January 29 2013
The 120th Calcutta Cup match between England and Scotland takes place at Twickenham on Saturday February 2. The venerable prize, presented annually to the winner of the Six Nations clash between the two countries, is one of the most famous in sport and dates back to the heyday of the British Empire.
On Christmas Day in 1872, a group of Englishmen living in Calcutta played a game of rugby against a like-minded assortment of Scotsmen, Irishmen and Welshmen. The contest continued for the next few years but India was hardly the ideal climate for rugby, so in 1879 the game moved to Britain and became enshrined as an annual face-off between the English and the Scots. To add spice to the proceedings, the Calcutta Rugby Football Club, as the founders were known, donated a trophy made of 270 melted-down silver rupee coins. The resulting cup, fashioned by Indian craftsmen, is beautiful and unique, featuring an elephant on the lid and handles in the shape of king cobras.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been treated with the respect it deserves and was damaged in 1988 after a group of players decided to use it as the ball in an impromptu late-night game in Princes Street, Edinburgh, following the Calcutta Cup dinner. It was the sort of inebriated prank that would be severely frowned on in the professional era and nowadays the winners, like Ashes-winning cricketers, have to make do with a replica trophy. But if you are going to Twickenham, you can see the original on display in the Museum of Rugby. It will be exhibited there as long as England hold the cup and, as their supporters won’t need reminding, they’ve held it since 2009. All told, the Red Rose Army have won 66 of the encounters between the two nations, with 39 victories for Scotland and 14 draws – a statistic that rankles mightily with some fans north of the border. As far as they are concerned, beating England at any activity, from rugby to synchronised swimming, is the only thing that counts, and Andy Murray’s British Olympic Gold hasn’t tempered their nationalistic fervour one bit.
But most of the spectators at Twickenham on Saturday will be determined to enjoy the occasion whatever the outcome. The Calcutta Cup is one of the biggest corporate entertainment events in the sporting calendar, not least for the management and guests of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which sponsors the Six Nations and is a partner of the Scottish Rugby Union – and, of course, was bailed out by the British taxpayer in 2008.
English supporters will no doubt remind the Scots – good humouredly, I’m sure – that, far from beating the old colonial oppressors, they can’t even beat Tonga, suffering a humiliating 21-to-15 defeat by the South Sea Islanders in Aberdeen last November. Scotland’s former head coach Andy Robinson, an Englishman by birth, resigned after that game, and I suggested in my November 9 column having a wager on the Scots to finish bottom of the Six Nations table, at 3-1.
But for an outright winner, however, I am going to bypass England, despite their sensational victory over the All Blacks in December, and opt for France, who look a cut above their Anglo Saxon and Celtic rivals this year and can be backed at 2-1 on Betfair.