- Rewind to 1957
'A fine exhibition of open rugby'
The Six Nations kicks into gear this weekend with England facing Scotland for the Calcutta Cup and to celebrate we take a look back to a golden spell for England
England's only grand slam between 1928 and 1980 was achieved in what The Times headlined as a "Fine Exhibition of Open Rugby". Ah, those were the days.
It had been a workmanlike campaign built on basic principles and consistent selection, executed by players who understood each others' games and their own roles within the team. The climax was a display of "open, attacking rugby football in every way worthy to be set before the Queen, who was there with the Duke of Edinburgh".
England's selectors were a fickle bunch. They had picked 69 new caps in the 30 matches since 1950. It was not uncommon for the season's traditional opener against Wales to feature half a dozen or more debutants, a source of great mirth in the valleys and undoubtedly detrimental to the results.
In 1957 they kept faith with the previous year's intake - there had been no fewer than 10 new faces against Wales in 1956 - only Harlequins fly-half Ricky Bartlett came in against Wales and full-back Bob Challis replaced the injured Fenwick Allison after that game.
Veteran centre Phil Davies rejoined the side midway through the championship, so that the entire campaign involved just 17 players. Only in 1991, another grand slam year, have England used fewer (15) players in a Five Nations Championship. The selectors learned little, however, and their 'revolving door' approach resumed in 1958.
The term 'grand slam', adopted from the card game bridge, had not been used in rugby until The Times' correspondent referred to it on the morning of the match, after a wordy explanation of what was at stake; the Calcutta Cup, which England had held for six years, the abstract Triple Crown and the international championship. He used it again in reporting the match and it has been etched in sport's lexicon ever since.
England had beaten Wales 3-0 in a largely negative game, then in Dublin they won 6-0, scoring two tries while playing most of the match with 14 men. Against France they improved further, again scoring two tries and winning 9-5 in "the most entertaining international match so far this season."
The forwards were a mighty unit led by captain and hooker Eric Evans, with David Marques increasingly dominating the line-out in every game. In the backs, wings Peter Thompson and Peter Jackson were considered the best of the era, and scrum-half Dickie Jeeps was at the peak of his powers. His strength and speed of pass enabled him to give Bartlett a relatively comfortable baptism.
Scotland came to Twickenham in good shape with wins over France and Wales behind them, and a narrow defeat to Ireland. While most of the side was stable, they gave a debut to 19-year-old Gordon Waddell, their fourth fly-half in as many matches. Skipper Jim Greenwood was back after missing the Ireland loss but the odds were stacked against them.
"Far above the mere fact of Saturday's culminating success was the method of the accomplishment," reported The Times. "Here was a return to those basic principles which many doubters had feared were on the wane. The orderly, inexorable wearing down of the opposition by a well-balanced, splendidly-equipped pack of forwards, and the consequent smoothing of the passage of the ball through the half-backs to an alert and offensive three-quarter line imbued incessantly with the idea of attack. Scotland, to their eternal credit, were infected with the same outlook."
England's back row were ruthless from start to finish, Peter Robbins being singled out for "quick-witted attack and inspired covering in his best game of the series". Praise too for the half-backs, "Jeeps was just Jeeps, than which there can be no higher praise, and Bartlett whipped the ball back as though his life depended on it."
Jeff Butterfield created a try for Davies just before half-time. Challis missed the conversion but landed three second half kicks to round off a fine afternoon after some early wobbles. Scotland held on admirably in the second half, and only when their forwards cracked late on did England let rip.
After a penalty for each side and with 10 minutes to go, Thompson went over in the corner and with the conversion added, England were more than one score ahead of their opponents for the first time all season. With carefree abandon they continued their assault, Reg Higgins scoring the final converted try, also in the corner, to make the final scoreline 16-3.
"So was ended a most invigorating match," said The Times, "which had been won by the old-fashioned method of scoring tries."