Rugby blossoms from humble beginnings

(Other) Thursday 28 March 2013
Rugby blossoms from humble beginnings
England and Scotland last met on the Rugby World Cup stage in the 2011 pool stages

It began with a newspaper advertisement. Carried by The Scotsman and Bell’s Weekly in December 1870, the message was addressed to England’s footballing establishment and simple enough. Scotland’s leading clubs wanted to play an international, against “any side selected from the whole of England”. It would be Rugby rules, and 20-a-side.

The challenge – a sequel of sorts to the offer that led to the first Association Football international nine months earlier – fell on deaf ears until Blackheath, one of England’s leading clubs, intervened. They would raise a side. The date was set for 27 March 1871 at Raeburn Place, the home of Edinburgh Academicals. 

Scotland played two trial matches to determine their team, while England travelled north under the leadership of Blackheath’s Frederic Stokes, a former Rugby School pupil, future president of the Rugby Football Union and a handy cricketer for Kent. Some 4,000 fans turned out for the match, paying a shilling each for the privilege of watching Scotland upset the apple cart.

Ruled out

The hosts edged a confusing affair – the game was played by slightly different rules on either side of the border – by a goal to nil, with halfback William Cross landing the only successful conversion. As a throwback to the sport’s roots, tries were worth nothing and simply allowed a team a shot at the posts. Scotland crossed the line twice to England’s once, although their second provoked some debate as the build-up contained an accidental knock-on, not a problem under Scottish rules but an issue for their visitors. It was probably for the best that Cross’s kick went wide.

The seed had been sown for a rivalry that would help define the countries’ sporting landscape. Stokes returned in 1872 and 1873 for the return fixtures, securing revenge at the Oval before a drawn match in Glasgow, while the contest would later spawn the Calcutta Cup. Made from silver rupees donated by the Calcutta club in India, the Cup now forms a familiar part of the RBS 6 Nations.

Of their 131 meetings, only two England-Scotland contests have taken place at a Rugby World Cup. Most recently, Chris Ashton scored an important try for England in a 16-12 victory at Eden Park in 2011. The pain was acute for the Scots, but perhaps not as searing as their first tournament meeting in the semi finals of Rugby World Cup 1991.

Only a year earlier, Scotland had won a bristling contest at Murrayfield to seal a Grand Slam. They hoped for more of the same as England travelled to Edinburgh off the back of a brutal meeting with France in the quarter finals. They had enjoyed the comforts of home throughout the tournament, defeating the competition’s surprise package Western Samoa in the last eight, and had high hopes of reversing a Twickenham defeat earlier in the year.

Battle hardened

England’s forward pack, picking up the baton from Paris, squeezed the life out of their hosts but the game remained tight until the dying moments. Rob Andrew sealed a 9-6 victory with a drop goal but Scotland’s brilliant full back Gavin Hastings was left to reflect on a rare mistake. His missed penalty, with the scores tied at 6-6, has become an infamous Rugby World Cup moment, even if the memory of it is enough to nudge a tear from the eye of the toughest Scotland supporter.

“In hindsight I ought never to have taken that kick,” Hastings later said in an interview with The Telegraph. “Mick Skinner had just melted me in a tackle and I was down for about two minutes getting treatment. I got up and took the kick but I ought to have given it to Craig Chalmers who would have popped it over and who knows what might have happened.

“Our World Cup dream was over. Once that moment was gone I had to consign it to history. As for the match itself, I still rate it as the most physically demanding game I’ve ever been involved in. Our forwards were under the cosh from the first minute to last. The England pack was so dominant. We fed off scraps, but we gave everything we had, left nothing on the field and came off physically and emotionally exhausted.”

Great oaks from little acorns grow. At Rugby World Cup 2015 there will be new chapters written in rugby’s history, but it all comes back to Scotland’s desire to play.

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