Test of Metal

The Indian origins of a famous rugby trophy

01 July 2014
Chris Robshaw, the captain of the English rugby union team, holds the Calcutta Cup, which England retained in February.
Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Chris Robshaw, the captain of the English rugby union team, holds the Calcutta Cup, which England retained in February.
Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

ON 8 FEBRUARY, before a crowd of 67,144 people, Scotland faced England at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh as part of the 2014 Six Nations rugby championship. After 80 minutes of play on a muddy pitch, England secured an authoritative victory, with a score of 20–0. As disappointed home supporters filed out, up in the main stand Chris Robshaw, the jubilant English captain, held aloft an intricately engraved silver trophy, with three handles shaped like cobras and an elephant figure crowning its dome-shaped lid: the Calcutta Cup, the oldest trophy in international rugby.

The trophy Robshaw received was, in fact, a replica of the original cup, which is stored in the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham, near London. The museum’s curator, Michael Rowe, told me over the phone that although the cup’s significance has decreased in recent years, it was incredibly prestigious in its heyday, when it was “the Ashes in the sport of rugby.” What is most remarkable, Rowe said, was that the trophy’s origins can be traced back to the largely forgotten history of rugby in colonial India.

In the winter of 1872, a group of British émigrés having a hard time adjusting to life in Calcutta published letters in the Englishman, a prominent newspaper, asking that the administration organise rugby matches. A game was played on Christmas Day that year, with English players on one side and those representing Scotland, Ireland and Wales on the other. There is no record of who won, but the event was a success, and was repeated the following week. Those two matches led to the formation of the Calcutta Football Club in January 1873 (at the time, rugby was one of several related games called “football”). The club thrived—137 members joined in the first year alone—and it joined the Rugby Football Union, the sport’s governing body for all British territories, in 1874.

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: British raj Calcutta sports rugby
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