Ian Smith's Six Nations - Part 1

By Ian Smith
January 22 2019

The 2019 Guinness Six Nations officially kicks off tomorrow with the official launch & the build-up to the first game on Friday 1st Feb, France v Wales. Ian Smith, best known as the commentator for our games on BBC Radio Newcastle, a veteran of more than 500 Falcons games, reviews the origins of the competition, where it is today, and what it may become with the passing of time.



Introduction - Football, Bill McLaren, and Smithy's love of rugby.

As we go through life we are always at a particular point in time and we live for the moment by reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future. Our reflections are based upon our experiences and how these experiences shape our futures is a very complex and individualistic thing.

My life experiences have been influenced and shaped by my involvement in and love of sport. There are not many sports that do not capture my attention but as a Geordie it was soccer and the black and whites of Newcastle United that found their way into my heart as a youngster growing up on Tyneside. I remember with fondness my first game at St James Park when I turned up with my mates as a rather short eleven year old who could not see the pitch until a total stranger sat me on a barrier in the Popular Terrace to watch the Toon take on the mighty Bury.

My love of football has not been lost but as I grew older rugby took over.

I can’t pinpoint a particular event that made me so passionate but I have vivid recollections of watching international rugby. These are really strong, formative memories from the time when there were no Autumn Internationals so the Five Nations tournament was the pinnacle of the rugby year. As a kid I watched the internationals on television at home and then as rugby became what I did on a Saturday and the word "Betamax" became commonplace, the venue changed to the bar at whatever club we had played at that afternoon.

Television is predominantly a visual medium and the images were on the screen for all to see but as I think back, it is not the images that I remember most vividly. The abiding memory for me was this lovely borders lilt amplifying and adding to those images with words of good humour and insight that drew you in and almost forced you to concentrate on the game. I can sit back in my chair, close my eyes and hear the words as clearly as if it were yesterday:

"It’s high enough, it’s long enough AND IT’S STRAIGHT ENOUGH."

"That one was a bit inebriated – just like one of my golf shots."

"Those props are as cunning as a bag o’ weasels."

There was chatter in the bar but the big man’s voice was always audible.

As a commentator, coach and teacher, Bill McLaren influenced the lives of many people in different ways but most of all for me he embodied the values of a good man who loved his borders heritage and rugby in equal measure. Sadly Bill McLaren passed away on 19th January 2010 and I firmly believe that he had more than a small influence on pushing football into the background and bringing me lock, stock and barrel into our sport. For me the 2010 Six Nations Championship, the tournament with which he was synonymous, was played as a tribute to a man who was a true rugby man.

The passing of Bill McLaren touched the hearts of many and as well as his love of rugby his love of his borders roots was something very special for him and he famously said that a day away from Hawick was a day wasted.

Rugby has changed a lot since his father introduced him to rugby in his beloved Hawick but maybe the changes in rugby are simply a reflection of our contemporary society. Bill McLaren was Scottish with a strong affinity to the Borders and I am an English Geordie with a strong affinity to Tyneside but the social and sporting society within which these traits of belonging and culture are experienced are very different now to previous generations.

It can be argued that our sense of belonging and culture are being diluted in a globalised world and it may be a consequence that as we attempt to hang onto our personal identity, our history and cultural heritage become even more important.

"Nothing matters more than who we are in the world, where we have been and where we are going, the issue of identity is at the heart of our society and involves everyone."

Jackie Kay MBE, Professor of Creative Writing, Newcastle University


I am lucky to have had the opportunity to travel extensively with my involvement within education and rugby and I find it interesting to contrast the similarities and distinct differences that exist within our contemporary society.

The multi-cultural nature of our society with all its vibrancy and diversity has added more colour and life to our existence along with the many challenges that integration demands.

It is within this wider context that professional rugby has established itself and the reality of the existence of the professional rugby player is now well understood. The need for players to maximise their earning potential in their short playing careers has led to a sporting workforce who are transient in nature and mirror the cultural vibrancy and diversity of society within our rugby clubs.

Even within the difficult political and social climate we currently have I believe that society is moving us in a direction that embraces integration but at certain times we have the need to demonstrate our distinctiveness. For us for whom rugby is important, this need for being what we are can be satisfied to a certain extent by the support for our club and the pride we get from the team wearing the shirt. At international level, it is the singing of the anthem that gives both player and supporter an alignment to their cultural roots, even if that pride spans the generations and is spoken of in a different accent.

Our eldest boy Andrew was part of the Strength and Conditioning team with Scotland and Glasgow Warriors for several years and telephoned me after a Wales v Scotland Six Nations game in the Millenium Stadium to say "Dad, I don’t know what the players felt like during the National anthems but my knees went".

Rugby can provide the vehicle for this expression of identity.

The television company’s whose money props up so many sports have exploited the thirst of sports fans world wide for armchair involvement and both Northern and Southern hemisphere rugby competitions at both club and international level enjoy global exposure. Every four years we have the Rugby World Cup with the next gathering to take place later in the year in Japan. Annually we have the November Autumn Internationals where Southern Hemisphere opposition enjoy the delights of Europe and Northern Hemisphere summer tours where the Europeans turn their backs on the warmth of the sun to face the rigours of bruising rugby in the Southern Hemisphere winters.

There are also the one off games that appear to be ever more prevalent as the rugby masters pulled by the lure of the TV money divert passing teams to play matches in neutral venues in the name of spreading the rugby message like Victorian missionaries.

In the Southern Hemisphere Australia, New Zealand and South Africa competed to be top dogs in the Tri Nations competition and it is to that competition that Argentina added their considerable bulk in 2012.

In the Northern Hemisphere there is talk of adding teams to the Six Nations and possibly having two divisions with promotion and relegation. As money talks there will always be a drive to change in the interest of "Adding Value" to the product and only time will tell if the desire to change actually delivers. All I know is that as the New Year arrives, rugby folk start thinking about the pleasures of late winter in Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Paris and Rome.

As a youngster I was interested by watching the games on TV but on 4th February 1978 I was actually at Twickenham to watch my first live game when Phil Bennett captained Wales in a 9 - 6 victory over England on their way to their third grand Slam of the 1970’s. It was simply magical to be there, in the ground and that day was probably the moment when I knew rugby would be with me forever.

As a lover of rugby there certainly is a lot out there to get excited about and enable me to revisit my Geordie Englishness but it is the Six Nations that will always be special for me and hold a lot of good memories.

"Take care of all your memories. For you cannot relive them".

Bob Dylan



History of the Six Nations - Early beginnings to WW2.

In March 1870 the Oval in London was the venue of the arguably the first "international" match played by the Association Football rules. The protagonists were England and Scotland and the connection of some of the Scottish players to Scotland stretched the imagination.

The majority of football clubs in Scotland played the game by the rugby code and not the Association rules so a second attempt to stage a match where a truly representative Scotland side took the field in November 1870 failed as the Scottish clubs felt they would be disadvantaged by playing under an unfamiliar set of rules.

The seeds of the challenge were however sown and representatives of Edinburgh Academicals FC, Glasgow Academicals FC, Merchiston FC, St. Salvator FC (St. Andrews) and West of Scotland FC challenged the English to venture north of the border with a letter published simultaneously on the 8th December 1870 in "The Scotsman" and "Bell’s Life in London, and Sporting Chronicle" which was a weekly sporting pink broadsheet. The letter offered the contest;

"…..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……"

The challenge was accepted by Blackheath, one of London’s oldest clubs and they sought twenty players who would be the first to wear the red rose badge of England.

That first international game took place on Monday 27th March 1871 at Raeburn Place the ground of the Academical Cricket Club in Edinburgh and 4,000 people parted with their shilling to watch the spectacle, raising for the time the not unsubstantial sum of £200.00p.

The contest had two halves of 50 minutes, 20 players on each team and rules that had the try worth nothing other than giving the scorers the opportunity to "try" to kick to the posts for a conversion. There were no penalties as it was accepted that gentlemen would not cheat, Angus Buchanen scored the first international try which was converted by W. Cross, Scotland won by a goal and international rugby was born.

A return game in London was held at the Kennington Oval in February 1872, a game which England won and the event became established as an annual fixture.

When the Calcutta Football Club was disbanded the silver rupees that formed the balance of their funds were melted down and turned into the magnificent Calcutta Cup which is the prize for the England Scotland clashes to this day within the six nations tournament.

In the twelve years following the encounter at Raeburn Place occasional matches took place between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales but on 16th December 1882, a dreary day in Swansea, the very first international game was played on Welsh soil and the Home Nations Championship became a reality.

The current tournament with its magnificent stadiums, sponsorships, extensive media coverage and quality match day experience of the crowds who attend is light years away from its historic roots although some of the issues of the inaugural tournament ring true even today.

The England wing Gregory Wade was the undoing of the Welsh as they struggled to cope with the "Australian" Oxford Scholar.

When the Welsh team arrived at the Raeburn Place ground of the Academical Cricket Club in Edinburgh to face Scotland they were a man short so drafted in Dr. John Griffin of Edinburgh University as a replacement forward.

Ireland travelled to play England at Whalley Range in Manchester but had to play the match with only 14 men after W Hughes withdrew after suffering terrible seasickness on the journey over the very tempestuous Irish Sea.

Ireland welcomed Scotland to the heavily waterlogged field at Ormeau Road Belfast but it was the Irish who suffered the most as the telling conditions contributed to injuries to 5 players and reduced the team to 10 men.

The Scotland England game was not without it’s controversy as the scoring of one of the English tries was derided by the crowd, an act that was deplored by the President of the Scottish rugby Football Union at the after match dinner.

The inaugural tournament was won by England as they defeated their three adversaries to take the "Triple Crown".


12th December 1882 Wales 0 – 2 England Swansea

8th January 1883 Scotland 3 – 1 Wales Edinburgh

5th February 1883 England 1 – 0 Ireland Manchester

17th February 1883 Ireland 0 – 1 Scotland Belfast

3rd March 1883 Scotland (1T) 0 – 0 England (2T) Edinburgh

Table Position




Table points

















































The tournament was dominated by England and Scotland in these early days and it was not until 1893 that Wales took their first title and Ireland followed them to the top by taking the title in 1894.

These early years were not without their challenges as the sport struggled with a multitude of issues to resolve and feelings ran to such high levels that the tournaments of 1885, 1888 and 1889 were not fully completed.

The 1885 Championship was marred by disputes between the Home Nation Unions. England and Scotland refused to face each other due to the refereeing disagreement from their 1884 encounter and Wales and Ireland also failed to meet due to union disputes.

The International Rugby Board was founded in 1886 as the International Rugby Football Board by the unions of Scotland, Wales and Ireland but England originally refused to take part and were excluded from the 1888 and 1889 tournaments.

Wales caused anger in the fervently amateur sport by the rewarding of a testimonial fund to their then star player Arthur Gould.

The turn of the century did not see controversy leave the tournament and crowd problems in South Wales led to the pitch being regularly invaded and referees suffering the threat of lynching!

Six Nations championship previous winners(* Denotes Grand Slam):

1883 England 1884 England 1885 Not completed

1886 England & Scotland 1887 Scotland 1888 Not completed

1889 Not completed 1890 England & Scotland

1891 Scotland 1892 England 1893 Wales

1894 Ireland 1895 Scotland 1896 Ireland

1897 Not completed 1898 Not completed

1899 Ireland 1900 Wales 1901 Scotland

1902 Wales 1903 Scotland 1904 Scotland

1905 Wales 1906 Ireland & Wales

1907 Scotland 1908 Wales * 1909 Wales *

Across the channel a group of British residents brought rugby to France in 1872 when they formed the Le Havre Athletique Club. The first major sporting event in which the French rugby team took part was the Paris Summer Olympics in 1900 which proved a triumph for France who took the gold medal. Their first official test match did not take place till New Year's Day, 1906 when the New Zealand All Blacks of Dave Gallaher, "The Originals", provided the opposition in Paris. The English Rugby Football Union accepted an invitation to play in Paris in March 1906 and then France played intermittently against the Home Nations until they eventually joined them to form the Five Nations tournament in 1910.

England were the winners of the inaugural Five Nations tournament but the Welsh took the first "Grand Slam" the following year in 1911 when they defeated all of their opponents.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 the tournament was suspended until it recommenced in 1920 with England, Scotland and Wales sharing the championship, however in the

inter-war period it was England who were the dominant force claiming nine championships including Grand Slams in 1921, 1923, 1924 and1928 although Scotland did capture their first Grand Slam in 1925.

Controversy was not long in raising its head again and following the 1931 competition France were expelled amid allegations of professionalism as their players were found to be being paid by their clubs in contravention of the amateur ethos of the sport, the inadequacies of the French administration and concerns over on-field violence which scarily reached new heights when players were found to have hidden stiletto knives in their socks.

In the period from 1932 until 1939 the competition reverted to being the "Home Nations" tournament but after the seven year suspension due to World War 2, in 1947 France rejoined the fold and the Five Nations tournament lived again.

Six Nations championship previous winners (* Denotes Grand Slam):

1910 England (France enter, Home Nations becomes Five Nations)

1911 Wales * 1912 England & Ireland 1913 England *

1914 England * 1915 - 1919 No competition

1920 England, Scotland & Wales 1921 England *

1922 Wales 1923 England * 1924 England *

1925 Scotland * 1926 Scotland & Ireland

1927 Scotland & Ireland 1928 England *

1929 Scotland 1930 England 1931 Wales

1932 England, Wales & Ireland 1933 Scotland

1934 England 1935 Ireland 1936 Wales

1937 England 1938 Scotland

1939 England, Wales & Ireland 1940 - 1946 No competition


Peace, or at least what passes for peace, returned to Europe in 1945. The Five Nations, which more than half a century later would become the Six Nations, was resumed in 1947.


pqs: qs:
Ian Smith's Six Nations - Part 1
Posted by: FalconsRugby.org.uk (IP Logged)
Date: 22/01/2019 18:23

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