What is rugby’s ‘Calcutta Cup’ and why is it played in the UK?

The trophy, steeped in colonial history, is at the heart of a bitter rugby rivalry between Scotland and England.

Scotland celebrate with the Calcutta Cup after defeating England during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match at BT Murrayfield Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Edinburgh
Scotland players celebrate the Calcutta Cup win over England in the Guinness Six Nations 2024 at BT Murrayfield Stadium on February 24, 2024, in Edinburgh, Scotland [Stu Forster/Getty Images]

It is the oldest trophy in international rugby and the subject of a fierce sporting rivalry dating back to Britain’s Victorian age.

The Calcutta Cup, which Scotland and England compete for every year, became the focus of the rugby world on Saturday when the two old foes battled it out at Murrayfield Stadium in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, in front of nearly 70,000 rugby fans.

The clash was part of European rugby’s annual Six Nations Championship, which sees England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales compete for the right to be called the best men’s international rugby team in the northern hemisphere, and saw Scotland run out 30-21 winners, sending the home support into raptures.

Why is the trophy called the Calcutta Cup?

The trophy is called this because it was made in Calcutta (now Kolkata) by Indian silversmiths in 1878 during British colonial rule over the Indian subcontinent.

In January 1873, Calcutta Rugby Football Club was established by, among others, soldiers from the Royal East Kent Regiment 1st Battalion who were stationed in Calcutta, the then-capital of British India. However, due to the rise in popularity of polo and the departure from the area of many of its founding members, the club disbanded four years later.

This prompted its honorary secretary and treasurer, GA James Rothney, to write to the Rugby Football Union (RFU) about “doing some lasting good for the cause of Rugby Football” using the remaining club funds of 270 Indian rupee coins. At the time, one Indian rupee was worth about 1 shilling and 10 pence (about 22p in modern UK coinage terms).

The decision was taken to melt the coins down to fashion an ornate silver trophy featuring three handles in the form of king cobras, and, in the words of World Rugby, “an Indian elephant … on the lid in acknowledgement of the British Governor-General and the elephant processions that had carried the rulers of India for more than 2,500 years”.

The RFU decided that it should be awarded to the winners of future Scotland-England rugby matches. The first Calcutta Cup tournament was played in 1879, which ended in a draw.

Calcutta cup
The Calcutta Cup was made in 1878 from 270 melted-down rupee coins. It features three handles in the form of king cobras and an elephant on the lid [David Rogers/Getty Images]

What makes this year’s Calcutta Cup so special?

Scotland’s victory over England at the weekend means the team has now secured the trophy for four years running – a feat it last achieved in 1896 during the reign of Queen Victoria.

But Scotland’s recent dominance in this fixture represents something of a reversal in fortunes.

Indeed, as the far larger and better resourced of the two United Kingdom constituent nations, England have traditionally held the upper hand in the Calcutta Cup, losing just three times between 2000 – when the Six Nations was first established – and 2017, when they demolished Scotland 61-21 at Twickenham Stadium in London.

Even during the final decade of the old Five Nations Championship, which ran from 1910 to 1931 and 1947 to 1999 prior to Italy joining the competition, England held sway, losing just once to Scotland between 1990 and 1999.

Saturday’s result means that the Scottish “David” now holds bragging rights over the English “Goliath” for another year at least.

Why is the rivalry between Scotland and England so fierce?

Despite both being part of the UK, Scotland and England – populations 5.4 million and 56.5 million, respectively – have long been rivals in the sporting arena.

This stems from the Wars of Independence fought between Scotland and England during the 13th and 14th centuries when the Scots repelled English attempts at subjugation and emerged as a sovereign nation thanks to Scotland’s best-known national heroes, William Wallace (around 1270-1305) and King Robert the Bruce (1274-1329).

And while Scotland and England gave up their individual sovereignty to form Great Britain in the 1707 Act of Union, both retained their status as nations, with Scotland maintaining its own distinct legal, educational and religious institutions.

The establishment of Scotland’s devolved parliament in 1999 was followed by a polarising debate over its constitutional future, which remains in full swing.

As such, Scotland’s recent dominance in the 145-year-old fixture has not only proved exhilarating for fans of Scottish rugby but also for those supporters who ache to cut political ties with their much more densely populated English neighbour.

Scotland rugby fans
Scotland fans enjoy the atmosphere during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between Scotland and England at BT Murrayfield Stadium on February 24, 2024, in Edinburgh, Scotland [Stu Forster/Getty Images]

So, is the Calcutta Cup more important to Scotland?

Many in England have long accused their counterparts in Scotland of harbouring an inferiority complex when it comes to English sporting success on the world stage, which, in rugby and football, dwarves Scottish success by comparison.

This includes the common charge that, as far as international rugby and football are concerned, Scotland’s ambitions begin and end with a desire to simply defeat England.

Even Scotland’s national anthem – sung by players and fans alike at sporting events – eulogises Robert the Bruce’s defeat of England’s King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Indeed, Scotland’s victory over England in 1990, which saw them win both the Calcutta Cup and the Five Nations Grand Slam, came against the backdrop of simmering Scottish-English tensions after UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to introduce her government’s new tax system – the much-hated Poll Tax – in Scotland in 1989, one year before rolling it out in England.

But after 1990, England enjoyed considerable success over its smaller rival. During this period, said Tom English, author of The Grudge, which recounts the political and sporting story of Scotland’s 1990 Grand Slam victory, England viewed the Calcutta Cup “as a bit of a formality”.

For Scotland, however, the sportswriter told Al Jazeera, “The game never lost its significance and the more Calcutta Cups they lost, the greater the longing became, the more important a victory over England became.”

Now, said English, the tables have turned.

“For the English rugby establishment – the monied fans who have had great fun over many years mocking the poor Scots – this must be very hard to take,” he said. “A real blow to pride. A challenge to their very rugby identity. Their rugby psyche is being trampled underfoot by a nation they became used to beating. That’s a tough one for them to stomach.”

Source: Al Jazeera