Philip Barker ©ITG

France scored a dramatic try with the clock on red in Paris last night to deny Wales the Grand Slam and keep the Six Nations Championship alive until the very last act on Friday (March 26).

To lift the 2021 title, France need a bonus point victory over Scotland.

Scotland were about to take part in the very first rugby international against England in Edinburgh 150 years ago this week.

In one form or another, rugby had been played on an organised basis in both countries mostly at public (fee paying) schools. The sport is even named after one of them. At Rugby School in the English midlands, a plaque was erected in 1895 to mark the reputed origin of the sport in 1823.

"This stone commemorates the exploits of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played at this time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game," the plaque reads.

Many have expressed doubts as to whether this all took place in quite the  way it was described, but that didn’t stop the organisers of the first World Cup naming their trophy after Webb Ellis.

In the 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Carleton Young tells James Stewart: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The Rugby World Cup trophy is named after William Webb Ellis, considered the inventor of the sport ©Getty Images
The Rugby World Cup trophy is named after William Webb Ellis, considered the inventor of the sport ©Getty Images

So in 2015, the Rugby World Cup opened with a short film featuring future World Rugby President Sir Bill Beaumont in a cameo role and Prince Harry telling 2003 World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson: "Don’t worry Jonny that’ll never take off!" as a rugby player sped past.

O.L. Owen, a longtime rugby correspondent of The Times newspaper, wrote an official history of the game which characterised rugby in the 19th century as a time when "the sport was in a state of ardent but boisterous adolescence".

Depending on where it was played, the rules varied widely but 1871 was to prove a momentous year for the sport.

Officials had outlined the problem in a letter to the newspapers.

"Each club plays according to its own rules, so the strangers in each match find themselves at a disadvantage in not knowing the rules of the ground. Confusion and disputes are generally the result," the letter read.

"We therefore hope that all clubs playing the rugby game will join us in forming a code to be generally adopted."

So it was that on 26th January 1871, representatives of 21 clubs gathered at the Pall Mall restaurant in London.

These included Blackheath, Richmond and Harlequins, but also the now defunct Mohicans, Flamingoes and Gypsies.

They resolved "that the formation of a football society is desirable". A further proposal decided that the new society should be known as the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

Each club was required to pay an annual subscription of five shillings (£0.25).

During their first meeting they agreed "that the laws of the game should be drawn up by the committee and that they should be submitted to a general meeting for confirmation".

Algernon Rutter of Richmond was elected as the first President and the committee included a number of active players, some of whom would participate in the first international match a few weeks later.

One of those present at that first meeting was Leonard Maton of the Wimbledon Hornets. He later revealed that "the draft of the rugby union laws was drawn entirely by myself. My colleagues, finding that I was lying on my back from a football injury, politely told me that as I was on the sick list, I should prepare the draft rules".

This was a document which eventually ran to 59 clauses.

There had been concerns after a correspondent who signed himself "A Surgeon" wrote to The Times. He detailed injuries he had treated among schoolboy players. These included knee, ankle injuries and a broken collar bone, as well as two others who had to return home on crutches.

The laws therefore stipulated "no hacking or hacking over or tripping up shall be allowed under any circumstances", and intriguingly: "No-one wearing projecting nails, iron plates or gutta percha on any part of his boots or shoes shall be allowed to play in a match."

At this time, the organisation also embraced teams in Scotland. The captains of five leading Scottish rugby clubs had put their signatures to an open letter.

"We hereby challenge any team selected from the whole of England to play us a match 20-a-side either in Edinburgh or Glasgow on any day during the current season that may be found suitable to the English players. If it be entered into, we can promise England a hearty welcome and a first rate match," the letter read.

The Scots were determined to make good on their promise and prepared by organising two practice matches "for the purpose of accustoming the different players in the Scotch team to one another’s play".

Rugby has become a global game since the first match was played 150 years ago ©Getty Images
Rugby has become a global game since the first match was played 150 years ago ©Getty Images

Meanwhile in London, The Sportsman announced: "We understand that there is some chance of an international match coming off at Edinburgh about the end of the present month, according to rugby rules."

Others were pleased to record that "the challenge issued by the leading Scottish clubs has not fallen on stony ground".

A week before the big day, Bell’s Life magazine in London had published the two line ups but warned "the Scottish list has two vacancies, and one or two alterations may  be made in the English twenty".

The Scots wore shirts adorned with a thistle and England's players turned out in white shirts embroidered with a red rose. They would later be awarded "caps" to commemorate their appearance in the match.

Agreement had been reached that the match should be two halves, each of 50 minutes duration. Each team comprised 20 players, of which 13 were forwards.

"The rugby school rules are to be strictly observed," said a report in The Sportsman.

The match duly took place at the Academy Ground, Raeburn Place in Edinburgh, on Monday 27th March 1871.

Spectators were charged one shilling (£0.05) and a newspaper requested "academicals leave their cards at the gate".

A report of the proceedings was sent by telegraph to the newspapers. The match, it said, was held "under the most favourable auspices". It was watched by a crowd of some 4,000.

This was described as "a large attendance of spectators, including many ladies, all of whom evinced great interest in the game".

Scotland played England in the first international rugby match in 1871 ©Getty Images
Scotland played England in the first international rugby match in 1871 ©Getty Images

Scotland kicked off from the Inverleith End of the ground. They had the wind in their favour during the first half, but the interval arrived with the scoresheet still blank.

In the second came the first try in international rugby and it went to Scotland. The scorer was one Angus Buchanan and the responsibility for the conversion fell to William Cross.

"Many considered that the kick was an impossibility to succeed. Cool and collected, he went at it and amidst ringing cheers he sent the ball over the posts," said one report.

Cross went over himself later in the match, but failed to convert. Robert Irvine, a member of Edinburgh Academicals and a medical doctor who went by the nickname "Bulldog", was a member of the Scotland team that day and admitted that "feeling was pretty highly strung".

The English players disputed one of the tries. Hely Hutchinson Almond, the distinguished headmaster of Loretto School in Edinburgh, was one of the umpires. "When an umpire is in doubt, I think he is probably justified in deciding against the side which makes the most noise. They are probably in the wrong," he said.

England did cross the line through Reginald Birkett but the conversion was unsuccessful and victory, as in when the teams met earlier this season, went to Scotland.

One of the defeated English players was Arthur Guillemard, an old boy of Rugby School.

"It is not too much to say that in 1870, there were but very few players who were aware that rugby football had taken hold on the affections of Scotsmen. A twelvemonth later we all knew it only too well. The Scotch forwards were distinctly quicker on their feet and in better training than their opponents," Guillemard wrote later.

From these modest beginnings, the road began that would eventually lead to rugby’s World Cup, though not for over a century.

The Scots soon formed a rugby union of their own and in February 1875, Ireland also joined the international ranks.

Within a year, the size of each team was reduced to fifteen, and in 1881, Welsh rugby took its first steps on the international ladder.

By the end of the decade, the Championship which would eventually become the Six Nations Championship was well and truly established.

The tournament now known as the Six Nations began in the early 1880s ©Getty Images
The tournament now known as the Six Nations began in the early 1880s ©Getty Images

Rugby was also gaining in popularity in New Zealand and South Africa, the men's World Cup champions in 2019.

In France, the first French rugby cup was refereed by none other than Baron Pierre de Coubertin, but although the sport was mentioned at the founding congress of the Olympic Games in 1894, it was not included on the Olympic programme until 1900.

Even then, the tournament attracted only three entries and these did not come from national teams. In fact the home team from Paris were joined by the Germans of Eintracht Frankfurt and Moseley Rugby Club from the English midlands.

When rugby was included at the 1908 Olympics in London, only two sides participated.

Australia were already on tour at the time and Cornwall were nominated to represent Great Britain because they were County champions in 1908.

Other players were unavailable because they were travelling home from a tour of New Zealand.

The play was not helped by the close proximity of the swimming pool to the touchline, though Australia proved the better at handling a wet and slippery ball and won 32-3.

The First World War took a terrible toll on the sport but in 1919, an authentic international competition called the Kings Cup was held. This featured teams from New Zealand, Britain, Australia, South Africa and Canada.

It was the nearest rugby had yet come to a global tournament.

None of the participants took part in the Olympic tournaments in 1920 or 1924 , partly because they regarded rugby as a winter game and strictly observed the season. The Olympic matches were played in the summer months. In 1924, France, still relatively new to rugby, and Romania both lost to the United States in the last Olympic tournament played using the 15-a-side format.

When New Zealand lost to South Africa in 1928, William Mackenzie, a former New Zealand rugby international, told readers of the Melbourne Sporting Globe that the match was really "the world’s rugby union championship", but most rugby administrators remained suspicious about staging a competition to prove it.

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the idea of such a tournament was suggested.

Rugby was growing in popularity in New Zealand and South Africa towards the end of the 19th century ©Getty Images
Rugby was growing in popularity in New Zealand and South Africa towards the end of the 19th century ©Getty Images

In the mid 1960s, Australian newspapers reported excitedly about a World Cup tournament to rival that already introduced in rugby league. It had been suggested by Harold Tolhurst, a test player and international referee.

"The Australian Rugby Union has finally come of age," insisted secretary Charles Blunt.

There remained enough opposition in a strictly amateur sport to ensure that the idea did not get off the ground in the sixties, or for that matter in the seventies.

There were calls for a tournament to coincide with Australian bicentenary celebrations in 1988 which also fell on fallow ground.

Nothing concentrates the mind like a threatened breakaway and in 1983 came news that Australian entrepreneur David Lord had signed over 200 top players for a new "pro circuit".

Even by this time, those who ran rugby union still regarded themselves as amateurs and enforced the rules strictly.

The receipt of money for writing a book about the sport was deemed "professionalism" with a ban from subsequent involvement in the game. Professionals would not be permitted until 1995.

Yet in the face of the threat posed by a pro circuit, the decision to go ahead with an official World Cup was finally taken at a meeting held in Paris in 1985 after "a very full discussion".

The first Rugby World Cup was held in 1987 ©Getty Images
The first Rugby World Cup was held in 1987 ©Getty Images

The first tournament was held in New Zealand in 1987 and won by the host nation.

Since then, organisers claim the men’s Rugby World Cup is an event eclipsed in importance and impact only by the FIFA men’s World Cup and the Summer Olympics.

Yet rugby has been affected as much as any other sport by the pandemic. The Six Nations competition has been played out this year in empty stadiums with players part of a "bio bubble".

The Six Nations are among 105 which now figure in the World Rugby rankings. It is a growth which would have astonished the intrepid 4,000 who watched as the valiant 40 players took to the field on that March day in 1871.