A world without television is particularly hard to imagine on a weekend which will offer us wall to wall coverage of the final round of the Six Nations, plus a variety of other rugby-watching options from around the world.
Yet it is only now beginning to slip beyond living memory. This month sees the 80th anniversary of the first televised rugby match, the Calcutta Cup match between England and Scotland played at Twickenham on March 19, 1938.
Television was in its infancy. The BBC had begun regular broadcasts in the autumn of 1936, and it was less than a year since its first outside broadcast, King George VI's Coronation in May 1937. The Calcutta Cup transmission launched a burst of sporting firsts. The Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race, then a major event, was shown on April 1 followed in the same month by the first football [like the rugby, England vs. Scotland] and the first FA Cup final [Preston vs. Huddersfield], before the first cricket Test match [England vs. Don Bradman's first Australian team] was shown in June.
The audience was tiny. There were only around 2,000 television sets in the UK at the end of 1937 and fewer than 10,000 a year later. Transmission was largely confined to the London area, via tiny sets [mostly five or eight inches] which still came into the category of luxury goods, likely to cost not far short of £30, the best part of three months pay for the average worker on £129 per annum.
The BBC simplified the technical challenge of showing rugby by using former Harlequin Teddy Wakelam, their chosen radio commentator since the first broadcast [England vs. Wales in 1927], to broadcast simultaneously in both mediums.
Wakelam recalled in 1954 that "the fact that we had viewers as well as listeners made very little difference to us in the box" and that he and John Snagge, employed in the 'Dr Watson' role of second commentator asking questions on behalf of the uninformed viewer/listener, "carried on in much the same way."
But there were technical challenges. Just before going on air, Wakelam was alarmed to see that the graphic listing the Scottish team had a misspelling in it, and technicians at Alexandra Palace were troubled by the bright sunlight, turned by Twickenham's towering stands into one half of bright illumination and the other half of shade. Within five minutes of the start Wakelam had received a message asking him to "Please do something about the sun." Initially nonplussed, he replied that the technicians should "Ask the Director-General to have the damn thing put out," and heard no more complaints.
That miniscule, localised audience [although Wakelam received messages from people who had picked up the signal in Guernsey, North Yorkshire and Malvern] was treated to a belter of a match, with Scotland going for the Triple Crown -- the biggest honour available during France's 1930s exile.
This was an era when the Scots were either inspired or dire -- they had won a Triple Crown in 1934, but only three matches in the four seasons since. And this match would complete one of the most remarkable years in the long history of the tournament.
The 1930s are generally recalled as dull and low-scoring, and the two previous seasons had seen only 134 points in 12 matches, an average not very far into double figures. This, though, was a year of collective craziness. Six matches brought 176 points, an average of 29.33 which would not be beaten until the 1976, when there were four points for a try and many more penalties.
Penalty-kickers were certainly helped in 1938 by a rule change which meant that kicks were taken from where the offence had been committed, with the offending team retreating 10 yards, rather than the previous practice of their forming up at the point of the penalty and the kicker retreating.
But the total of 35 tries in six matches was an average of 5.83 per game, still the all-time record for the competition. England came into the Calcutta Cup from an astonishing match at Dublin, which they won 36-14 by scoring seven tries to Ireland's four, with 15 points including six conversions from the boot of debutant fullback Graham Parker.
But England had lost to Wales, while the Scots had beaten them in a tight contest whose conclusion had brought the moment of luck which is often the preface to greater achievements. Wales had led 6-0 at the interval, but were down to 14 men. They defended with spirit, but were gradually worn down and Scotland's debutant back rower William Crawford, a naval officer who played for United Services Portsmouth, crossed before adding the conversion just after the hour.
Wales still led into the last two minutes when forward Harry Rees, who was concussed and lying on top of scrum-half Haydn Tanner, also concussed, was penalised by referee Cyril Gadney for lying on the ball. Crawford landed the penalty for an 8-6 win. The Welsh Rugby Union was sufficiently angry to refuse Gadney as a referee for their matches from then on, but tough as it was on the gallant losers, veteran Newport-based writer Townsend Collins reckoned that it was "poetic justice -- victory went to the better side."
Since Wales also won two matches, it could be argued that this was a decisive moment in the destination of the Triple Crown, but an equal case can be made for Scotland's 23-14 win over Ireland, since it was their only defeat of the Irish between 1935 and 1954. Scotland scored four tries -- two of them from Cambridge University wing John Forrest. Victory was orchestrated by outside-half and captain Wilson Shaw, reckoned by Wales' star centre Wilfred Wooller to have made up, with centres Duncan MacRae and Charles Dick [also a try-scorer], the best midfield unit he ever played against.
Their arrival at Twickenham was not without its adventures as a disorientated bus driver dropped them at the wrong gate, necessitating a long trek through crowds happy to joke with them about their chances of victory and the parsimony of the Scottish Rugby Union in expecting them to walk.
Eight of the Scottish team, drawn from 13 different clubs, played their rugby in England, with London Scottish and Cambridge University supplying two apiece. England were drawn from 12 clubs, including such unlikely [to modern eyes at least] teams as St Bartholomew's Hospital and Old Cranleighans, with Coventry (three) and Northampton (two) the only multiple providers. Twenty-four clubs in total were represented, with Waterloo providing a player for each team.
The crowd of 70,000 were treated to an epic contest defined by the dominance of the England pack, and the brilliance of Scotland with the scraps they obtained. England's dominance of the scrum was reported as being four or five to one, while Bill McLaren, a 14-year-old spectator from Hawick destined to become the defining practitioner of the role being pioneered that day by Wakelam, recalled Scotland winning only six scrums.
"It was probably the most spectacular and exciting Calcutta Cup match ever played." John Griffiths
The outcome was a pattern of Scottish tries being countered by English scores from kicks. The Scots opened the scoring when wing William Renwick, a debutant from London Scottish, crossed after the English defence had fumbled a kick by Shaw. But not long after quarter-time England led 6-3, Parker landing two penalties in a style that, from newsreel evidence, looks looser and more relaxed than the statuesque norm of kickers of the time.
So far, so relatively routine. But it was the last ten minutes before half-time that turned this match into something exceptional. There were four tries, three by the Scots, who would under modern rules have registered a bonus point by the break.
Renwick claimed the first of them on the half-hour, driving over from a loose maul. Four minutes later came a classic long range score, initiated by the Scottish back row and running through half a dozen pairs of hands before the touchdown by Dick.
Then came a try for Shaw, recalled by JBG Thomas as "a sharp, swift attacker with hunched shoulders that belied his speed." Widely recognised as Scotland's most gifted player, he was the also most experienced player in their team, winning his 16th cap. He had, like Gregor Townsend and Chris Patterson in more recent times, been exiled on occasion to centre or the wing, but in 1938 was firmly established as outside-half and captain.
EHD Sewell recorded that he "made rings all day" around opposite number Frank Reynolds, and this time he dummied past him and jinked around Parker to reach the line. But in between Dick's and Shaw's scores came an English try for wing Ernest Unwin, so in spite of scoring four tries to one, Scotland led by only 12-9 at the break.
And within 15 minutes of the restart they were behind, Reynolds dropping a goal, worth four points in those days, to make it 13-12. This time it was Scotland's turn to start landing penalties with two shots from Crawford, a naval officer who played for United Services Portsmouth, compensating for his earlier missed conversions.
That made it 18-13, but England were not done. Parker landed his third penalty to cut the gap to two points and they continued to press. Reynolds had a drop attempt charged down, then centre Peter Cranmer's attempted four-pointer flew just wide.
Then wing Hal Sever came close to scoring under the posts. He would later recall "If I'd scored, we'd probably have converted and won 21-18. I didn't. I got held up and from the ensuing scrum the Scots broke away."
The ball reached Shaw near halfway. Always quick off the mark, he sliced through the England defence on a long, swerving run which ended with a dive to take him over close to the corner. Both the angle of the run and the acclaim with which the score was greeted reminded some observers of Alexander Obolensky's second try against the All Blacks on the same ground a little more than two years earlier.
The conversion, for the fifth time in five Scottish attempts was missed, leaving a final margin which as Sewell recalled: "England were nowhere near only five points behind the Scots side," did little justice to their brilliance. Five tries to one told a clearer story.
But their joyful fans did not much care as they chaired Shaw off the pitch. An hour or so later the Scottish captain lowered himself heavily into a chair in the tea room, and making conversation with the elderly man sat close to him, said "pretty hard going." "Yes," said the old man. "You must be glad you weren't playing."
Twelve of the Englishmen never played for their country again. Parker finished with 24 points in two matches, while other notable departures included Sever, Cranmer and Northampton prop Ray Longland. Among the three survivors who played in 1939, when the tournament reverted to type with only 59 points in six matches was Robert Marshall, an Oxford University forward. He was widely regarded as a giant of the future, but was destined instead to win a Distinguished Service Cross and bar for his war service as a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Service before being killed by a rogue British landmine a few days into peacetime in May 1945.
The Scots, unsurprisingly, showed less turnover, although Twickenham was to be West of Scotland prop William Blackadder's only cap. But poor results in 1939 soon took their toll. While Shaw survived the season, ending with 19 caps and eventually becoming a well-regarded President of the Scottish Rugby Union, Renwick played only once more, and in 1944 became the fourth of the Twickenham victors of 1938 -- following wing Forrest, fullback George Roberts and scrum-half Tom Dorward -- to die in action.
Television closed down for the duration of the war, while Scotland returned in 1947 as they had finished in 1939, losing every match. They would not win again at Twickenham until 1965 or claim an outright title, Triple Crown or Grand Slam until they won the lot in 1984. That the Scots contrived to win only nine matches in as many seasons between 1932 and 1947 including two triple crowns was a spell of sustained inconsistency to put even Wales' 17 wins in 9 seasons including two five-win Grand Slams between 2001 and 2009 into the shade.
The undoubted highlight of Scotland's roller-coaster years was the match which John Griffiths described in 1982 as "probably the most spectacular and exciting Calcutta Cup match ever played." Thirty-six years on from when that was written, 80 after the match was played and 139 after the trophy was donated, that description still stands.
If any television audience this weekend is better served than the tiny number who watched rugby's first transmission, they can count themselves very lucky indeed.