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England's championship boycott

John Griffiths January 31, 2014
England's Dickey Lockwood was one player to miss out on the 1888 and 1889 championships © Scrum
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Why didn't England take part in the International Championships of 1888 and 1889? Tom H, England

England had beaten Scotland narrowly to win the Triple Crown in 1884, but a dispute arose over the try from which the winning goal was kicked. The Scots appealed on the grounds that one of their players had "knocked back" in the move, an illegal act in their view.

There was no basis for the appeal under the RFU's laws and the Irish referee awarded the score, arguing that Scotland should not expect to profit from the careless action of one of their own players.

The Scots wanted the dispute settled by an independent adjudicator and a long correspondence between the English and Scottish Unions dragged on for more than a year, resulting in the cancellation of the Calcutta Cup fixture in 1885.

Then Herbert Cook, the secretary of the Irish Union intervened to suggest a meeting of the four Home Unions to discuss the issues and consider the formation of an International board to settle any future disputes.

The Unions agreed to meet and the concept of a Board came into existence in Dublin on February 6 1886. No minutes of that meeting exist, but it is known that Scotland agreed to award the 1884 match to England on the condition that their Union join a board comprising an equal number of representatives of each of the Four Nations and whose duties were to settle queries arising concerning the laws of the game.

As the Unions took steps to establish a framework for the board, the English Rugby Union feared their grip on the game, particularly with regard to framing the laws, would loosen. Sensing that the board would become the game's sole law-makers, they refused to accept the Scottish ultimatum of joining on the basis of equal representation.

Given that the English Rugby Union had three times as many clubs in membership than Scotland, Ireland and Wales combined, they felt they were entitled to greater representation on the proposed board.

The Celtic fringe went ahead with their board and in December 1887 unanimously confirmed: "all international matches must be played under Rules approved of by the International Board, in terms of which no International match with England can take place until the English Rugby Union agrees to join the International Board."

So there were no matches with England in 1888 (nor 1889) as frantic arrangements behind the scenes were made to resolve the impasse over representation. In February 1888 the Board compromised by offering the Rugby Union three representatives with their own Celtic Unions providing two each.

More than a year later, in December 1889, England were no nearer joining the board, but informed them that they were willing to submit the dispute to arbitration. Lord Kingsburgh (the Lord Justice Clerk) was the Board's nominee with Major Marindin (the Football Association's President) acting for the Rugby Union. This gesture of good will was sufficient to see England return to the international fold in 1890.

The arbitration was finally concluded in April of that year, with England enjoying a considerable majority on the Board: six members, whereas each of the three Celtic Unions had two.

John Griffiths is a widely respected rugby historian and is the author of several sports books, a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and co-author of the IRB International Rugby Yearbook. He has provided insight for Scrum.com since 1999.

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John Griffiths is a widely respected rugby historian and is the author of several sports books, a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and co-author of the IRB International Rugby Yearbook. He has provided insight for Scrum.com since 1999.
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