The First Rugby International

27th March 2021

The first international rugby match was held 150 years ago today – 27th March 1871 – when Scotland defeated England at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh in front of about 4,000 spectators. Scotland scored two tries and a goal (a converted try) to England’s single try. In modern scoring, that would be 17 points to 5 – decisive enough – and the following day’s Glasgow Herald duly recognised “a result most satisfying to Scotland”.

The respective compositions of the teams reflected the different initial paths that rugby football was taking in the two countries. Apart from one player from the West of Scotland club, the entire Scottish side played for either public school old boys clubs or the universities. Edinburgh Academicals – whose home ground Raeburn Place remains to this day – supplied 6 players. (West of Scotland FC, formed in 1865, were the only open club of the 8 who went on to form the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) in 1873, two years after the first international).

By contrast, English rugby was already evolving around a locally based club system across the country. The Blackheath and Manchester clubs both supplied 4 players and Liverpool 3, whilst West Kent, The Gypsies and Ravenscourt Park provided 2 each. (None of the last 3 clubs survived the 1880s). Incidentally, for anyone counting heads, the first international was 20-a-side.

My own attendance at rugby union internationals covers a mere one-third of their total lifespan. I began with Wales versus England at Cardiff Arms Park in 1975 and, to date, the most recent is the Scotland versus New Zealand encounter at Murrayfield in the group stages of the 2007 World Cup. (On the latter occasion, I was less than impressed when, after I had stumped up £85 for a ticket in the West Stand, Scotland fielded a near-second XV, so that the first-choice players could avoid injury and be ready for the subsequent group match with Italy. The New Zealand captain, Richie McCaw, strolled over for a try in the first few minutes and the All Blacks cantered to a 40-0 win).

During this period, I accumulated a total of 27 spectating caps: 17 for England, two of which were against Scotland (including the latter’s win at Twickenham in 1983, their last – until this year – on that ground) and a further 10 for Scotland against other countries. My success rate for England is low (6 wins in total or 35 per cent) and for Scotland even lower (4 out of 12, or 33 per cent). A total of seven visits to watch England in Cardiff or Paris has resulted in seven defeats.

Of course, my exposure to international rugby union had begun long before I attended a game. I reported in An Ordinary Spectator that I watched games on television from an early age and stored some famous tries in my memory bank – Richard Sharp’s classic fly-half’s try against Scotland in 1963; Andy Hancock’s length of the field effort for England, also against Scotland, in 1965; Keith Jarrett flashing on from the left of the screen to catch a bouncing ball and hare down the touchline in Cardiff to score for Wales against England in 1967. But my actual spectating debut was some 12 years after I had seen my first rugby league international when, as a 9 year-old, I was taken to the ferocious Great Britain/Australia test match at Headingley in 1963.

Whatever celebrations the SRU or Edinburgh Academicals had planned for today’s anniversary have had to be put on hold, of course. How I would have liked to have taken the train from Milngavie to Edinburgh this lunchtime and gone to Raeburn Place either to watch a match or, if not, simply to have walked around the open space in which the historic encounter took place in 1871. Curse this blasted coronavirus pandemic. But I will carry out that mission at some stage in the future.

As the sport’s overall governing body – World Rugby – celebrates 150 years of international competition, there is much with which it needs to engage if the future is to remain bright. The impact of repeated head trauma on the long-term health of players, the legal cases being prepared by some former players against the administrators for the alleged insufficient duty of care, the need to make the game more attractive for spectators to watch… These are all weighty issues.

My own bête noir, which I have noted before (“Nationality”, 7th February 2018), is the ease with which international caps can be won by players whose links to the country are, at best, tenuous or opportunist via either the grandparent qualification or the three-year residency rules. (Of the 46 players in Scotland and Ireland’s match squads for the opening round of this year Six Nations tournament, no fewer than 14 (30 per cent) had been born outside the country they were representing, including 9 (20 per cent) in either New Zealand or South Africa).

What will be guaranteed is the continued ability of the sport of rugby union to evolve. 150 years ago, we not only had 20 players a side… and the need to register a “goal” in order to win a match… and halves of 50 minutes in duration… We also had a different of sartorial preferences.

The Scotland team played in brown shirts, adorned with a thistle, and white cricket flannels.

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