From The Vaults

08 August 2022
An English club knock-out competition at last!

It remains surprising that it took a century from the foundation of the Rugby Football Union in January 1871 to the decision to hold an inaugural knock-out competition for English clubs during the 1971-72 season. It was not technically a cup competition because there was only a plaque to be presented to the winning team at the end of the Final by the RFU President.

Despite the intense competitiveness of the Five Nations Championship and the English County Championship and the shining example of football's FA Cup, all of which had existed since the 19th century, the RFU had been resistant for many years to the idea of a club competition in England. Pressure had been mounting for some years among the clubs for a greater structure to their seasons but fears of increasing professionalism and what was often described as over-vigorous play had led to an excessive caution on the part of the RFU in introducing competitions. The sole guide to the relative standings of the various clubs had hitherto been the rankings compiled by newspapers and based on teams' performances over the course of each season.

There were 32 clubs drawn from all over the country in the First Round of the new 'Club Knock-Out Competition' and, while it was commonly expected that the established clubs who provided the England team with most of their international players would progress through to the second round, there were some notable early casualties. Notts beat their local rivals Leicester 10-3; West Hartlepool beat Headingley 17-10; and Wilmslow knocked out Liverpool 14-6. There were some gritty clashes too among the elite clubs with Gloucester knocking out Bath 12-3 and Moseley eliminating Northampton 25-12.

In the last sixteen the much-fancied London Welsh team with numerous British Lions convincingly disposed of Saracens 33-7; an equally fancied Coventry side removed Notts 30-3; and Moseley defeated a strong Bedford team 16-9. The unfancied sides that went through to the quarter-finals included Penryn, Wilmslow and Halifax.

The quarter-finals on April 1st 1972 threw up two major surprises. Away from home at the Old Deer Park, Gloucester beat a powerful London Welsh side with 11 internationals 9-4 after being a try behind at half-time and the unfancied Wilmslow flying the flag for the less prestigious clubs secured a sensational 16-7 victory over Harlequins at Twickenham.

The semi-final draw was Coventry at home against Gloucester at Coundon Road and Moseley playing Wilmslow at The Reddings. In a hard-fought match on March 25th Gloucester took a 6-3 lead into half-time but England full back Peter Rossborough kicked his second penalty for Coventry in the 64th minute to bring the scores level. Despite the presence of 10 England internationals including six in their back-line, the Coventry forwards could not win enough ball to release the likes of David Duckham, Peter Preece and Rodney Webb into open space and the scores remained level at the full-time whistle. Under the rules of the competition when a draw occurred, Gloucester as the away side went through to the Final where they awaited the winners of the second semi-final.

Three weeks later Moseley with the English half-back pair of John Finlan and Jan Webster and the giant boot of Sam Doble at full back were universally expected to halt Wilmslow's progress. The chances of such a minor club reaching the final were rated extremely poorly by the Birmingham Daily Post on the morning of the match:

"Cup rugby has so far encouraged few of the romantic visions of the humble. The power stays at the top and the meek shall remember their places. Thus Moseley will beat Wilmslow in the semi-final of the National Knock-Out at The Reddings this afternoon."

And so, it came to pass … Moseley duly won 18-10 although the Cheshire club fought tenaciously after changing ends 15-4 down at half-time. The Knock-Out Final would take place between Gloucester and Moseley at Twickenham on Saturday April 29th 1972. The former England captain and British Lions centre Colin McFadyean returned for Moseley and the match was confidently expected by the RFU to be a showpiece of all that was best in English rugby. Little did they or the 12,000 spectators know.

The first ten minutes of the match in the wind and driving rain were sensational. The Moseley centre Malcolm Swain scored a try in the corner after just under a minute's play. Sam Doble converted with a mighty kick from the touchline and Moseley led 6-0. Within five minutes Moseley's hopes were shattered when their England second row forward Nigel Horton was sent off by the Welsh referee Ron Lewis for punching. This was the first time since 1925 that a player had been sent off at Twickenham in a major match which dealt a severe blow to the RFU's hopes of a good, clean match. This shock was compounded for Moseley shortly afterwards by an unconverted try from the Gloucester left wing John Dix.

The afternoon went from bad to worse when Moseley's wing forward Tim Smith suffered a rib injury. He had to leave the field before half-time and was unable to return for the second half. This left the Moseley side playing with 13 men and, although they kept the score down to 8-6 at the interval following a Rob Morris try, they were unable to hold on towards the end of the match after their other wing forward Ian Pringle was carried off on a stretcher with a severe knee injury leaving Moseley with just 12 men to see out the remaining twenty minutes.

Gloucester full back Eric Stephens kicked a penalty in the 65th minute and two drop goals in the final five minutes of the match from fly half Tom Palmer and scrum half Mickey Booth gave Gloucester a deserved if decidedly fortunate 17-6 victory. Amazingly, despite their numerical disadvantage throughout the game, Moseley had managed to restrict the Gloucester team from scoring more than two tries but the numerical odds were too great to permit any result other than a Gloucester victory.


  • Centenary History of the Rugby Football Union - UA Titley & Ross McWhirter (RFU 1970)
  • The Centenary of Moseley Football Club 1873-1973 (Studio Press, Birmingham 1973)
  • Gloucester Up For The Cup - Malc King, Jim Smith & Dick Williams (Gloucester Rugby Heritage 2020)
  • Rothmans Rugby Yearbook 1972 - Vivian Jenkins editor (Queen Anne Press, London)
  • British Newspaper Archive for March and April 1972

about the author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.