Ireland v Wales in 1914 was the roughest game ever played – The 10 fiercest rivalries in world rugby


For the first century the best rivalries were among the traditional ‘tier one’ nations. But since the dawn of the World Cup in 1987 another batch of mouth-watering grudge matches have emerged. Here we take a look at the biggest, meanest and most intense in the game..

Samoa v Wales


Connacht coach Pat Lam scores a try for Samoa against Wales at the 1999 World Cup as his side recorded one of the great upsets in the tournament’s history

Samoa announced their arrival on the world scene as a genuine force with an earth shattering victory against Wales in the 1991 World Cup. Nobody at Cardiff Arms Park that day expected Samoa to do what they did and in many ways the win signalled the start of a change in rugby’s traditional pecking order. Wales have struggled with Samoa ever since, with three further losses since that day, two of those coming in Cardiff. The 1999 World Cup win ended Wales’ 10 game winning run and was the beginning of the end for then coach Graham Henry.

WALES: 5 Wins

SAMOA: 4 Wins

Ireland v England

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A fixture which has ‘history’ – and not all of it on the field. The complicated relationship between the two countries often finds its most eloquent expression on the rugby field, and there is no scalp that the Irish prize more highly. “England is the one match we all love and it is the one, being Irish, you get excited for,” Rob Kearney suggested, back in 2012. “It’s something we have built into us as Irish people.” One of Ireland’s most memorable victories in their rugby history came in the 43-13 thumping they dished out to the English in 2007, a win made all the sweeter by virtue of coming at Croke Park, an arena redolent with its own unhappy history – although the feelings do not just run one way. When Martin Johnson refused to budge for the Irish president Mary McAleese for a pre-match presentation at Lansdowne Road in 2003 – England had lined up on Ireland’s preferred left-hand side of the red carpet, in a memorable display of bloody-mindedness – the cheers could be heard across the Irish Sea.

IRELAND: 47 wins

ENGLAND: 76 wins


Georgia v Russia


This fixture may not have much profile outside its respective nations (and Georgia dominate the win stats) but this match can be as fearsome as rugby gets. Before the end of the Soviet Union, many of the players that played in the inaugural 1993 clash had been teammates. As is often the case, the closer the ties the more bitter the blows. Attendances have been known to top 50,000 on occasion and fisticuffs are far from rare. With Russia putting more money into rugby thanks to Olympic funding and Georgia continuing to impress at the top table, this fixture has a storied future ahead.

GEORGIA: 17 wins

Wales v Ireland


An all-Celtic squabble that has its roots in a brawl in a Belfast theatre in 1914, when Wales’ notoriously combative forwards – the ‘Terrible Eight’ – were allegedly set upon by their Irish counterparts. The game that followed was dubbed the roughest ever played, and so the tone was set for a rivalry which – while not quite brimming with the kind of political and cultural animosity that marks both nations’ meetings with England, regularly provides fireworks. Their meeting in 2005, which saw Gavin Henson and Brian O’Driscoll go at each other like rabid dogs, while there is still resentment in Ireland over the treatment meted out to O’Driscoll on the 2013 Lions Tour, when Warren Gatland pack his side with Welshmen. “Probably, out of all the teams in the Six Nations, the Welsh players dislike the Irish the most,” Gatland noted in 2009. He’s probably still right.

WALES: 67 wins

IRELAND: 50 wins


England v Scotland


International rugby’s original rivalry. The teams first met (complete with 20 players a side) back in 1871 and have been at it hammer and tongs ever since for the Calcutta Cup. Sadly, for Scottish fans at least, the one-sided nature of fixture in recent years has taken the sheen off the contest a little in terms of competitiveness. Anyone wishing to see what this fixture means to Scotland should view the infamous 1990 clash when David Sole and co broke English grand slam dreams. The fixture does sometimes bring moments of mutual love and cooperation though. In 1989 Scotland’s John Jeffery and England’s Dean Richards shared a drunken kick around with the Calcutta Cup on the streets of Edinburgh. Repairing it wasn’t cheap.




New Zealand v France

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This fixture has produced some of the greatest World Cup matches in the tournament’s history. The mesmerising, and still not quite believable, 43-31 comeback win against a Jonah Lomu inspired All Blacks and 2007’s repeat upset in Cardiff will both live on in rugby folklore. France almost did it again in the 2011 final. Stricter reffing at the breakdown may well have seen them overcome the one point deficit that cost them their first title. France also famously became the first team to win a series in New Zealand without losing a game. Their ‘try from the end of the world’ to clinch the series late in the second test can still make true rugby connoisseurs weep with joy. France possesses the best win ratio against New Zealand of all northern hemisphere teams, but it’s still not even that high.

NEW ZEALAND: 43 wins

FRANCE: 12 wins


France v England


Famously dubbed ‘Le Crunch’, anyone with even the most passing of knowledge of Anglo-French relations will understand some of the reasons for the spiky nature of this contest. After Wales, France are England’s nearest rival in terms of total Six/Five Nations titles and the teams’ traditionally contrasting styles (French flair v English beef) only makes the fixture more fascinating. The rivalry stepped up another level in the 1990s when England won eight on the bounce. A very skilful French team (often expertly wound up by England’s Brian Moore ahead of the game) would often beat themselves before they even started. The violent 1991 French implosion springs most readily to mind. England added another hard-fought win at Twickenham last weekend.

ENGLAND: 57 wins

FRANCE: 39 wins


Australia v New Zealand


A classic case of sibling rivalry which has turned into something a little more serious as the years have rolled past. For New Zealand, the opportunity to give big brother – at least in political, economic and geographical terms – a bloody nose a few times a year is one that is simply too good to be passed up. As Steve Hansen, now the All Blacks head coach, put it in 2011: “We’ve gone to war and fought shoulder to shoulder. But they’re probably looked on as the big brother and we the little brother. And we want to belt them and they want to belt us.” Mostly the rivarly is knockabout stuff – in classic Aussie fashion, one of the country’s newspapers offered its readers a free voodoo doll of Sonny Bill Williams during the 2011 World Cup.




England v Wales


The Scots, French and Irish may want to beat England each year as much as Wales, but two factors make this the big one in the northern part of the globe. First, Wales’ national identity is intrinsically linked to rugby – a game that unites a nation and cuts across class barriers in a way it never has in England means there is a particular edge to this match (often to Wales’ detriment). Secondly, Wales’ superior record against England compared to the other northern hemispheres means this is no one way rivalry. Welsh captain Phil Bennett once gave a team talk that went: “We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.”

ENGLAND: 60 wins

WALES: 57 wins


South Africa v New Zealand


“When South Africa plays New Zealand, consider your country at war,” said legendary Springbok Boy Louw back in 1949. It’s a sentiment that has rung true since the teams first met in 1921, with the intervening years pock-marked by rows over biased local refereeing, on-field violence and dirty tricks. As Springbok centre John Gainsford once reportedly said: “When you come to us, we cheat you and beat you. And when we go to you, you cheat us and beat us.” Tensions came to boiling point in 1981, when the Springboks team that toured New Zealand was met by fierce anti-apartheid protests everywhere they went – previously, South Africa’s government had denied the Kiwis the right to play Maori players on their soil – and almost forced its abandonment. Politics plays less of a role now, but for two countries in which rugby union is a way of life, and who are often jousting for the game’s biggest prizes – they have racked up four World Cups between them – relations will always be icy.


NEW ZEALAND: 53 wins


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