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The simple way to prove Boks also hold the 'unofficial world title'

By Daniel Gallan
Handre Pollard of South Africa celebrates winning the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Gold Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on October 28, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, a Kiwi colleague with a penchant for riling South Africans put together a piece on rugby’s “unofficial world titles”. The author reimagined the world order by backdating meetings between the Six Nations champions and the winners of the Rugby Championship to find alternative claims to being the best outside of World Cups.


After 688 words he demonstrated New Zealand’s supremacy over the rest of the field. More controversially he pointed out that Ireland had two world titles while the South African Springboks – the double World Cup winning Springboks no less – had none. In an increasingly febrile rivalry, this was yet another touchpoint.

Cue the expected pandemonium from triggered Boks fans. But amidst the anger and vitriol, among the baited comments and rage-clicks there was a sincere plea for reason. Two days after the article was unleashed, a ‘come-and-get-me’ request for an interview was sent to RugbyPass by a relatively unknown account that could provide the answer to one of rugby’s most challenging questions.

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“I firmly believe that what we’re doing creates additional meaning in our sport,” explains David Algie who, in 2008, first recognised a gap in rugby’s narrative. “Outside of World Cups and the big competitions in the northern and southern hemisphere, Test matches don’t carry that much significance. With respect most are just friendlies. But what if there was something riding on the games? That’s where the idea began.”

It’s a simple concept. A winner-stays-on competition with roots all the way back to rugby’s first internationals. The men’s iteration is called the Raeburn Shield after the location of Scotland’s 1-0 win over England in 1871 and is currently held by South Africa. The women’s version, the Utrecht Shield, dubbed in honour of the venue of France’s 4-0 triumph of the Netherlands in 1982, is currently held by Australia.

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“These are testimonies to rugby’s history,” gushes Algie, who was part of a small online community of disgruntled All Blacks fans who wondered in 2008, after yet another premature World Cup exit, if there wasn’t a different way to measure success. “It’s a thread that connects the game. I can look at a timeline and find a link between Siya Kolisi’s Springboks and just about every other team across 153 years of rugby. How cool is that?”

Though not officially sanctioned by World Rugby, Algie is adamant that the two shields can inject significance into otherwise glorified friendlies. The argument that nothing else matters besides a World Cup win has gained traction in recent years and, with the Springboks espousing that message, the importance of bone-crunching contests beyond World Rugby’s showpiece events runs the risk of diminishing into irrelevance.


“If people better understood what we’re about, fans and commentators and journalists and even the players might start to look at games that would otherwise not get a second glance and think, ‘hang on, maybe this matters,” Algie adds.

“South Africa play Wales later this year in the Qatar Airways Cup. OK, big deal, right? But as holders of the Raeburn Shield, there’s something on the line. Now if Wales win it, Australia could get a crack at it in the [northern hemisphere] summer. And if the Springboks beat Wales then Ireland could have a shot when they tour South Africa.

“We’re trying to spark a new narrative, a new talking point in the game. Think of the drama of the captain of the current holders walking out with this massive 70×70 cm shield and placing it pitch side before kick-off. And then think of the photo if that captain has to hand the shield over after being beaten. All of a sudden you’ve created an event. We all know about the concept that says, ‘to be the best, you have to beat the best’. This is what we’re trying to achieve.”

There is precedent for lineal championships. The Ranfurly Shield in New Zealand domestic rugby has garnered enough interest to create “Shield fever”, as Algie puts it. Ivory Coast, the current champions of Africa, are the present holders of the ‘Unofficial Football World Championships’ . This might come as a surprise to casual football fans but, as Algie explains, part of the joy of lineal competitions lies in their unpredictability.


“If we’re honest, not every team has a realistic shot of winning a World Cup,” he says. “But in a one-off game, against a top team that has maybe rested a lot of their star players, well then you have a chance.”

New Zealand are predictably the most successful side in the Shield’s history with 155 defences. South Africa are second best with 87 and England are third with 62. But there are some surprising names on the list. Japan and Argentina have twice held the title while Samoa and Romania have each been custodians once.

“That’s something to be proud of,” Algie emphasises. “I wonder how many Samoan and Romanian fans know that their team was once the unofficial best in the world.

“My research into these rare wins has shone a light on some fascinating stories. For example, the Romanian team that beat Scotland in 1984 was predominantly made up of bodyguards for the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu so they were able to train full time and that gave them a leg up. The Scottish team they beat [28-22 in Bucharest] were the Grand Slam champions, so that was impressive by any stretch.


“Conversely, France hasn’t held the Shield since 2009. They’ve only had eight chances at winning it since then. Antoine Dupont has never held the lineal championship and might only get a few more chances in his career. So if he knew about it he might hold it in higher regard and then that match becomes an event.”

Only the Utrecht Shield exists in the physical realm. Made by an Edinburgh-based woodworker, the large chunk of oak still needs a silver sheet upon which the winners’ names will be engraved. Stickers are providing a temporary alternative until the needed £7,000 are raised.

“My wife is supportive of my passion project,” explains Algie, who is a father of three and spends much of his free time devoted to rugby’s unofficial crowns. “But she’s not going to sign off on that kind of money. And rightly so. Instead we’re asking supporters to donate what they can. In return they’ll have their names engraved on the back of the shields and forever be linked with rugby’s history.

“My mission is simple. I want to create more fun for players and fans. I firmly believe that the additional meaning and competition creates that for everybody. Everyone can win this. And we don’t need additional matches. There’s no additional load on the players. It adds value to every competition or cross hemisphere tour. Of course the World Cup is the main prize, but this is a great compliment.”



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