Rugby Union: Major Organisations

International Rugby Board (IRB)

The world governing body and chief lawmaker in rugby union, the International Rugby Board was founded in 1886 as the International Rugby Football Board by representatives from Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Founded by these three, the IRB is today comprised of 95 member unions and 6 regional associations. Despite this change, their headquarters have remained constant since moving to Dublin in Ireland from London in the late 19th century.

Today, meetings are held by the members on a bi-annual basis, with the essential purpose of the IRB being to spread the game worldwide. To that end, the IRB props up the finances of certain struggling unions from smaller countries and has particularly pushed the sport in the Pacific Rim and North America. In the latter region, for example, the Churchill Cup (tournament with England ‘A’, Canada, USA, Scotland, Ireland and the New Zealand M?ori), the Super Powers Cup (tournament with Canada, Japan, Romania and USA) and the North America 4 (competition with Canada East, Canada West, USA Falcons and USA Hawks) have all been established. The IRB is also central to rugby union’s bid for re-inclusion into the Summer Olympics and was key to the development of Rugby Sevens, organising the Sevens World Series (a collection of eight tournaments held across the world annually) and involved in the Commonwealth Games Rugby Sevens.

However, their chief organisational role remains the World Cup (see below), and they are also consulted on the Women’s Rugby World Cup, held every 4 years (one year before the men’s World Cup).

The Board also publishes and maintains the team world rankings, established the IRB Hall of Fame in 2006 (see the website) and holds the annual IRB awards, with 13 gongs on offer, including best team, player and coach.

Rugby Football Union (RFU)

The governing body for rugby union in England, the Rugby Football Union was founded in 1871 by 21 English clubs at the aforementioned historic meeting. Today, the RFU’s roles include managing the English national team (‘England Rugby’) in collaboration with Premier Rugby Limited, organising international matches, developing the grassroots game, and training players and potential coaches. Moreover, after agreeing to merge with the RFUW in 2003, the RFU will also oversee the women’s game.

The key men within the organisation are the President, the national team Coach (who is appointed by the RFU) and the newly devised Director of Elite Rugby, who looks over all levels of the game in the country, from academy to senior level.

Scottish Rugby Union (SRU)

Founded in 1873 and a founder member of the IRB in 1886, the Scottish Rugby Union operates in Scotland in a similar manner to the RFU. The SRU owns Murrayfield Stadium, used by the Scottish national team, and is heavily involved in the organisation of the national side as well as generally governing the men’s and women’s game in the country. The key men are the President, the Men’s national Coach and the Women’s national Coach.

Welsh Rugby Union (WRU)

The governing body for rugby union in Wales, the WRU was founded in 1880 and later participated in the foundation of the IRB in 1886. The WRU today runs the Welsh national team, organises the National Leagues and cups and generally oversees the 293 member clubs, as well as the women’s game. They also own the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, used by the national team. Like the SRU, the key men are the President, the Men’s national Coach and the Women’s national Coach.

Rugby Union in competition

Rugby World Cup

Organised by the IRB and held every four years, the Rugby World Cup is the premier international trophy in rugby union. Mooted ever since the 1950s, the competition only came about as a result of protracted discussions, with the first tournament finally taking place in 1987. Jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand with 16 participants, the winners were the All Blacks, defeating France in the final, 29-9. Since then, the competition has blossomed dramatically, with the 2003 event broadcast in 205 countries and the final recorded as the most watched rugby event in Australian television history.

The format of the competition has also changed. In 2003, 20 teams took part in a month long tournament, as opposed to 16 in 1987. This was preceded by qualification tournaments, as just 8 of the spots are awarded automatically (to the quarter-finalists from the previous competition). Qualifying for the remaining 12 positions is done on a continental basis, with 3 spots given to the Americas, 1 to Asia, 1 to Africa, 3 to Europe and 2 to Oceania. There are also two extra invitations up for grabs; one for the winner of a play-off between the second placed sides from Europe and Africa (who then play the Americas runner-up), the other for the winner of a play-off between the runners-up from the Asia and Oceania qualifiers.

The finals get underway with a group stage. Four pools are drawn with five nations in each, although seeded teams are kept apart at this stage. Four matches are then played by each side, with 4 points for a win and 2 for a draw. The winner and runner-up of each group then qualifies for the knockout rounds, which starts with the quarter-finals. During these matches, extra time and sudden rules apply if necessary. The winner of the final will then be awarded the William Webb Ellis Cup, specially made for the competition and named after one of the founding fathers.

The event’s popularity is partly explained by the level of competition. This is reflected in the number of different winners, with Australia winning in 1991 (over England, 12-6), South Africa taking the title in 1995 (over New Zealand, 15-12), Australia regaining the trophy in 1999 (over France, 35-12) and England claiming victory in 2003 (over Australia in extra-time, 20-17).

Another reason is the number of incredible team and individual performances over the years. The 1999 tournament saw New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu set a record for most tries in one competition with 8, while his countryman Grant Fox in 1987 set the standard for most points with 126. Remarkable team performances also include Australia’s destruction of Namibia in 2003, running out of victors 142-0.

float_left The William Webb Ellis Trophy

England v Australia World Cup Final 2003

Six Nations Championship

An annual competition held between England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, Ireland and France, the Six Nations Championship has arguably the greatest pedigree of any event in rugby union. Formerly the crux of international competition in the sport, today it acts as an unofficial championships for the northern hemisphere, with Tri-Nations Championship (including New Zealand, South Africa and Australia) providing the same for the southern hemisphere.

Founded in 1883 as the Home International Championship with England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales involved, England were victorious with a Triple Crown. France were then informally included in tournaments in the first decade of the 20th century, before joining officially in 1910. Renamed the ‘Five Nations’, England again won the first tournament with the new format. The numbers involved continued to fluctuate over the decades though, with France ejected briefly in 1931 all the way up to 1947, and the competition suspended entirely during the two World Wars.

However, by the 1970s, the Championship has gained real popularity due both to the level of competition, with all teams having won titles (France winning their first outright title in 1959), and the phenomenal sides produced by Wales during the decade. Indeed, it is still very popular despite the World Cup, thanks to the (largely) friendly rivalries between all the countries. Its popularity, as well as that of rugby union in general in the northern hemisphere, was emphasised with Italy’s introduction for the 2000 competition, hence the name ‘Six Nations’. The first tournament was again won by England, but Italy won their first match that year, defeating Scotland at home (their first away victory would also come at Scotland’s expense in 2007).

The format of the Six Nations is simple – one group with all teams included and each team playing one another a single time (home field advantage alternating annually). The winners receive the Championship Trophy, which was first presented to France in 1993. The nature of the victory also counts; teams who win all their matches are considered to have completed the Grand Slam, while a Triple Crown is awarded for beating the other three home nations. Less desirable, the bottom-placed side are said to have won the Wooden Spoon . England are clearly ahead in titles, with 25 outright victories and 10 shared (including 12 Grand Slams and 23 Triple Crowns), with Wales behind on 23 outright and 10 shared (including 9 Grand Slams and 18 Triple Crowns).

The Six Nations has seen its fair share of remarkable performances, with Jonny Wilkinson setting a record for most points in competition with 89 for England in 2001. The record for tries in one competition is held both by CN Lowe of England in 1914 and IS Smith of Scotland in 1925, both touching down 8 times.

float_left The Six Nations Trophy

BBC Six Nations Trailer

Heineken Cup

An annual competition containing the top club teams from England, Wales, France, Italy, Ireland and Scotland, held between October and May. The Cup is considered the most prestigious club rugby union tournament in Europe. Indeed, it was first set up in 1995 as a pseudo-equivalent to the Six Nations Championships at club level.

24 teams contest the Cup; the number of clubs per nation is partially dependent on past performance in the competition. However, on a consistent basis, the top 6 in the Top 14 league in France, the top 5 in the English Premiership, the top 3 Welsh sides in the Celtic League, the top 2 Scottish sides in the Celtic League, the top 3 Irish sides in the Celtic League and the finalists of Italy’s Super 10 all qualify. The winner of the European Challenge Cup also qualifies and will be counted as part of the above allocation (meaning a reduction in the number of qualified teams from that country’s league). The winner of the Anglo-Welsh Cup also qualifies, although this is added to the English or Welsh allocation. The final two spots are decided in the following ways; one spot goes to England, France or Italy depending on whichever country had the team which progressed furthest in the previous year’s competition, while the other spot goes to the winner of a play-off between the best loser in the Celtic League and the best placed losing semi-finalist in Italy’s Super 10.

The Cup format is similar to the World Cup, with 6 groups of four teams playing each other both home and away. The six winners and two best runners-up then contest the quarter-finals. The quarter-final matches are held at the home of the higher seeded teams based on group stage performance. However, both the semi-finals and the final are held at a neutral venue.

Toulouse lead the way with most tournament wins, having picked up three titles, followed by London Wasps and Leicester Tigers with two. England have the most tournament wins by nations as of 2007 though, capturing six to France’s four.

float_left The Heineken Cup

Sky Heineken Cup Trailer

Guinness Premiership

The Premiership is the top division of the English rugby union league system. The idea of such a system first came to fruition in 1987 after decades of the RFU rejecting calls for a league as encouraging foul play and professionalism, settling instead for friendly matches, the EDF Energy Cup in 1971 and the County Cups and County Championships. However, with the advent of the Courage Leagues that year, 108 divisions were organised, covering more than 1000 clubs.

The system was refined over the years, with the home and away rota introduced in 1994 (previously teams played each other just once) and the professional era in 1996/1997 bringing about the fundamental paradigm shift. By the 2000/2001 season, the league had been rebranded the Zurich Championship and the essentials of the current incarnation were in place. Held between September and May, 4 points are awarded for a win and 2 points for a draw, although bonus points are available (1 for only losing by 7 points or fewer, 1 for scoring four or more tries in a match).

One further dramatic innovation came in 2002/2003 with the introduction of the play-off system to determine the actual winner of the league after the 22 rounds between the 12 teams in the division. The current system means the top four sides in the league at the end of the regular season qualify for a chance to win the competition. The 1st placed side plays 4th and 2nd plays 3rd, with the winners meeting in the grand final.

A major source of controversy currently is relegation and promotion. Currently, the winner of National Division One and the last placed club in the Premiership are promoted and relegated respectively, but the debate rages and was intensified when the historic Harlequins RFC were relegated in 2005 (although they returned the following season).

In the short league history of English rugby union, Leicester Tigers have the most titles as of 2007, with 7 to Bath’s 6 and London Wasps’ 5.

float_left The Guinness Premiership Trophy

Guinness Premiership Tribute

EDF Energy Cup

float_right The EDF Energy Cup

Also known as the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the EDF Energy Cup is a knock-out competition involving 16 clubs; 12 of the English Premiership and the 4 Welsh regional clubs of Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Llanelli Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons.

Established in 1971 with the first tournament the following year (entitled the John Player Cup) and won by Gloucester, it changed to the Pilkington Cup in 1989 (and won by the-then dominant Bath at the first time of asking) before rebranding as the Powergen Cup in 2001 (won by Newcastle).

The new format was introduced for 2005-2006, putting an end to the old system, which only allowed all English clubs to enter. Today, there is a pool stage with 4 groups of four teams who play each other once. The winners of each pool are then entered for the semi-finals and the winner of the competition automatically qualifies for the Heineken Cup.

Bath is far and away the most successful club historically, with 10 wins to Leicester’s 6 as of 2007.

European Challenge Cup

float_right The European Challenge Cup

Established as the European Conference in 1996 following the foundation of the Heineken Cup the previous year, the European Challenge Cup is a knock-out competition related to the Heineken Cup with 20 teams competing from England, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Ireland and Romania.

Essentially, all the clubs that fail to qualify for the Heineken Cup can be entered for the European Challenge Cup (comparable to the UEFA Cup in football in terms of prestige). They are joined by the remaining clubs from France’s Top 14 and the Celtic League, the Champions of Romania’s Divizia A and 3 teams from Italy’s Super 10 (two of which are determined by league position, the other place goes to the winners of play-offs between the subsequent 4 teams in the league).

In the competition itself, 5 pools of 4 teams are established, who play each other home and away. The winners and the three best runners-up then qualify for the quarter-finals.

The most successful sides have been NEC Harlequins and Sale Sharks, both with two victories, while England has the most tournament wins by nation with 8 to France’s 7 as of 2007.

Celtic League

float_right The Celtic League Cup

This annual competition is held between September and May contains 10 club sides from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It determines the Heineken Cup qualification for those countries (with the exception of Wales, which also enters the winner of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, if Welsh).

The league was set up in 2001, building on a previous arrangement between the Welsh and Scottish unions to include Edinburgh and Glasgow into the Welsh Premier Division, re-branding it the Welsh-Scottish League for the 1999/2000 season. There had even been talks with the RFU about an Anglo-Welsh merge, but they broke down over the issue of how many clubs each country would contribute. However, rumours of a further expansion involving clubs from South Africa and Italy abound.

The following teams participate in the Celtic League:

  • Wales – Cardiff Blues, Llanelli Scarlets, Newport Gwent Dragons and Ospreys
  • Scotland – Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh
  • Ireland – Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Leinster