Ask John
Why isn't there a UK rugby team?
John Griffiths
March 27, 2013
England's Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio celebrate with the Six Nations Championship trophy, Ireland v England, Six Nations Championship, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, Ireland, March 30, 2003
England's Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio celebrate with the Six Nations Championship trophy following their crushing victory over Ireland in Dublin © Getty Images
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Tournaments/Tours: Six Nations

Welcome to the latest edition of Ask John 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.

In this edition, John answers queries about Grand Slam deciders, the Hong Kong Sevens, International Rugby Board members and the Premiership salary cap.

When did a team recover from such a disastrous start to the season [as Wales's this year] to claim the Championship title? Mike Scott, England

From 30-3 down just after half-time in the opening match against Ireland to a 30-3 title-securing victory over challengers England was a remarkable turnaround by the Welsh.

But the outcome of the Championship primarily depends on tournament points, of course, and Wales quickly recovered from the Irish setback to beat France before adding wins over Italy, Scotland and England.

Even so, only one team in Championship history made a worse start to a season before coming back to claim the title. That was Willie-John McBride's Ireland side in 1974.

The 1973 (Five Nations) Championship had uniquely ended in a quintuple tie, every side winning its home games, and home advantage continued when the next season started.

Wales beat Scotland at Cardiff and France defeated Ireland 9-6 with a late penalty goal in Paris before the sequence was broken when the Irish dropped a home point in their next match. They drew 9-9 with Wales at Lansdowne Road in the second round of the tournament's double-headers. (Italy were not involved in those days).

So, after the first two rounds of matches, Ireland were near the bottom of the Championship table with only one tournament point from a possible four.

They put their season back on track with a resounding 26-21 win against England at Twickenham where they had led 26-9 midway through the second half. It was the first Championship match won by a visiting team for more than two years.

Then in early March, Ireland completed their Championship commitments with a 9-6 win in tricky conditions against Scotland, and it was expected that either Wales (who were due to meet England at Twickenham) or France (away to Scotland at Murrayfield) would pick up the title on the last weekend of the season.

The final round of results went with home advantage, however, leaving Ireland top of the table with five tournament points - and champions without playing. It was their first outright title since 1951.

Has any side lost a match for the Grand Slam by a bigger margin than England did against Wales? Gwyn Sutton, Wales

England's 27-point defeat was not the worst of its kind by a team tilting at the Grand Slam.

In 2003, England and Ireland met in Dublin in the last match of the season in a winner-takes-all showdown. Ireland were beaten 42-6 - a margin nine points bigger than Wales managed earlier this month in Cardiff.

England went on to win the Rugby World Cup later that year, but it was their last Grand Slam to date.

I recall seeing the Barbarians win the Hong Kong Sevens in the early 1980s, but the stadium hosting the tournament was different from the grand one that staged last weekend's annual festival. Where did the Sevens originally take place and when was the change? John Stevens, Wales

The original venue for the Hong Kong Sevens (inaugurated 1976) was the Hong Kong Football Club Stadium situated in Sports Road, Happy Valley.

Owned by the Hong Kong Football Club, the stadium held 2,500 and was the venue for the annual Rugby Sevens until the tournament outgrew it and moved (in 1982) to the (then Government-owned) Hong Kong Stadium.

The Barbarians won the last Sevens event staged at the Football Club stadium (in late March 1981), winning 12-10 against Australia. The crowd was estimated at 14,000 - hugely beyond capacity which presumably was why they moved the venue the next year.

The Baa-Baas' squad for the tournament was Brynmor Williams, Gareth Williams, Gary Pearce, Andy Ripley, Peter Wheeler, Clive Woodward, Nick Preston, Les Cusworth and Nigel Pomphrey, who had to withdraw with a hamstring injury sustained in training. Pearce, therefore, was their sole replacement.

The Baa-Baas defeated USA (20-10), W Samoa (28-6), S Korea (28-8) and Sri Lanka (36-4) to head their pool. They beat Argentina 8-6 in the quarters, a desperate tackle by Ripley on Hugo Porta saving them in the late stages of the game.

Two tries by Ripley, one converted by Cusworth, brought them a 10-6 semi-final win over Fiji before they faced Australia, the favourites, in the Final.

The Baa-Baas started at breakneck speed and Woodward opened the scoring with a try at the posts converted by Cusworth. Glen Ella replied for Australia before Cusworth, who was outstanding, ripped through for the second Barbarian try which he also converted.

Australia were well-beaten despite a late score by Brendan Moon which Roger Gould goaled, leaving them two points short at 12-10.

Barbarians: Woodward, Preston, Cusworth, B Williams; G Williams, Wheeler, Ripley (capt)

Australia: Moon, O'Connor, M Ella, G Ella; Gould, Maxwell, Pearse (capt) (Chris Roche replaced Pearse near the end)

Referee: M Hamlyn (Hong Kong)

I've recently been asked a rugby question which I couldn't answer. Please could you help? International rugby is played by countries like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, France, Argentina, Italy, etc. Yet, when it comes to the UK, three UK regions (Scotland, Wales and England) get to play international rugby as if they were independent countries - which they're clearly not. How did this come about? And, if it's a throwback to a bygone era, why does the IRB allow it to continue? E Brune, England

The answer lies in the game's history, as you suspected.

Rugby (like soccer) evolved from games played at England's public schools in the early nineteenth century. From there it spread to Scotland, Wales and Ireland as a result of pupils taking their game to the Universities and teachers moving schools.

By 1871, Rugby had become sufficiently established for the Scots to issue a challenge to the English to play a match, and the first international was staged in Edinburgh in March of that year. Ireland (represented by clubs from both the north and south of the island) entered the lists in 1875 and Wales followed six years later.

The International Board (IRB) was founded in 1886 to settle a dispute arising from the England-Scotland match two years earlier. England at first declined to participate in the Board, an argument arising over its representation on the body.

The Celtic fringe did not accept their argument and so the original members of the IRB were Scotland, Wales and Ireland. England finally softened their stance over representation and joined in 1890, bringing the number of Unions in membership to four.

For many years the IRB was the four Home Unions.

The Board is responsible for all matters related to International rugby. New Zealand, South Africa and Australia were subsequently admitted to full membership and France, the last of the senior nations embraced, became full members in 1978. Membership has grown apace since the first Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987 and there are now more than 100 nations fully affiliated to the Board.

There has never been any suggestion that Board membership should be restricted to sovereign state members of the United Nations, nor by any political filter. Founder members Ireland, for example, remain full members of the IRB despite representing Northern Ireland (a region of the United Kingdom) and the entire Republic of Ireland.

To the best of knowledge the Board has no plans - nor indeed reason - for change.

How does the Premiership salary cap work? TC, Brazil

Each of the 12 clubs has a basic salary cap at just over £4m but one leading player can be nominated for omission from the annual sum.

Clubs, however, can offset part of the salary calculation against credit given for nurturing players with England potential through the Academy system.

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