The Six Nations Championship kicked off on Saturday with Scotland beating Ireland and then reigning champions England posting a narrow 19-16 win over France at Twickenham. The competition may not arouse much interest in India but the country has made a lasting contribution to one of the premier international rugby competitions.

India and rugby do not really go together yet for a brief period about 150 years ago when the game was introduced by the British in erstwhile Calcutta there was considerable interest.

The birth of rugby in India

The first ever rugby match on Indian soil was played in Calcutta on the Christmas Day in 1872 between a team representing England and a combined XX that were representatives of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The spectacle proved to be such a success that there was another match a week later. The interest in the game led to the formation of Calcutta Football Club in January 1873; and with it rugby had officially arrived in India.

An illustration of Europeans playing with a rugby-shaped ball in Calcutta in 1875. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A year later, the Calcutta Football Club joined the Rugby Football Union – the governing body of the game. The club saw a healthy increase in membership and had over 130 members on its books by the end of its first year in existence. Matches were played between an esoteric bunch of teams that included names like Calcutta Volunteers, Merchants and Brokers, Public Schools, Griffs amongst a bunch of others.

Some of the very first rugby internationals were once part of the Calcutta Football Club and plied their trade in the city. Benjamin Burns was part of the England national team that faced Scotland on March 27, 1871 at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh in what was the first ever rugby international; he was one of the notables in Calcutta as was Sir Stephen Finney who went on to earn two England caps.

One of the attractions at the nascent Calcutta Football Club was the availability of a free bar and it proved to be a good crowd puller. However, once the free bar ceased to exist, the membership of the club started dwindling.

Another factor that proved to be a dampener was the climate. The eastern part of India was not conducive to the physical game and people preferred other sports – particularly polo – for leisure over a physical slugfest like rugby. Not long after its formation, the club found it hard to organise games due to a lack of enough personnel to field teams. By 1877 the Calcutta Football Club had ceased to exist. Despite the lack of participation, finances were never a problem, and as the club folded, its members started deliberating about the appropriate use of the funds – a princely sum of £60 – that were lying in the club’s back account.

How the Calcutta Club came into existence

Among proposals like a ball or celebratory dinner, club captain James Rothney, who also served as its honorary secretary and treasurer, proposed something more lasting than a day of revelry: the Calcutta Cup.

The money – which was in the form of silver coins – was withdrawn from the bank. It was then melted and crafted by local artisans into an elegant trophy that had distinctly Indian motifs. Three cobras serve as handles of the trophy, which sits on a wooden base and is 18 inches high. An elephant sits atop the lid to leave no doubt even in the mind of a casual watcher about the trophy’s origins.

Rothney’s idea for the trophy was for it to be used for an annual club competition like the FA Cup in football. However, the Rugby Football Union, in its spirit of keeping the Calcutta Cup away from the scourge of professionalism decided to use it instead for international competition, which in its view, promoted amateur ethos.

A tradition that continued

It was decided that the trophy will be given to the winner of an annual match between England and Scotland. The date of each match along with the captains’ name is inscribed on the plates that cover the wooden base.

The Calcutta Cup was contested for the first time on March 10, 1879 at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh but the game ended in a draw. England became the first holders of the trophy with their win a year later. The Calcutta Cup has since become a fixture on the annual calendar of the two rugby giants. When the two teams go head-to-head in the Six Nations Championship each year, the winner takes the coveted trophy home.

An illustration of England and Scotland competing for the Calcutta Cup in 1892 in Edinburgh. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The winning captain no longer receives the original trophy as it has been kept in a safe due to its fragile condition. It was severely dented when Englishman Dean Richards and Scottish flanker John Jeffrey used it as a ball for a drunken kick-about in Princes Street in Edinburgh in 1988. The former received a one-match suspension while the latter was banned for six months by their respective unions for their shenanigans.

However, the lasting damage to the historic cup means that it remains in a safe vault and makes rare public appearances while the winning teams are handed replica trophies.

Overall, England have won the Calcutta Cup on 74 occasions while the Scots have laid their hands on it 42 times. Scotland last won it in 2008 as England have made it a one-sided affair in recent years. And Eddie Jones’ men will be strong favourites to keep the famous trophy when his men take on the Scots at Twickenham on March 11 in the fourth week of the Six Nations Championship.