The history of rugby in India and the Calcutta Cup

As with cricket, rugby has a long history in India. It is said that the first match played in India was in 1871 between the crew of a ship, the HMS Galatea, which was in Calcutta, and employees of the British Raj, aided by soldiers from the local regiments. It was a rough match and not totally professional but it did lead to the first officially recorded match being played on Christmas Day 1872. The match was played between England and a team made up of men from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. A rematch was arranged very shortly afterwards, so presumably one side had a score to settle. The teak goal posts used during the 1871 match were used until 1886.

The 1872 matches caused interest in the game to grow and in the following year the Calcutta Rugby Football Club was established. Students from Rugby School were the driving force behind developing the game. However the rugby matches played were mainly between the soldiers from the British army in India and not many local people were interested in playing but even so the take up for playing in matches was very low. The hot weather dictated when matches could be played and all in all the game did not prosper as it had been anticipated it would.

Matters were brought to a head when the Welsh Dragoons left Calcutta and the Calcutta Rugby Football Club was disbanded in 1878. It is said that the cancellation of a free bar also played a part in the demise of the game. With this happening the playing of rugby at an official level came to an end but the members of the disbanded club decided to keep alive the memory of the club. There were 270 silver rupees left in the bank account and it was decided that these would be melted down and made into a trophy which, after presentation to the Rugby Football Union, was to be used for 'doing some lasting good for the cause of Rugby Football'.

The trophy, known today as the Calcutta Cup, is approximately 18 inches (45 cm) high, is delicately etched and decorated with three king cobras which form the handles and sits on a wooden base containing plates holding the date of each match played, the winning country and the names of both team captains. The lid of the cup is adorned by a finely formed elephant. A replica cup is now played for.

The Calcutta Club had thought that the trophy would be used as an annual prize for club competitions, similar to football's FA Cup which had been introduced around the same time. Indeed in 1884 the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club re-established rugby in Calcutta in 1884 and a club trophy called the Calcutta Rugby Union Challenge Cup - which also became known as the Calcutta Cup - was introduced in 1890. However, to retain the gentlemenly aspect of the game, the RFU preferred to keep the competition at 'international level with a less competitive nature for the sport and not run the risk of a move to professionalism'.

The original trophy is still in existence but years of mistreatment have left it too fragile to be moved from its permanent home at the Museum of Rugby in Twickenham. Instead both England and Scotland have full size models of the cup to be displayed by the winning team and when England are the victors the original trophy is displayed by the Museum of Rugby in a purpose built trophy cabinet with revolving stand.

As Wales did not have a national team and Ireland’s team lagged far behind the English and Scottish sides, the Calcutta Cup became the victor’s trophy in the annual England versus Scotland played during what is now the Six Nations competition.

It was mooted in 1993 that the trophy could be competed for by the home nations but the proposal was dismissed. Wales does now have an international team and perhaps it is now time for Wales and Ireland to compete for the trophy as equals with Scotland and England.