To most of the people of Edinburgh, 27 March 1871 was nothing special. As they streamed to work across the city’s bridges, trudging to their workshops and factories in the fine spring air, it seemed just another Monday, heralding the start of another week of toil.
Yet for local residents interested in the new sports that were taking root in Britain’s industrial cities, it would be a day to remember. In that morning’s edition of The Scotsman, an advertisement proclaimed that Raeburn Place, the home ground of the Academical Cricket Club, would be hosting an unprecedented sporting encounter, with entrance costing a shilling a head. At three o’clock, 40 young men from England and Scotland were due to contest the world’s first international rugby match.
There had long been talk of arranging international fixtures. The previous year, an English side had played a team of Scottish exiles at the Oval in London, although they had been playing under the Association (‘soccer’) rules, which were not very popular in Scotland. The football world was still dominated by bickering between the champions of different codes, and in January 1871 representatives from 21 English clubs had met in a Regent Street restaurant to try to standardise rugby regulations and eliminate the more violent excesses.
Their neighbours, however, were determined not to be left behind, and a group of Scottish clubs promptly sent an invitation to London. “With a view of really testing what Scotland can do against an English team,” they wrote, “we, as representing the football interests of Scotland, hereby challenge any team selected from the whole of England, to play us a match, 20-a-side, Rugby rules, either in Edinburgh or Glasgow.”
As though determined to confirm suspicions of English insularity, the newly formed Rugby Football Union did nothing about it. But one of London’s oldest clubs, Blackheath, picked up the gauntlet – and the match was on.
To modern eyes, the world’s first rugby international looks a slightly strange occasion. When the match kicked off, some 4,000 people were packed into Raeburn Place – tiny by today’s standards, of course, but an extraordinary number by the standards of the day. And the teams’ pre-match preparations were a far cry from the meticulous routines of their modern equivalents. The English players had travelled up the previous night, sleeping on bare boards in a third-class carriage, having paid for their tickets themselves.
As for the match itself, rugby in the 1870s would look almost unrecognisable to a modern fan. Scoring a try counted for nothing; it merely allowed the scorers to take a kick at goal. Penalties, meanwhile, were unknown, since no gentleman would ever cheat. And given the persistent bickering over the laws, it is a safe bet that few of the 4,000 spectators would have been entirely clear about the rules.
Still, the next day’s Glasgow Herald told its readers that a fine time had been had by all. “The competitors,” it explained, “were dressed in appropriate costume, the English wearing a white jersey, ornamented by a red rose, and the Scotch a brown jersey, with a thistle… The difference between the two teams was very marked, the English being of a much heavier and stronger build compared to their opponents.” However, to the home fans’ delight, the English failed to score during the first 50 minutes, and after the teams had changed ends the Scots began to dominate.
As might have been predicted, confusion about the rules flared up again, with the English players bitterly complaining about a Scottish try. Some accounts suggest that the Scots had barged their way over the line, others that a player had fumbled the ball, which was a foul in England but not in Scotland. Either way, the fact is that the game ended with Scotland triumphant, having scored one goal and two tries to England’s solitary try. Afterwards, the ball was exhibited in a shop window in Stockbridge, a symbol of Caledonian pride at a time when the newspapers were debating the prospects for Scottish home rule.
Yet, in a preview of controversies to come, one of the match umpires, a local headmaster, had not even seen the winning score. Dr HH Almond’s view had been obstructed by the crush on the line, but he had decided to give the verdict to Scotland anyway. “When an umpire is in doubt, I think he is justified in deciding against the side which makes the most noise,” he said later. “They are probably in the wrong.”
Dominic Sandbrook is a presenter and historian
This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine