Ask John
Varsity Match hat-tricks, Grand Slam tours of the Home Unions and New Year's Day Tests
John Griffiths
January 20, 2009
Oxford University's Tim Catling scores the first try during 2008 Varsity match between Oxford University and Cambridge University at Twickenham in Twickenham, England on December 11, 2008.
Oxford wing Tim Catling's hat-trick against Cambridge in last month's Varsity Match saw him enter the record books © Getty Images

Welcome to our new Q&A feature where renowned rugby historian John Griffiths will answer any rugby-related query you have!

So, if there's something you've always wanted to know about the game we love but didn't know who to ask, or you think you can stump our expert - then get involved by sending us a question.

To kick things off, John offers some insight into Varsity Match hat-tricks, the first televised matches and Grand Slam tours of the Home Unions plus New Year's Day fixtures.

Q. Tim Catling's try hat-trick was the first in the Varsity Match since 1934. Is the feat that rare in this fixture?

A. Varsity Match hat-tricks at Twickenham are as scarce as spare Wales-England tickets. Catling's achievement was the first-ever for Oxford at Twickenham and only the fifth treble since the fixture moved to the RFU's headquarters in 1921.

The previous hat-trick scored for Oxford in the series was by Bernard Jacot, who crossed in the last match staged at Queen's Club, Kensington, in 1920. Jacot was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, where he followed none other than J R R Tolkien as a forward in the first XV. Jacot was also the first England Schools international to become a Blue, having played against the Welsh Schools in 1912.

At University he transferred to the three-quarter line and it was as a strapping wing that he scored his tries for Oxford. He later played for Harlequins, was a reserve for England and swam for GB in the 100m at the Paris Olympics in 1924. He and Catling are the only Varsity Match hat-trick heroes who have not won international rugby honours.

The golden age for individual try-scoring in the Varsity Match was between 1907 and 1910. Hugh Martin of Oxford and Scotland scored three in the 1907 match and went one better two years later scoring four - the only Blue to bag a hat-trick double. In the 1909 match, however, he was upstaged by his team-mate Ronnie Poulton, who ran in five tries in Oxford's record 35-3 win. Another Oxford hat-trick went to Billy Geen from Newport in the 1910 match.

All told there have been eleven try hat-tricks since Gregory Wade set the ball rolling in the 1883 match at Blackheath's Rectory Field. The list of players scoring three or more tries in the Varsity match reads:

5 - R W Poulton (Oxford, 1909)
4 - H Martin (Oxford, 1909)
3 - C G Wade (Oxford, 1883)
3 - H Martin (Oxford, 1907)
3 - W P Geen (Oxford, 1910)
3 - B L Jacot (Oxford, 1920)
3 - R H Hamilton-Wickes (Cambridge, 1922)
3 - Sir T G Devitt (Cambridge, 1925)
3 - R W Smeddle (Cambridge, 1928)
3 - K C Fyfe (Cambridge, 1934)
3 - T M S Catling (Oxford, 2008)

Q. What is the record points aggregate for a Varsity Match?

A. The 62 points at Twickenham in December (Oxford 33, Cambridge 29) set a new record for the match. The previous record aggregate was 47. Cambridge won 26-21 in 1994 and 31-16 in 2005. There were eight tries scored in last month's match - the best return since 1927.

Q. In the Varsity Match programme the result given for the 1964 match showed that Cambridge scored a goal from a mark. How come?

A. Goals from marks were rare but valid scoring actions counting for three points until the free-kick clause was introduced to the Laws in September 1977. Before that date a mark for a fair catch could be made anywhere on the field. The player making the catch could opt to kick a goal. Since 1977 a mark can only be claimed by a defender inside his 22, with a free kick to follow. So even if a kicker had the distance to land a goal from his 22, it would not count.

The mark scored in 1964 was kicked by Jonathan Harvey, a Cambridge forward. It was the only goal from a mark scored in the Varsity Match's history and was the last such score televised live, though earlier the same year the New Zealand forward Ian Clarke had scored three points that way playing for the Barbarians in the televised end-of-tour match against Wilson Whineray's All Blacks.

The last goal from a mark kicked in a major international was by New Zealand's Don Clarke - Ian's younger brother - against England in Christchurch in 1963. That kick was taken from inside his own half.

Another New Zealander, Billy Wallace, set the unique Test record of having kicked two goals from marks in a match (then worth four points each): against Australia in 1903 at the Sydney Cricket Ground in New Zealand's first-ever Test.

Q. When was the first rugby union international match televised live in its entirety?

A. The first live televised international was the England-Scotland match at Twickenham in 1938. A pulsating match played in ideal conditions resulted in a 21-16 Triple Crown win for Scotland.

The BBC continued its coverage of Twickenham internationals post-war, but it wasn't until the Coronation Year of 1953, with television gaining in popularity and accessibility, that regular live sporting broadcasts really captured the public's attention. Cricket's Ashes series of that summer had proved popular and when Wales beat New Zealand 13-8 in December the live telecast of the whole rugby international from Cardiff was shown. The first Murrayfield international televised in its entirety was the Scotland-New Zealand game in February 1954.

There was lively debate in the Home Unions about the screening of internationals. Clubs argued that televised rugby detracted from their gates. Although the RFU were generally in favour of live television broadcasting, the other Home Unions had reservations. When the 1953 Wales-New Zealand match was shown, the Newport club reported that only 500 turned up to watch their home game with Harlequins - a fixture that was usually very well attended.

Even 50 years ago the Wales-England match (of 17 January 1959) was not originally scheduled to be shown. On the eve of the game the secretary of the WRU, Bill Clement, announced on a Welsh sports programme that last-minute arrangements had been made with the Four Home Unions committee for the second-half of the international to be screened on the BBC's television network.

Wales won 5-0, new cap Dewi Bebb scoring a try that fullback Terry Davies converted. Alas for TV viewers, the scoring came just before half-time. The second-half was a typical Cardiff mudbath of the 50s and 60s, fireside viewers straining in front of black-and-white screens to distinguish which side was which in the filthy conditions.

Every subsequent Wales-England clash - home, away or at the Rugby World Cup - has been shown in full, either on terrestrial or satellite television.

Q. On their recent tour the All Blacks beat all four of the Home Unions. How many Grand Slam tours of Britain/Ireland have there been?

A. The All Blacks recorded the eighth Grand Slam of the Home Unions in November 2008. It was the third time New Zealand had performed the feat and the first time that any country had done so without conceding a try.

South Africa achieved four successive Grand Slams between 1912 and 1961. The 1912-13 team, captained by Billy Millar, conceded only one score in the Tests against the Home Unions, Ronnie Poulton getting a try for England at Twickenham. The Springboks of 1912-13 and 1951-52 additionally beat France on their European tours while Avril Malan's side in 1961 drew 0-0 with them in Paris. The 1931-32 tourists did not play France.

Australia completed the Grand Slam once. That was in 1984 when Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh were rookies in a back division spearheaded by Mark Ella, who had the distinction of scoring tries in each of the wins against the four Home Unions.

The list of Grand Slam Test tours of the Home Unions reads:
1912-13 - South Africa
1931-32 - South Africa
1951-52 - South Africa
1960-61 - South Africa
1978 - New Zealand
1984 - Australia
2005 - New Zealand
2008 - New Zealand

Anton Oliver, who played for Oxford in last month's Varsity Match, and his father Frank are the only father/son combination to feature in Grand Slam Test tours. Frank Oliver played in the 1978 matches for New Zealand and Anton was on the 2005 All Black visit.

Q. How many Test matches have been played on New Year's Day?

A. New Year's Day Tests were popular in France. Indeed, France's first official Test was on New Year's Day 1906 against the Original All Blacks. Two years later they staged a friendly against England in Paris and in 1910 they were involved in what is now recognised as the first-ever Five Nations match when they travelled to Swansea for a New Year's Day Saturday fixture with Wales.

There is a story that the French side that assembled in Paris to catch the boat train to Calais for the match in Wales were a man short. Forward Hélier Tilh had been unable to obtain leave from military service in Bordeaux. The fourteen set off leaving a French selector to scour the streets of Paris to find a replacement. At length he met Joe Anduran, a forward with one of the Paris clubs, working for a local art dealer. Joe jumped at the chance to play for his country and set off to catch up with his comrades. Wales won 49-14, Joe didn't get a mention in the match reports and never again played for his country.

That was the only New Year's Day Test played in the Home Unions. The remaining January 1 Tests were Paris internationals that until 1948 launched Five Nations seasons.

The full list of the 16 New Year's Day Tests, all involving France, is:
1906 France 8-38 NZ
1908 France 0-19 England
1910 Wales 49-14 France
1912 France 6-11 Ireland
1913 France 3-21 Scotland
1914 France 6-8 Ireland
1920 France 0-5 Scotland
1924 France 12-10 Scotland
1925 France 3-9 Ireland
1927 France 3-8 Ireland
1930 France 7-3 Scotland
1931 France 3-0 Ireland
1947 France 8-3 Scotland
1948 France 6-13 Ireland

France also gave Test caps for their 1945 and 1946 New Year's Day matches against British Forces XVs, which they won 21-9 and 10-0 respectively, both games taking place in Paris.


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