Ask John
League v Union, the Grand Slam, and leading scorers in the International Championship
John Griffiths
March 30, 2009
Bath's Ian Sanders is tackled by Wigan's Va'aiga Tuigamala and Martin Hall, Bath v Wigan, Rugby Union v Rugby League, Twickenham, England, May 25, 1996
Bath's Ian Sanders is tackled by Wigan's Va'aiga Tuigamala and Martin Hall during the Union v League clash at Twickenham in 1996 © Getty Images

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 his latest lesson for us all, John reveals the history of Union v League clashes, the origins of the term 'Grand Slam' and the leading scorers in the International Championship.

Q. Has there ever been a challenge match where a union side played a league side in a match of rugby league or a league side played a union side in rugby union? John, United States

A. Bath and Wigan met in cross-code challenges in 1996 and the only previous meeting in Rugby's history between teams of Union and League players took place in April 1944 at Bradford's Odsal Stadium.

In November 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the war, the Rugby Football Union had lifted the strict rules barring League players from taking part in Union matches. As a result, many League stars in the services appeared in wartime charity games. The match at Odsal was arranged by Northern Command, attracted 18,000 spectators and raised £1,350.

The League fifteen, containing several pre-war Union international players who had gone North, won by three converted tries to two - 15-10 under the rugby union scoring values of the time. Three of the Union fifteen had toured South Africa with the 1938 Lions, among them Haydn Tanner, the Welsh scrum-half, who turned out as a centre. The Sunday Times described it as a "spectacular game, the result of which was definitely flattering to the League, who, however, won through superior pace in the backs."

April 29, 1944, Odsal Stadium, Bradford
Rugby League 15 (3G) Rugby Union 10 (2G)

Rugby League: E Ward; R L Francis, J Lawrenson, J Stott, A Edwards; S Brogden, H Royal; D R Prosser, L White, C Brereton, D Murphy, E V Watkins, I Owens, W G Chapman, T Foster

Scorers: Tries: Owens, Lawrenson, Brogden Conversions: Ward (3)

Rugby Union: F Trott; G Hollis, T Sullivan, H Tanner, E F Simpson; T Gray, E J Parsons; G T Dancer, R J Longland, R E Prescott, P N Walker, D Phillips, G D Shaw, J A Waters, R H G Weighill

Scorers: Tries: Phillips, Gray Conversions: Parsons, Gray

After rugby went open in the summer of 1995, the leading English clubs in the league and union codes, Wigan RLFC and Bath RUFC, staged a two-match cross-code challenge series. Wigan won the League match 82-6 at Maine Road on May 8, 1996, after which John Hall, Bath's director of rugby, said: "We turned up - and enjoyed." Wigan's captain that evening was Shaun Edwards, now in the Union game on the coaching teams for Wasps and Wales.

Bath squared the series by taking the Union match at Twickenham 44-19 later the same month. Among those who turned out for Wigan at Twickenham were Jason Robinson, Henry Paul and Andy Farrell who all went on to win England Union caps as threequarters. Former Union Test players Scott Quinnell and Vaiga Tuigamala were also in the Wigan ranks.

In between the challenge matches Wigan had been a guest side at the Middlesex Sevens at Twickenham, beating Wasps 38-15 in the tournament final and demonstrating the superior fitness and athleticism of seasoned professionals.

Q. Why are South African players not considered as foreign as far as the Guinness Premiership is concerned?Colin Hiscocks, England

A. South African players enjoy European Community working rights. Unlike Australians, New Zealanders Argentineans, Canadians or Americans, they qualify under the so-called Kolpak agreement which allows them to play in Britain (and therefore in the Guinness Premiership) because their home country has a trading relationship with the European Community. Kolpak players are not obliged to surrender their citizenship so they remain eligible to play for their home country at Test level.

A foreign player is defined as one who has no European working rights. The Premiership's current rules permit a maximum of one foreign player on the pitch at any one time, though there is a relaxation (to a maximum of three) if matches take place during a recognised international weekend.

Other countries whose players fall under the Kolpak agreement include Tonga, Fiji and Samoa.

Q. When was the term "Grand Slam" first used in a rugby context? Anon

A. Like the expressions "Triple Crown", "Wooden Spoon" and "International Championship" which were coined in the 1890s, the term "Grand Slam" was an invention of the British press.

It is, however, a relevantly recent part of the rugby lexicon. When Ireland beat Wales 6-3 in Belfast to make their only previous clean sweep in 1948, the best the press could come up with to describe their feat was: "not only did they win the Triple Crown for the third time after a lapse of 49 years, but for the first time they have beaten all four other countries in the international championship." (John P Jordan in the Daily Telegraph - March 15, 1948). And when Wales won their four Five Nations matches in 1950 and 1952 there were several references to their invincibility and achievement of winning all four matches, but none of the Grand Slam.

The Times correspondent, Uel Titley, was the first to use the expression "Grand Slam" in a rugby context in his match preview for England's game against Scotland on March 16 in 1957. England beat Scotland 16-3 to complete a winning Five Nations season and the phrase was used again by Titley in the match report on the Monday, when he told Times readers of England's "achievement of the grand slam for the first time since 1927-28." His press-box colleague Michael Melford of the Daily Telegraph wrote of "The grand slam of four victories" on the same day and a Telegraph sub-editor, impressed by the concision of the phrase, incorporated it into the banner headline "Handsome Victory Earns England Grand Slam" that accompanied Melford's report.

The next Grand Slam match wasn't until 1965, but by then the expression was part of international rugby's everyday language. Wales went to Paris where they were denied the prize by France. Ken Jones's match report for the Sunday Express was headed: "French fury wrecks grand slam dreams."

Q. Who are the leading points and try scorers in the history of the Five/Six Nations? Anon

A. The leading points scorer and leading try scorer in this season's Six Nations were Ronan O'Gara (56 points) and Brian O'Driscoll (who shared top try billing with England's Riki Flutey on four each). The two Irishmen feature prominently among the Championship's five all-time leading scorers in each category.

Leading Points Scorers in the International Championship (1883-2009)

Ronan O'Gara (2000-2009) 499
Jonny Wilkinson (1998-2008) 479
Neil Jenkins (1991-2001) 406
Stephen Jones (2000-2009) 382
Chris Paterson (2000-2009) 361

Leading Try Scorers in the International Championship (1883-2009)
Ian Smith (1924-1933) 24
Brian O'Driscoll (2000-2009) 21
Gareth Edwards (1967-1978) 18
Cyril Lowe (1913-1923) 18
Rory Underwood (1984-1996) 18

Q. Am I right in thinking that a scrum cannot "push" forward until the ball is placed in the scrum? If so can you explain to me why teams are constantly getting away with this? Wales did it constantly against France to a point where the ball was placed into the second channel behind the hooker. Surely the point of a scrum is a 50/50 ball for both teams to be able to "strike." If this is allowed then why don't all teams do it? Peter Manning, UK

A. The law relating to the scrummage is straightforward. The ball must be put in along the middle line of the scrum and the scrum must remain stationary until the ball leaves the scrum-half's hands. A difficulty for referees, however, is that many packs have become adept at stepping backwards at the put-in, thereby giving the impression that the opposition has prematurely shoved them away from the mark.

The point of a scrummage is to re-start the game after an infringement, not to give teams a 50/50 chance of securing possession. It draws the two packs to a single position and creates space elsewhere for the backs to create attacks. The put-in is awarded to the side that was not responsible for the infringement and it makes sense that they should be almost guaranteed possession - but within the laws referred to above.

Q. Sitiveni Sivivatu scored four tries for the Chiefs against the Blues in Hamilton a couple of weekends ago. What is the record for most tries in a Super 12/14 match? Anon

A. Sitiveni Sivivatu equalled the Super 12/14 record in that match. Since the Super tournament became professional in 1996, seven other players have crossed for four tries in a match:
1996 Joe Roff for Brumbies v Sharks
1997 Gavin Lawless for Sharks v Highlanders
1998 Stefan Terblanche for Sharks v Chiefs
2000 Joel Vidiri for Blues v Bulls
2002 Doug Howlett for Blues v Hurricanes
2002 Mils Muliaina for Blues v Bulls
2002 Caleb Ralph for Crusaders v Waratahs


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