A History Of The Six Nations

Jason Hennessy

Jason Hennessy

Jason is the editor at RugbyLAD. Any queries big or small you can reach him at [email protected]
Jason Hennessy

For all the Southern Hemisphere domination of the sport, there is just no tournament in the world with the same history, magic and mystique of the Six Nations.

From the piper standing high on top of the stands at Murrayfield to the roar of the Dublin crowd enjoying the craic, from the sunshine of a spring game in Rome to rows about the roof at the Millennium Stadium, the tournament captures our imagination every year. Over seven weeks and 15 compelling matches, it takes us from the cold, dark depths of post-Christmas winter to the bright, warm days of early spring.

There is no other tournament like it for filling stadiums and gluing fans to their TV screens, and it is rarely short of drama, from the nail-biting, last-minute math of the 2015 season to the rampant final game victories like Wales’s 30-3 win against England the previous year.

As winners of the tournament for the last two years, and runners-up four consecutive years before that, the Six Nations’ odds clearly favor England, but it hasn’t always been this way. Going back to the 19th century, the tournament has seen every nation enjoy a purple patch — apart from Italy. But it hasn’t been an easy ride for the world’s oldest rugby tournament, with war, disputes and even domestic political troubles often getting in the way of this exciting festival of sports.

It all started with an invitation to a twenty man per side game north of the border. This first home nations rugby international, indeed the first rugby international match ever, was between England and Scotland way back in 1871. The match took place in Edinburgh, with Scotland winning by two tries to one and Angus Buchanan scoring the first ever international try. Only one of the three tries were converted, by Scotland, and with no formal points-scoring system, Scotland was declared the winner by one goal to nil. The benefit of home advantage showed up early, however, as England got revenge at The Oval (formerly Kennington) the following year, beating Scotland by two goals to one. The two teams repeated the fixture annually, alternating between Edinburgh, London or Manchester up to 1882 with England winning four of the 12 games to Scotland’s three, with five draws.

After this series of international friendlies, Ireland and Wales were invited to join the competition, with the first official British Home Championship held in 1883. In this first championship, England dominated to take both the title and the triple crown. Unfortunately, however, the fledgling tournament got off to a troubled start, with disputes in 1885, 1887 and 1889 preventing the competition from taking place. Unruly crowds, especially in Wales, and threats to referees contributed to abandoned games and disrupted tournaments.

Four became five in 1910, the year England moved to Twickenham when France was invited to join the rugby party. They took a while to get up to speed, winning just one game in their first four years, and even that was by just a point.

The first World War put the game on hold from 1914 to 1920, and following the resumption of play, England rose to dominate the tournament with three grand slams in five seasons before Scotland swept it all in 1925. Scotland went on to be the first home nations side to beat England at “Fortress Twickenham” in 1926.

Five became four again soon after, with France withdrawing from what was strictly an amateur competition after it was found that some of their players were being paid by their clubs. France would not rejoin the tournament until 1939, and not play again until after the Second World War when play resumed in 1947.

It was now Ireland’s turn to rise to prominence, with three titles in four years between 1948 and 1951 before 11 years of English/French dominance, with 10 championships between them interrupted only by a single Welsh win.

More problems were to follow, with the 1972 tournament left incomplete when both Scotland and Wales refused to travel to Dublin at the height of political unrest.

As if in a show of unity, the following year saw a unique five-way tie for the Five Nations, with each team winning two games and losing two. It was not until 1994 that teams with equal win/loss records were separated by point difference.

The 1970s saw a resurgence in Welsh rugby, with legends like J.P.R. Williams and Gareth Edwards leading them to six outright wins and two tied wins between 1969 and 1979.

Inspired by the Welsh success, France rose to dominance in the 1980s, with six outright or shared wins in nine years, and England winning four out of six tournaments between 1991 and 1996.

The turn of the millennium saw Italy invited into the tournament, and while they have picked up the wooden spoon 12 times since, they have also avoided it on six occasions, even finishing fourth in 2007.

With the advent of professionalism in the world of rugby in 1995, the Six Nations, as it is now known, has become a much tighter affair, with no single nation dominating the sport and just one grand slam in the last five years. England, France, Wales and Ireland have all won the tournament in this decade, and with Scotland improving all the time, things will only get tighter.

To help separate the teams, and to encourage more high-scoring, free-flowing rugby to entertain the crowds, the latest innovation in the Six Nations is the bonus point system. Introduced in last year’s competition, this new system gives a bonus point for four tries, as well as a losing bonus point for teams who are defeated by fewer than seven points. There are also three extra bonus points for winning the grand slam.

Within the history of the Six Nations Championship, there are several smaller competitions that also date back many years and represent personal rivalries between nations. The oldest of these is the Calcutta Cup, which is fought for by England and Scotland. Back in 1879, before the Home Nations even began, the first Calcutta Cup match ended in a draw, and England finally lifted the trophy the following year.

England also competes for the Millennium Trophy against Ireland, which was introduced to celebrate Dublin’s millennium in 1988, in addition to Ireland competing with Wales for the Centenary Quaich since 1989. Not wanting to miss out on the prize giving, Italy began presenting the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy in 2007 to the winner of their match against France, though the trophy has only remained in Rome twice in 11 years.

With the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan just around the corner, the 2018 Six Nations has added intrigue. Plenty of players will be out to cement their place and stake a claim for a seat on the plane next year. What’s more, on the back of 23 wins out of 24 games, England has set their sights on becoming the number one team in the world this year, adding even more importance to every fixture. All of which means that this year’s tournament looks likely to live up to its mighty heritage and deliver thrills from Dublin to Paris, from Murrayfield in the north to the Stadio Olimpico in the South.