From The Vaults

01 August 2022
1996: The year that changed Rugby Union forever

When the rugby union game was thrown open to professionalism suddenly if not entirely unexpectedly at the conclusion of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, a myriad of conflicting forces was unleashed. The five European countries that contested the annual International Championship were forced to come to terms with a different landscape and many changes had already occurred by the time the opening two matches of the 1996 Championship were played on January 20th 1996 at Lansdowne Road and Parc des Princes.

All the northern hemisphere sides had taken the opportunity to play "warm-up" internationals to prepare themselves for the championship and some of the southern hemisphere countries had embarked on what they may well have hoped were the first of annual tours of the northern hemisphere. England hosted the touring South Africa and Western Samoa teams at Twickenham in November and December and Scotland also hosted Western Samoa at Murrayfield. Wales had toured South Africa in September and not only played Fiji at home in November but also hosted Italy at Cardiff Arms Park just four days before the Championship opened in January 1996. Ireland played Fiji in the last match of their nine-match tour of Wales and Ireland and then travelled to Atlanta to beat the USA in a closely-fought test match in January.

France had embarked on a tough schedule of internationals in the autumn of 1995. They played Italy, Romania and Argentina in the Latin Cup in the space of eight days in October winning all three matches. This was followed by a two-test series against the All Blacks in November. France won the first test at the Stade Municipal in Toulouse to general surprise but were then convincingly defeated in the second test at the Parc des Princes in Paris with the All Blacks showing the form that had made them runners-up at the World Cup. Italy was still five years away from joining the International Championship but they too were bitten by the professional bug and played five autumn tests before facing Wales in Cardiff.

If the fixtures and venues for the 1996 Championship matches had a familiar ring to them, coverage of the matches in the newspapers differed from former years with increased importance given to issues and personalities rather than just concentrating on detailed reports of matches. This was an inevitable by-product of rugby becoming a sport specialising in professional entertainment rather than a game played primarily for the enjoyment of the players. The result was acres of newsprint being expended over the next three months with the main concerns of the five unions appearing to be how to control player movement between clubs and countries and their consequent availability for international rugby.

The opening weekend saw Scotland beat Ireland in Dublin and France just scrape through against England through a last-minute drop goal from their new young Toulouse fly half, Thomas Castaignède. The press coverage of that opening weekend showed the way things were changing. In the 'Living and Leisure' section of the Irish Sunday Independent, a journalist commented that "With the game turning professional, one rugby pundit estimated that the collective Irish squad could earn just under £800,000 next season" and added that "God may love a trier but rugby union sponsors prefer try-scorers". In the report of the match in the Dublin Sunday World, a journalist exasperated by the Irish team's performance in defeat wrote that "Rugby is now a professional game - it is time to drop the amateurs".

The narrow defeat for the England team in Paris spared them the vituperation that had been thrown at the Irish team, but a fortnight later after England had beaten Wales at Twickenham the papers were not so charitable. Stephen Jones in the Sunday Times queried:

"Where were the improved England? We are still waiting. Another uncannily muted Twickenham, more than a few jeers and another England performance that failed to electrify … England are still in a morass, lacking continuity, zip and confidence."

On the same weekend, Scotland beat France at Murrayfield for their second consecutive victory to press approval. It was revenge for their narrow defeat in their pool match at the World Cup. The Scottish press was even more delighted when the national team went to Cardiff a fortnight later and defeated Wales for whom Arwel Thomas narrowly missed a conversion in the last minute to draw the match. This set up a potential Grand Slam encounter with England a fortnight later.

France took Ireland apart by 45 points to 10 in Paris and this led to much tut-tutting in the Irish press. The Irish Sunday Independent was coruscating in its criticism:

"This is a seriously professional game but Ireland look and play like the amateurish team of the last decade. Who is culpable? … Responsibility lies with those who control Irish rugby, the IRFU bosses."

The fourth weekend of the tournament saw Scotland lose to a powerful English pack led by Dean Richards in a dour 18-9 game with nine penalty goals. Except for a scintillating 70-metre break by the young Gregor Townsend, there was barely a sniff of a try. Hugh McIlvanney in the Sunday Times lyrically described the Scottish defeat as once again "exposing a national psyche tortured by the destruction of a thousand improbable dreams to yet another scarring experience." Ireland back on home soil recovered their mojo with a convincing 30-17 defeat of Wales. Remarkably, the 30 points scored were the highest that Ireland had scored in any championship match in 114 years. This understandably led the Irish Times to declare that Irish rugby had regained its pride.

And so to the final weekend with the destination of the first professional championship at stake. Wales facing a whitewash destroyed the championship aspirations of France with a tight one-point victory secured by Neil Jenkins' third penalty goal in the closing minutes. England took advantage by beating Ireland convincingly at Twickenham to give them the championship from Scotland with a plus 25 points difference and ensure Ireland's place at the foot of the championship table.

It had been a strange tournament dominated by external conflicts between clubs, regions and countries, payment of players and hostile discussions over broadcasting and TV rights. The future of the championship on the BBC was under threat and it was unclear whether the tournament in 1997 would have a similar fixture format. The editorial in the 1996/97 Rothmans Rugby Union Yearbook had the last word and summed up this historic championship as:

"neither particularly riveting nor scintillating … a middling championship won by a middling team, England."


  • History of Welsh International Rugby - John Billot (2nd edition, Roman Way Books 1999)
  • Irish Rugby 1974-1999 - Edmund Van Esbeck (Gill & Macmillan Ltd 1999)
  • Le Livre d'Or du Rugby 1996 (Editions Solar 1996)
  • Rothmans Rugby Yearbook 1996-97 - Editors: Cleary & Griffiths (Headline Books 1996)
  • The Who, When & Where of English International Rugby - Dan Stansfield (1997)
  • Newspaper reports from the British Newspaper Archive and articles from match programmes

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.