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Monday, 31 January, 2000, 15:23 GMT
Hope and history

With 118 years of history, the Five - and now Six - Nations is the oldest rugby tournament in the world. Here, News Online charts its sometimes controversial, but always colourful past.

When the English rugby team travelled to Swansea on a dreary day in 1882, few could have realised the importance of the occasion.

The game, in which England beat Wales by two goals and four tries to none, sparked a festival of rugby that has since become the pride of the northern hemisphere.

The Championship began life as a four nations tournament
Known in the early days as the International Championship - with only England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland competing - it was far less organised than the modern tournament.

There was no points system, for example. Instead, teams were judged simply on whether they won or lost.

Before the turn of the century the Championship was marred by disputes and three times (in 1885, 1887 and 1889) it could not be completed.

Indeed, even after 1900, it continued to be a source of controversy.

Crowds in south Wales habitually invaded the pitch or threatened to lynch the referee and in the 1930s the French were expelled after players were found to have hidden stiletto knives in their socks.

Four becomes five

France did not join the fray until 1910 and, despite their later dominance, they struggled at first to achieve any notable success.

In their first four years of entry, the French won just one game - a one point victory over Scotland in 1911.

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the tournament put on hold until 1920 and the inter-war years were dominated by England as they swept to nine championship victories, including five Grand Slams.

France continued to struggle and when it was discovered that a number of their players had been paid at club level, they were forced to pull out of the tournament in 1931.

Rise of the French

War again meant the curtailment of the championship in 1940. But when it resumed in 1947 it marked the beginning of a new rugby order.

France shared the title in 1954 and won it outright in 1959, driven by stars such as the inspirational lock forward Lucien Mias, fullback Pierre Lacaze and flanker Francois Moncla.

The 1970's brought mixed fortunes for both the Championship and the teams.

In 1972 the tournament could not be completed after Scotland and Wales refused to play in Dublin because of the escalating political problems.

And the following year the tournament finished with a unique five way tie - every country having won and lost two games.

Welsh domination

For Wales, however, the 1970s were a golden age.

They finished the decade with three Grand Slams and one Triple Crown and were led by legendary players such as fullback JPR Williams and scrum-half Gareth Edwards.

England struggled throughout the 1970s and most of the following decade - their only relief being Bill Beaumont's Grand Slam winning side of 1980.

Instead, it was France who dominated, winning the title outright three times, including two Grand Slams in 1981 and 1987.

In 1984, Scotland won their first Grand Slam for 59 years and Ireland scooped the title 12 months later. They have not won it since.

A glimpse at the future

The dominance of England and France during the 1990's brought criticism that the championship was not offering a high enough standard of competition.

Italy's presence in 2000 should add weight to the Championship
The response was to bring an end to the historic format by asking Italy to join in 2000.

Ironically, the last Five Nations campaign saw a Celtic revival as Scotland took the championship and Wales finished third, having defeated both France and England.

Italy, on the other hand, experienced a huge dip in form, losing out to each of their new European competitors and failing to qualify for the last 16 of the World Cup for the first time.

The new boys of European rugby have a lot to prove during the inaugural Six Nations tournament.

As do France, who scooped the Wooden Spoon in 1999, before performing superbly in the latter stages of the World Cup to finish as runners-up.

For fans of rugby, 2000 could and should be an impressive year.

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