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The first international rugby match

On the 8th of December 1870 a letter appeared in the pages of “The Scotsman” and “Bell's life”, a London magazine inviting footballers from England to participate in a match played by the “Rugby Rules”.

The challenge followed an “International” played by the Association rules in March at the Oval in London. This match had been played between an English side and a group of “Exiles” many of whose connection with Scotland was tenuous to say the least. A second attempted match in November, where a representative side from Scotland was this time sought, was widely ignored as Association Football had still to establish the strong hold over Scottish society, which we take for granted today. At the time there were only four clubs in Scotland playing the Association rules, Queens Park, Thistle, Hamilton and Airdrie. The majority of football clubs played by the Rugby code and there was a sense of grievance felt that Scotland would be at a disadvantage playing by a set of rules with which these clubs were familiar.

It was against this background that the representatives of West of Scotland FC, Edinburgh Academical FC, Merchistonian FC, Glasgow Academical FC and St. Salvator FC (St. Andrews) offered the match.
“…with a view of really testing what Scotland can do against an English team we, as representing the football interests of, hereby challenge any team selected from the whole of England, to play us a match, twenty-a-side, Rugby rules, either in Edinburgh or Glasgow,…”

This challenge openly laid was ignored by the Football Association but the gauntlet was picked up appropriately enough by Blackheath, one of London's oldest clubs. Only 7 years earlier Blackheath had led a walk out from the inaugural meeting of the Football Association. There had been a disagreement over the rules to be adopted. Surprisingly not over the issue of handling the ball, but over the issue of “hacking”. The challenge accepted, the English started to organise the selection of the 20 players who would be the first to wear the famous “red rose”.

North of the Border a date was set, Monday 27th March 1871, and preparations were made. The match was to be played in Edinburgh and the Academical Cricket Club were approached to lease the ground. Raeburn Place was given it's role as the scene of the first ever International match. The Scots committee decided to play a couple of trial matches in Edinburgh and Glasgow in order to select a side truly representative of Scotland.

The match had caught the mood of the country, while both codes of football were still very much the preserve of the middle-classes, there was developing sporting fever in mid-Victorian Britain. Prior to the match, advice was being issued to the side through the letters page of the Scotsman and the match was eagerly anticipated.

On the day of the match an advertisement appeared in the “The Scotsman” indicating the time and the place and an entrance fee of one shilling. 4,000 people paid to go through the gate at Raeburn Place raising a sum in excess of £200, a considerable sum for the time. The match was to be played over two 50 minute halves. In the end the match was won, narrowly, by Scotland with a goal and a try to a solitary try by England. The methods of scoring were very different than that seen today. The try, which is now accorded 5 points and is very much seen as the principle means of scoring, was then not considered worthy of anything. The try provided an opportunity to kick at the posts, a “try at goal”, the ball going over the post was the score and was a goal, what we now call the conversion. There were no penalty goals, as it was accepted that gentlemen would not cheat.

The first try in International rugby was scored by Angus Buchanan, this was duly converted by W Cross, which provided the first full score and ultimately the win.

The match did not go on without some heated disputes. The rules throughout Britain still varied and it was common for disputes to occur and even for matches to end as one side, feeling aggrieved, would simply leave the field. So it was here, when the English disputed the second Scottish try. As the ball was thrown in, a Scot, J W Arthur, accidentally knocked the ball on, as it fell over the English line. It was then touched down for a try. Not surprisingly, the English protested about the knock-on, however in Scotland this was acceptable, if it was judged not to have been deliberate and so the try stood, but went unconverted.

During the dispute, H H Almond, one of the early giants of Scottish rugby, found himself having to settle with his own wisdom. His decision making process was laid out later, when he wrote;

“I must, say, however, that when an umpire is in doubt, I think he is justified in deciding against the side which makes the most noise. They are probably in the wrong.”

The victory was enthusiastically received with the match ball going on exhibition at a local Stockbridge shop window for many weeks after.

For the England side the whole experience had come as a shock. There had been no awareness of the sport's popularity in Scotland and a return fixture at the Kennington Oval was arranged in February 1872. This time England were victorious, but now the English clubs played under the auspices of the Rugby Football Union, whose inaugural AGM was held in October 1871.

These early internationals provided the impetus behind the regulation and standardisation of the sport.

The Scotland v England match had become an annual fixture. On the 3rd of March 1873, the game was played in Hamilton Crescent in Glasgow, the home of West of Scotland Cricket Club. Following the match, a meeting was held to discuss the setting up of a Football Union, and so the Scottish Football Union was formed.

The match is now played as part of the Six Nations tournament but still retains certain unique qualities. Long before there was a trophy for the championship the only tangible “silverware” on offer was the Calcutta Cup, which is the oldest trophy in world rugby. Played annually this magnificent trophy was made by Indian silversmiths from melted-down Silver rupees. This had been the balance of the funds of the Calcutta Football Club, which had disbanded in 1878.

The cup was donated to the RFU to be played in a challenge match between Scotland and England. The match has been played annually with only three breaks. Play was suspended for the duration of both World Wars, March 1914 until March 1920, then March 1939 to March 1946.

The only other period where the game ceased was during the time of the Great Dispute in the 1880s. Once settled it introduced a law to the game which marks out rugby and the way it is refereed, the “advantage law”. In the match of 1884 the English scored a try after a Scottish player had knocked the ball on. The Scots had stopped playing due to the infringement and called for the try to be disallowed. The English were aggrieved that they might suffer because of a Scottish error.

The dispute did not end with the match and the RFU would not allow an independent arbitration of the matter, arguing that as the oldest Union, they were the sole guarantors of the Laws of the game. In the end play between Scotland and England was stopped for two seasons and Ireland and Wales supported Scotland. When the RFU eventually compromised, the International Rugby Football Board was formed. This allowed the fixture to be restored and once again the challenge with the Auld Enemy could be taken up.

With the benefit of historical perspective it can be said that the kernel of the whole structure of an international sport came from the vision of a group of Scots who simply wanted to play a game of rugby.

Written by: Alex Gordon



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