History of the Rugby Six Nations Championship
Rugby fans know the Six Nations as the premier rugby union tournament in Europe, with six of the best European sides battling for national pride. But the competition wasn’t always such a European affair. While the Six Nations Championship has grown to include France and Italy, its origin is firmly rooted are within the United Kingdom.
The origins of the Six Nations Championship date back to 1871, when teams from England and Scotland played in the first-ever rugby union international match. In 1879, the Calcutta Cup was created as a prize for the winner of occasional matches played between teams from the two countries. Other Home Countries also became interested in international rugby union, leading to the creation of the Home International Championship in 1883, the first-ever international rugby tournament with teams from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
England and Scotland dominated the early years of the Home International Championship, with the two teams combining to win nine of the first ten championships. Increased interest in the sport lead to greater parity, with Wales and Ireland winning four of the last five championships contested at the end of the 19th century.
France join the fray
The growth of rugby union throughout Europe in the early part of the 20th century brought opportunities to expand the championship outside of the Home Nations, with France showing a particularly keen interest. After competing unofficially in the tournament for a few seasons, France officially became one of the teams in 1910, with the tournament renamed the Five Nations to reflect the new structure. However, France initially was hardly a competitive factor, as they won just one game in their first four years of tournament play.
Outbreak of war
The growth of the Five Nations was slowed by the outbreak of World War I in Europe, as the tournament was shut down from 1914 until 1920. France continued to struggle competitively after the tournament resumed, and were dropped in 1931 because of mismanagement in their administration and allegations that their amateur players had been paid to play at a club level. The tournament reverted back into a Home Nations contest until 1939, when the outbreak of World War II forced a halt to athletic competitions throughout Europe.
When the tournament resumed in 1947, France was brought back into the mix and allowed to compete in the Five Nations structure. Within a decade, the French would establish themselves as not just a competitive side but one of the dominant forces in international rugby union. They shared the Five Nations title in 1954 and 1955 and then had a streak of four consecutive championships from 1959-1962.
Italy make it Six
The tournament continued with the four Home Nations sides and France until 2000, when Italy joined the renamed Six Nations Championship. The Italians had an auspicious start, claiming a victory in their first-ever tournament match when they defeated Scotland in Rome. However, Italy are still clearly the minnows of the Six Nations teams; their best-ever finish in the tournament was fourth in 2007 after claiming back-to-back wins against Scotland and Ireland, and they’ve won just eight of their 60 matches played through the 2011 tournament.
Winning a Six Nations Championship is a point of pride for any side, but there are additional accolades available within the structure. The most glamorous is for a side to earn the Grand Slam by winning all five of their matches. The French squad of 2010 was the last team to accomplish this feat. In addition, trophies are awarded to the winners of certain matches: the Calcutta Cup for the winner of the England vs. Scotland match and the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy for the victor between Italy and France are two examples.
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