Europe’s Elite – An in-depth look at the history of the RBS 5/6 Nations Championship

Introduction

On the opening weekend of February 2008, Ireland face Italy; Scotland host France whilst Wales cross the border over to Twickenham to face arch rivals England. The series of matches will commemorate the 125th anniversary of rugby union’s oldest existing tournament – the RBS Six Nations Championship.

Formerly known as both the ‘Home International Championship’ and 5 Nations, the competition brings together six countries all hoping to capture the glory of the Six Nations crown – and with that, the bragging rights of being able to call themselves Europe’s elite team.

Though maybe not matching the same level of rugby skills displayed in the Tri Nations – consisting of the northern hemisphere’s southern counterparts, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – nothing can rival the passion, intensity and competitive edge of the RBS Six Nations Championship.

Come the springtime months of February and March, rugby fans either gather around the sofa or make the various trips to Murrayfield in Edinburgh, Lansdowne Road (currently Croke Park) in Dublin, the Stade de France in Paris, Stadio Flaminio in Rome, Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and England’s HQ Twickenham to pledge allegiance to their national side.

Joyous singing of the national anthems takes place: God Save the Queen (England), La Marseillaise (France), Ireland’s Call, Il Canto degli Italiani (Italy), Flower of Scotland and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Wales), before the bone-crunching action and high drama kicks-off all over again.

How It All Began

In 1871, England and Scotland clashed in the first official rugby union international. Over the following 12 years, both the English and Scots would compete against each other in an occasional friendly encounter. However it was in 1883 – where Ireland and Wales would join the fray – that the inaugural ‘Home International Championship’ was created.

England would be victorious – claiming a clean sweep and therefore the Triple Crown (an award for beating all Home Nations in the same year). Up until 1893, England and Scotland would share championship glory, though several controversies meant many were not fully completed.

Wales would cause anger through the rewarding of a testimonial fund to then star player Arthur Gould, while England were banned from the tournament in 1888 and 1889 due to an on-going argument with the newly formed International Rugby Board (IRB).

Welsh and Irish triumphs in 1893 and 1894 ended Anglo-Scottish dominance, yet the competition did not really take proper shape until France’s inclusion in 1910, and the development of the ‘Five Nations’.

England would again win the first newly formed ‘Five Nations’ tournament. The following season in 1911, Wales would record the first Grand Slam: a tag given to a side who had defeated the other four teams in that calendar year.

The championship was temporarily suspended twice for World Wars I (1914-1918) and II (1939-1945). In between, Scotland would claim their debut Grand Slam in 1925, whilst France would be barred from the tournament in 1931.

Reasons for France’s omission included fears over a developing professionalism within the French game, in what was still an amateur sport.

From 1932-39, the competition was re-branded the Home Nations, before France gained re-entry in 1947 and the championship reverted back to being the Five Nations.

Ireland would celebrate their first (and to this day their only) Five Nations Grand Slam in 1948. The returning French would claim their first shared title in 1954 alongside England and Wales. They would finally claim an outright title victory in 1959 – in the process ending a 44-year long barren spell.

So before the start of the 1960s, the Five Nations Championship, a unique international rugby tournament, had been firmly established.

Prizes At Stake

Another unique selling point of the RBS Six Nations is that there are more trophies on offer for the competing teams than in any other premier rugby union tournament.

Other than the trophy for winning the tournament itself (first presented physically to France in 1993), the most prestigious has to be the Grand Slam. This is available to all six countries and is awarded to the team which has beaten all five other teams in that one season.

Consecutive Grand Slams have only been achieved on five separate occasions – by Wales in 1908/1909, England in 1913/1914, 1923/1924 and 1991/1992, with the most recent being France in 1997/1998.

There is also the Triple Crown, which can be awarded only to England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales – again if they have defeated the other three sides that year. England lead the way with 23, followed by Wales on 18, Scotland on 10 and lastly Ireland with 9. An actual trophy for the achievement though has only been presented since 2006.

Since 1988, Ireland and England have battled for the Millennium Trophy (celebrating Dublin’s millennium) while Celtic rivals Scotland have faced Ireland for the Centenary Quaich from 1989 onwards.

2007 saw France claim the inaugural Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy, created for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Italian hero who helped unify Italy. He was born in Nizza in 1807, which today is the French city of Nice.

However, the most historic gold of them all is the Calcutta Cup, fought between England and Scotland since 1879, even before the formation of the ‘Home International Championship’ and subsequent 5 / 6 Nations tournaments.

Finally there is the symbolic Wooden Spoon, an ‘award’ for the side that finishes bottom of the table after every match has been played.

1970-2000

The decade of the 1970s saw the Five Nations officially become the must-see premier rugby union tournament in the Northern Hemisphere. Matches were now described as all-ticket affairs with TV audience figures booming.

Further controversy occurred though in 1972 though, with the tournament remaining incomplete following IRA threats aimed at both Scotland and Wales, who therefore refused to travel across to Dublin to face Ireland.

Yet 1973 would see a return to brilliant rugby on the pitch and a one-off finish to the final standings. All five sides won two games but suffered two losses, resulting in a historic five-way tie for the championship.

The feat will never be repeated as after 1994, teams tied level on the same number of points at the end of the championship are separated by points difference.

Wales would be the dominant force throughout the seventies with star names such as Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams, claiming three Grand Slam titles in 1971, 1976 and 1978 and two Triple Crowns.

In turn, France who had waited so long for success in the early stages of the tournament, would become the team to beat during the 1980s. In total, France secured six championships in ten years.

The monopoly of French glory has continued, though it has often been shared with England during the 1990s, as the game of rugby union turned professional on 27 August 1995. Ireland meanwhile have not won the title for 22 years.

Scotland, however, who claimed a Grand Slam in 1990 would be the recipients of the last ever Five Nations trophy in 1999. It was made famous by their fly-half, Gregor Townsend, scoring a try in each of the games played. Yet change was on the horizon for the tournament once more.

When Five Became Six

In the millennium year of 2000, Italy would join the championship previously known as the Five Nations, leading to it being renamed the RSB Six Nations Championship. As in previous years, more rugby history was created post 2000.

Newcomers Italy would immediately claim a debut victory in their premier season at home to Scotland in the Stadio Flaminio, Rome.

England would be successful in the first two Six Nation campaigns, and in 2003 (their World Cup-winning year). France (who dominated the late 1980s and 1990s) would claim an inaugural Six Nations Grand Slam in 2002, and have so far once more swept away the competition, following the new tournament format.

Wales, in 2005, would claim their first Grand Slam since 1978 and the golden era of Welsh rugby, defeating Ireland 32-20 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It was also the first time Wales had beaten the Irish on home soil in 22 years, last doing so in 1983.

Their achievements were made historic further as it is the only time a team has achieved the Grand Slam after playing more games away than at home.

Last year saw the French victorious once more, on points difference over Ireland, as was the case in 2006. Indeed the French needed a last gasp try at home to Scotland to pip the Irish to the post.

Despite numerous Wooden Spoons, 2006 and 2007 has witnessed great Italian progress. Italy won their first away point at Wales by virtue of a nail-biting draw and last season saw them finish fourth, their highest ever position, after recording two victories over Wales in Rome, and away at Murrayfield against Scotland – another first.

The modern era has also heralded the development of a Women’s Six Nations Championship, over the same period as their male counterparts. Introduced in 2001, again Europe’s top national sides battle it out.

Until last season, Italy had been replaced by Spain as one of the six participants. Otherwise the same national teams take part as in the men’s draw.

With this year’s competition having just kicked-off, further drama can be expected with the tournament now more unpredictable than ever. What remains predictable, however, is that the RBS Six Nations Championship is by far and away the annual stand-out event in the rugby union calendar year.

RBS SIX NATIONS ROLL OF HONOUR

New Millennium: Six Nations

  • 2007 France (Ireland win Triple Crown)

  • 2006 France (Ireland win Triple Crown)
  • 2005 Wales Grand Slam winners
  • 2004 France Grand Slam winners (Ireland win Triple Crown)
  • 2003 England Grand Slam winners
  • 2002 France Grand Slam winners (England win Triple Crown)
  • 2001 England
  • 2000 England (Italy joins)

Recent Years: Five Nations

  • 1999 Scotland

  • 1998 France Grand Slam winners (England win Triple Crown)
  • 1997 France Grand Slam winners (England win Triple Crown)
  • 1996 England Triple Crown winners
  • 1995 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1994 Wales
  • 1993 France
  • 1992 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1991 England Grand slam winners
  • 1990 Scotland Grand Slam winners
  • 1989 France
  • 1988 Wales & France (Wales win Triple Crown)
  • 1987 France Grand Slam winners
  • 1986 France & Scotland
  • 1985 Ireland Triple Crown winners
  • 1984 Scotland Grand Slam winners
  • 1983 France & Ireland
  • 1982 Ireland Triple Crown winners
  • 1981 France Grand Slam winners
  • 1980 England Grand Slam winners

Post-War Years: Five Nations

  • 1979 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1978 Wales Grand Slam winners
  • 1977 France Grand Slam winners (Wales win Triple Crown)
  • 1976 Wales Grand Slam winners
  • 1975 Wales
  • 1974 Ireland
  • 1973 Five-way tie
  • 1972 NOT COMPLETED
  • 1971 Wales Grand Slam winners
  • 1970 France & Wales
  • 1969 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1968 France Grand Slam winners
  • 1967 France
  • 1966 Wales
  • 1965 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1964 Scotland & Wales
  • 1963 England
  • 1962 France
  • 1961 France
  • 1960 France & England (England win Triple Crown)
  • 1959 France
  • 1958 England
  • 1957 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1956 Wales
  • 1955 France & Wales
  • 1954 England, France & Wales (England win Triple Crown)
  • 1953 England
  • 1952 Wales Grand Slam winners
  • 1951 Ireland
  • 1950 Wales Grand Slam winners
  • 1949 Ireland Triple Crown winners
  • 1948 Ireland Grand Slam winners
  • 1947 Wales & England (France rejoins)

INTER-WAR YEARS: Four & Five Nations

  • 1939 England, Wales & Ireland

  • 1938 Scotland Triple Crown winners
  • 1937 England Triple Crown winners
  • 1936 Wales
  • 1935 Ireland
  • 1934 England Triple Crown winners
  • 1933 Scotland Triple Crown winners
  • 1932 England, Wales & Ireland
  • 1931 Wales (France leaves)
  • 1930 England
  • 1929 Scotland
  • 1928 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1927 Scotland & Ireland
  • 1926 Scotland & Ireland
  • 1925 Scotland Grand Slam winners
  • 1924 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1923 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1922 Wales
  • 1921 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1920 England, Scotland & Wales

PRE-WAR YEARS: Four & Five Nations

  • 1914 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1913 England Grand Slam winners
  • 1912 England & Ireland
  • 1911 Wales Grand Slam winners
  • 1910 England (France joins tournament)
  • 1909 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1908 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1907 Scotland Triple Crown winners
  • 1906 Ireland & Wales
  • 1905 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1904 Scotland
  • 1903 Scotland Triple Crown winners
  • 1902 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1901 Scotland Triple Crown winners
  • 1900 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1899 Ireland Triple Crown winners
  • 1898 NOT COMPLETED
  • 1897 NOT COMPLETED
  • 1896 Ireland
  • 1895 Scotland Triple Crown winners
  • 1894 Ireland Triple Crown winners
  • 1893 Wales Triple Crown winners
  • 1892 England Triple Crown winners
  • 1891 Scotland Triple Crown winners
  • 1890 England & Scotland
  • 1889 NOT COMPLETED
  • 1888 NOT COMPLETED
  • 1887 Scotland
  • 1886 England & Scotland
  • 1885 NOT COMPLETED
  • 1884 England Triple Crown winners
  • 1883 England Triple Crown winners
  • 1882 England Only England and Wales