Considering how reluctant certain rugby nations were to embrace a World Cup in the Dark Ages of the 20th Century, the present status of the tournament represents a modern-day miracle.
That first tournament in 1987 was effectively run by amateurs - virtual volunteers. The world governing body had no cash whatsoever and, indeed, had to stage a couple of invitation matches to get its financial ball rolling.
Now, 16 years down the line, everything is on the up. The experts are predicting bigger television audiences, more paying spectators and, most importantly of all, more revenue than ever before.
It is all a far cry from 1985 when the idea of a global event was put to a vote by the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB). There were six nations in favour and two (Scotland and Ireland) against. Hardly the most auspicious of beginnings.
The IRFB's tournament committee took on responsibility for the structure of the tournament - its fixtures, referees and logistics - while a company was set up in Australia to deal with the commercial dimensions. These two bodies were the forerunners of the present day companies, Rugby World Cup Ltd and Rugby World Cup (Licensing) BV. Back in 1987, television, the key generator of sponsorship, advertising revenue and general interest in the tournament, was beamed to 17 countries worldwide and was watched by an armchair audience of 300m. Not bad, everyone thought at the time.
Not bad indeed, given how little experience anyone had of organising such a huge event. Four years later, with a far more professional administration and the experience of 1987 to draw on, the tournament was broadcast to a staggering 103 countries and was watched by 1.3bn viewers. A significant and exponential increase in TV audience.
In South Africa four years later, 126 countries beamed the matches to some 2.45bn homes, and in 1999, when the four home countries and France staged the event, the total television audience topped 3bn in 209 countries. Not surprisingly, given the work that goes on between tournaments to spread the word around the world, the calculations for 2003 foresee in excess of 4bn viewers from 210 or more countries.
As for paying spectators, from an impressive half a million 16 years ago, the organisers have encouraged a steady increase in subsequent tournaments: 1991 saw 1.1m pass through the turnstiles; in 1995 that figure was just topped, with 1.2m; and in 1999 there was significant upsurge with 1.6m. This time, it is expected that the Australians will persuade as many as two m fans to go to the grounds.
Already by the end of the first quarter of this year, half that number of tickets had been sold, including, incredibly, 16,000 for the Pool C match between Uruguay and Georgia in Sydney. Back in 1987 when Australia played France in a semi-final tie at the Concorde Oval in Sydney, a mere 18,600 paid to watch the match live.
On the financial front, things have changed markedly. Had it not been for a guarantee of US $5m from West Nally, who managed commercial matters in 1987, there would have been no surplus from that first tournament and, quite possibly, no further tournaments for a few years. As it was, thanks almost entirely to that underwriting, the inaugural tournament boasted a 'profit' of barely £1m. By 1991, with a greater idea of what was required, the turnover was vastly increased and the profits were hugely improved, with a bottom line of £4.1m for the IRFB to savour and use for the good of the game.
The Rainbow Nation's emotional victory in 1995 was capped by South Africa having hosted the most successful tournament up to that point. Global interest had become more widespread than ever before, but, even more importantly, the financial side was up, with total receipts of more than £30m and profits of £17.6m. By 1999, the tournament had continued its upward trend, generating a surplus of £45m.
And for 2003 the prospects are looking rosy. Projections of profits range from £35m to £50m. And, after staging arguably the most successful Olympics ever in 2000, who would doubt that the Australians will know how to apply their Midas touch to the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
RUGBY WORLD CUP ROLL OF HONOUR
1987 (New Zealand)
Winner: New Zealand
Semi-finalists: Wales, Australia
Semi-finalists: New Zealand, Scotland
1995 (South Africa)
Winner: South Africa
Runners-up: New Zealand
Semi-finalists: France, England
Semi-finalists: South Africa, New Zealand