The Shimogamo Shrine: Rugby’s First Religious Monument

As you enter the World Rugby Museum, on your right there is a quote attributed to Lord Ferrier, in a speech he gave to the House of Lords in 1969:

‘…Rugby football, this superb game which, if not actually a religion is, to many at least, a way of life…’

Of course rugby is not actually a religion but it does have at least one religious monument and that is located in Kyoto, Japan.

The Shimogamo Shrine is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates from the 6th Century. It is described in the Japanese origin myth as the final resting place of Yatagarasu, the three legged crow, who guided Japan’s first Emperor to his place of residence at Yamato.

Shimogama Shrine Continue reading

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Trend or Tradition? Part 2

3 years ago we posted a response to an article published on Americas Rugby News in which Richard Steele examined the history of Scottish selections and whether the trend of international teams selecting foreign born players really is as modern as is widely assumed. This time, John Jenkins takes a look at some other rugby nations…

In March 1991 the Welsh Rugby Union announced the introduction of a six year residential qualification for non-Welsh players who wished to play international rugby for Wales. ‘Wales has always been a leading rugby nation through the excellence of Welshmen’, Denis Evans, the then secretary of the WRU announced. ‘We have never had to rely upon other nations and we do not intend to start now’.

But is this true? From the very beginning every international side has included ‘foreign-born’ players. Continue reading

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After the War: The Victory Internationals, 1945-46

by J. R. Suber

On a chilly Saturday in November 1945, fifteen Englishmen in white long-sleeved jerseys lined up on the green pitch of Twickenham Stadium. Opposite them and through the grey mist stood a team of New Zealanders, their black jerseys stamped with the silver fern. They certainly looked like the All Blacks but they weren’t, and the entire affair did look like an international fixture but it wasn’t—at least not officially. Rather, it was the first match in a celebratory post-war series known as the Victory Internationals.

England rugby team 1945

England team v New Zealand, 24/11/1945, Twickenham

With the onset of the Second World War, official international rugby was put on hiatus in 1939. After the war ended in 1945, there was one interim season before fixtures officially resumed in 1947. It was in this period that the Victory Internationals were played to fill the void. This November match at Twickenham was the first on those grounds in seven long years. No caps would be awarded that day, but this technicality likely mattered little to the roaring crowd of thirty thousand. The England XV lost to the so-called Khaki All Blacks, 3-18. Though surely disappointed, England could look for redemption ahead with matches against Scotland, Wales, and Ireland in the coming months.

More than anything, the series marked the beginning of the U.K.’s journey towards rebuilding and healing after years of devastation. To be sure, there had been some international rugby during the wartime years but always in a limited capacity. Instead of national teams, sides were drawn from the different Allied services. The venues were different as well, since many of the large sporting stadiums were requisitioned to serve various wartime purposes. For example, Twickenham was made into a civil service depot to be used in case of an attack. For these matches, no caps were awarded. The reasoning for this was that sides were not fully representative, as so many players were stationed overseas. This remained the case during the Victory Internationals.

Twickenham Stadium during WWII

Twickenham Stadium during the Second World War

Despite the unofficial nature of the series, it proved to still be a high-level international competition that featured some serious talent. For example, the Khaki All Blacks team may have been made up of soldiers from the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, but it was captained by All Black Charlie Saxton and included sixteen players who went on to become All Blacks, such as future legendary coach Fred Allen. This team of soldiers only lost two matches in their thirty-three-match tour of the U.K. and Europe, a superb record that later in 1997 earned them induction into the New Zealand Sporting Hall of Fame.

The Home Nation teams featured talented players, as well. England was captained by center Jack Heaton, a pre-war cap and star of Waterloo and Lancashire. He was joined in the backline by his cousin and speedy winger Dickie Guest, prodigious kicker Nim Hall, and scrum-half Gordon Rimmer; the English pack was a reliable one that included future RFU president Micky Steele-Bodger and future England captain Joe Mycock.

Two of Ireland’s youngest players went on to become some of its best of all time. Nineteen-year-old Karl Mullen debuted against France in a January 1946 match. Renowned for his leadership, Mullen would go on to captain both Ireland (to its first Grand Slam Victory) and the British Lions. Jackie Kyle made his international debut against England in February, the day before his twentieth birthday. Kyle, one of Ireland’s greats, went on to rack up a staggering forty-six caps, plus six for the Lions.

The Welsh team included the “Prince of Centres” Bleddyn Williams and his center partner Jack Matthews, both future Lions players. At lock was Rees Stephens, who would earn thirty-two caps for Wales. There was also the legendary Haydn Tanner, who famously helped Wales beat the All Blacks before the war in 1935—Tanner of course is still considered one of the best scrum-halves of all time. A highlight of the Welsh campaign was narrowly upsetting England, 0-3, at Twickenham, their first win on those grounds since 1933.

Scotland was actually the strongest side of the series. Their break-out player that season was the 6’3” flanker Doug Elliot, who went on to earn twenty-nine caps. The roster also included future SRU presidents Charlie Drummond and Frank Coutts, as well as scrum-half Gus Black, a future Lions player. Scotland was one of the only two teams to beat the Khaki All Blacks, and they would finish the Victory Internationals with the best record among the Home Nations, losing just once to England.

England v Scotland, 16/03/1946.

England v Scotland, 16/03/1946, Twickenham

Although journalists noted the rusty form of the actual rugby, that was to be expected given the years of wartime hiatus. Form aside, the Victory Internationals had all the trappings of a true rugby spectacle. There was legitimate talent on display, television and newspaper coverage, and substantial crowds—tens of thousands of spectators turned out at Murrayfield, Lansdowne Road, Cardiff Arms Park, and of course Twickenham.

The series ended in April 1946 and selection trials were held as usual that fall. International rugby officially resumed on January 1, 1947, when Scotland took on France in Paris to kick off the annual Five Nations Championship. While many from the Victory Internationals went on to earn their caps, not everyone did, such as two-time Cambridge captain Eric Bole and Gloucester flanker Johnny Thornton. Author Huw Richards points out that this cap business remains a contested topic, with some arguing for what is “morally true, but factually incorrect” (Richards, The Red & the White, 114). Interestingly, France did award caps to its players at the time and Wales retroactively awarded “president’s caps” in both 2013 and 2015. Regardless of such technicalities, the significance of the Victory Internationals lies in its role as a necessary bridge between war and peace, a first step towards the healing of a nation, and a historically unique celebration of rugby camaraderie.

A list of Victory International matches is available here.

Footage of several matches are available on YouTube at the links below.

About the Author – J. R. Suber is an avid rugby fan and amateur historian. He has recently completed an unpublished biography about Eric Bole’s rugby career. To receive an electronic copy, you may email him.


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Posted in International Players, Lest We Forget, Services | 1 Comment

Remembering Bob Weighill

Remembering Bob Weighill, the England captain who helped pave the way for the Normandy landings.

Bob Weighill

Robert Harold George Weighill CBE DFC was born in Kings Norton in 1920. He attended Wirral Grammar School before joining the Cheshire County Constabulary as a teenager in 1937. Two years after war was declared he enlisted with the Royal Air Force as a pilot. Continue reading

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Historic Rugby Internationals: Scotland v England, 1925

Scotland’s fourth and final match in the 1925 International Championship on March 21st has gone down in rugby history as one of the greatest matches played between the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century.  Scotland won their 1st Grand Slam that day by 14-11 in a desperately close encounter against their old enemies England.

Scotland arrived at Murrayfield, their new international ground, on March 21st having beaten France in front of a crowd of 20,000 people at Inverleith, Wales in Swansea and Ireland at Lansdowne Road, Dublin.  They had scored 63 points in their three matches including 15 tries and had only conceded 26 points including 4 tries.  So Scotland was on the cusp of a historic first ever Grand Slam and 60,000 expectant spectators filled Murrayfield, noted by The Scotsman as the largest attendance ever at a rugby international.  The match was a thrilling encounter from start to finish.

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Continue reading

Posted in Countries, England, Scotland | 1 Comment

Kent v Sussex 1866 – the world’s first representative match?

John Honeysett’s recent book ‘The History of Brighton Football Club (Rugby Union)’ provides a shake-up for established rugby historical orthodoxies. Amongst a number of claims is that Kent and Sussex contested the first county match in 1866, four years before Lancashire met Yorkshire for the first time in what is believed to have been the first representative match of any kind. Here John explains… Continue reading

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Old and New – a look at the changing nature of rugby committees, by Keith Gregson

In recent correspondence Phil McGowan, Curator of the World Rugby Museum, pointed out that the founding members of the RFU were all very young (and also probably active players). I hope to look in detail at the formation of Sunderland Rugby Football Club in 1873 – the work of two teenagers boarding at a public school in the south of England. I am also in the fortunate position of having discovered a detailed list of club committee members for the 1901/2 season and, with the help of the 1901 census, have examined it in the light of the more recent articles and correspondence. Continue reading

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