a World Cup tour like it. We’re not talking about all roads leading to the big-city finals in Sydney, Auckland, Johannesburg, London, Cardiff, Paris or Yokohama.
We’re talking about that time 30 years ago when the Webb Ellis Cup went off-road with Tim Horan and Jason Little.
Australia’s engaging bid to host the 2027 Rugby World Cup is about connecting with Australians from bush rugby roots and city clubs and everywhere in between. It’s an event the whole nation can share.
Horan and Little, both just 21 at the time, saw the power of the Webb Ellis Cup to do just that after their major roles in the landmark 1991 World Cup triumph.
The young centres for the Wallabies had the rare opportunity to take home the trophy to where it all started, home to where their dreams began.
Just weeks after the trophy held the spotlight at a packed Twickenham, it was the centre of attention in the packed bar at Goondiwindi’s Railway Hotel.
Grain farmers, graziers, truck drivers, rail workers, mechanics, the local Mayor, local mums, teenagers...everyone got the chance to gape.
That precious gold-plated trophy visited Goondiwindi, St George, Roma, Surat, Dalby, Toowoomba and the tiny rural locality of Wyaga on that trip around Queensland’s south-west.
It even found its way to Ray Little’s piggery and grain farm at tiny Jimbour where he raised the strapping son who’d go on to play 75 Tests.
Horan knew a thing about diplomacy even at 21. He made sure the trophy visited Surat, population 600, or more particularly Rob Ferris, the father of his young bride Katrina.
There were no security guards. No World Rugby officials accompanied it.
Then-Queensland Rugby Union media director Michael Blucher, who organised the adventure, and tall, award-winning photographer Mike Larder were about as official as it got for the security detail.
You’d trust both with minding your beer at the bar but you’d be less sure when it came to a trophy that the South Africans insured for $55,000 for a Champions’ Tour around South Africa in 2019.
Rugby’s greatest prize hitched a ride in a backpack at times on that Queensland trip.
Thirty years later, what still stands out to Horan is the respect and awe that trophy stirred among country folk who never imagined it would ever come to town.
“That 1991 success was the start of igniting rugby in Australia which shows the power of what 2027 can be,” Horan said.
“On that trip in ‘91, we received a huge welcome at the Railway Hotel. There was seating for 125 and I reckon about 400 crammed in.
“I don’t think anyone could believe it was the real thing or that it was in Gundi. It wasn’t a replica.
“It was basically the first time the Webb Ellis Cup had been taken out of Sydney.”
It was a big deal even for Goondiwindi’s Trotting Ducks, the boys from the local rugby club who were Cup-winners themselves that year in the Darling Downs competition.
“We showed it off to a class of kids at Goondiwindi State School,” Horan recalled.
“Every local wanted to see it for themselves.”
It was a busy burst of excitement and magnetic reverence for a trophy no one had really expected to see in that part of the world with two of the district’s favourite sons.
It was time to move on to St George. The two 4WDs left the school with Horan, Little, Larder and Blucher on board. A mental checklist of whether they had all their cargo on board came a little later.
“We drove off and about 10 minutes down the highway the conversation got to ‘You put the Cup in the boot, didn’t you?’,” Horan recalled.
“We spun around and sped back to Gundi and there was the World Cup still sitting under a gum tree on the side of the road near the school,” Horan said.
“The things that happened to that World Cup on that trip were the reasons we had two security guards and a locked trophy box when it went on tour in Australia again after the 1999 World Cup win.
“And you only get to take around a replica nowadays.
“We got to take the Cup back to our old schools at Toowoomba Grammar and Downlands as well.
Some parents drove five or six hours into town just to have their photos taken beside it with their kids or to say they’d seen the World Cup.”
The Rugby World Cup had no history before 1987 which is why adventures like this in 1991, when Larder captured a wonderful array of images, are so important in creating the tapestry of rugby’s grandest tournament.
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The 2027 World Cup will be a memory-maker for all rugby fans, old and new, if the zealous work to win the bid pays off.
In the 2027 bid plan, there will be capacity for more than 50 training hubs around the country for visiting nations to go with 11 or more match venues. It’s a far greater reach than the 1987 footprint when World Cup matches were played in only Sydney and Brisbane outside of New Zealand.
The state-of-the-art 60,000-seat Perth Stadium hummed with a full house for the recent Bledisloe Cup Test. Two new stadiums in Sydney and Townsville’s new 25,000-seat stadium are just the most obvious infrastructure upgrades available in bid planning.
“The opportunity to host a Rugby World Cup is amazing in terms of what it could do for rugby across the country, not only at the professional level but at grassroots level,” 2011 World Cup captain James Horwill added.
“There’s talk of the potential for more than 30,000 new participants to rugby with the legacy of the World Cup. When you are competing with so many other sports in Australia, it’s obvious how much this means for the game.”
The call on the 2027 host nation will be made early next year.