International supremacy in the 20th century was generally enjoyed by the nation with the most professional domestic competition. The British held the Ashes (a three-game series first played in 1908) against Australia for 30 years until 1950. Australia’s dominance reached a peak from 1978 until 2005, when it did not lose a tournament or test series. That year Australia was beaten 24–0 by New Zealand in the final of the 2005 Tri-Nations tournament at Elland Road, Leeds.
In 1954 rugby league became the second sport, after association football, to stage a World Cup. France promoted the concept, hosted the event and narrowly lost to Britain in the final. Britain and Australia shared the first 12 tournaments under various formats. New Zealand finally triumphed on the 13th attempt, eliminating England in a semi-final and beating Australia in the 2008 final at Brisbane.
In the first half of the 20th century, Kiwi players were closer to amateur than those in Australia or Britain, but they remained competitive. However, New South Wales and Queensland officials had long regarded New Zealand as akin to a third state team and declined all requests to stage test matches on Australian soil between 1909 and 1948. The eight New Zealand teams that toured Australia in that period had to be content to play state, city and country opponents. Nor did the Australians send a full national team to New Zealand between 1919 and 1935.
However, the British always included a New Zealand leg on their four-yearly Australasian tours. They suffered their first loss in New Zealand to Auckland in 1920 and were beaten, two tests to one, in the 1924 test series. In 1946 West Coast’s 17–8 victory at Greymouth was the heaviest defeat of that Lions team’s entire Australasian tour.
Post-Second World War success
When Australia did resume playing the Kiwis after the Second World War, they were in for a shock. Two-match series were drawn in Australia in 1948 and New Zealand in 1949 before the Kiwis triumphed in three-test series away in 1952 and at home in 1953. The Ashes-winning 1962 Lions were twice beaten by 19-point margins at Carlaw Park during a period (1960–64) in which New Zealand was awarded the Courtney Trophy as the best-performing rugby league nation.
The 1971 Grand Slam Kiwis beat Australia 24–3 in Auckland as a prelude to winning away series against Great Britain and France. There were memorable test victories over Australia and a series whitewash of Britain in the mid-1980s. In nine tests against Britain from 1996 to 2002, the Kiwis won seven and drew the other two. A New Zealand women’s team first toured Australia in 1995. Dubbed the Kiwi Ferns since 1998, the team went on to become world champions in the 2000s.