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Johnny Watterson: Has the Triple Crown become an anachronism?

In an era of World Cups, retaining silverware appeal is open to question

When there are trophies for almost everything coach Kieran Crowley and his Italian team should be thankful for small mercies. They will bring nothing back to Rome. There is no actual wooden spoon.

That is not to say there never was an actual wooden spoon. The original practice of handing out the 'Wooden Spoon' came from Cambridge University during the 19th century, where it was awarded to the student with the lowest mark in the final honours examination in mathematics.

According to prevailing wisdom the spoon would vary in size with the last one awarded in 1909 to a pretty gutted-looking Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse. The impressively giant spoon is significantly taller than the mortified winner. If revived it could be a remarkable-looking piece of kit and conversation piece par excellence.

In professional cycling they have the Lanterne Rouge in the Tour de France, which is the man at the bottom of the list of riders after three weeks of hauling carcass. It comes from the French for Red Lantern and refers to the lantern hung on the rear vehicle of a passenger or freight train.

Similar to the wooden spoon, the Lanterne Rouge has never been an official award with an official trophy, save for the paper lantern that is often given to the rider at the end of the race by Tour photographers looking to sell misery to the cycling world.

But the Six Nations hates to see any team go home empty-handed and while there is no trophy for last or a Grand Slam-winning best, over the five games in which Scotland play, they are capable of winning seven different trophies.

They can win the Six Nations trophy, the Triple Crown trophy and if they beat England, which they did this year, they take home the Calcutta Cup, famously made from melted down Indian rupees donated by the Calcutta Club.

Against Ireland, Scotland compete for the Centenary Quaich (a Gaelic drinking vessel) and they play France for The Auld Alliance Trophy.

The winners of Wales and Scotland are awarded the Doddie Weir Cup and if Scotland beat Italy, they are given the Cuttitta Cup, which was introduced just this year and commemorates Massimo Cuttitta, a former Italian captain and Scotland scrum coach, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 54 from Covid-19.

Ireland also play against England for the Millennium Trophy, presented to celebrate Dublin's millennium in 1988 with France and Italy competing for the Garibaldi Trophy presented in 2007. It commemorated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Garibaldi, leader in the unification of Italy. That's an awful lot of pewter.

This weekend, Ireland play Scotland in Dublin for the Quaich Trophy, to secure the Triple Crown, which unlike the championship, is still within the team’s control.

On that, maybe it is heretical to think, if you have watched the Ireland rugby team struggle through the 1960s and onwards, and also rude to consider whether the historical Triple Crown has become not so much a museum piece but less the relevant, prized award it was in the past.

Motivational factor

In another way it could be seen as a celebration of failure, a booby prize for not winning the championship proper as well as part of a privileged elite cabal from which Frances and Italy are excluded.

Theoretically possible but highly unlikely because Italy would have to place first or second with France, a team can come third in the Six Nations championship and still be the Triple Crown champions.

All this week the talk has been of winning it and how it has become a motivational factor for the players, a piece of silverware to take home and presumably affirmation that the team is moving in the right direction.

But when it began in 1883, the four teams were all British, the players were amateurs, there was no such thing as a World Cup or an international rugby season that embraced a Novembers Series of matches, where ranking points were awarded.

A Triple Crown win back then ensured the championship too as just four nations took part. France arrived in 1910.

That's not to erase the derring-do of 'Ginger' McLoughlin or Moss Keane and the boys of 1982, who won the first Irish Triple Crown for 33 years. Nor to unman the exploits of Jackie Kyle in the 1949 Five Nations Championship, or undermine previous quests for Triple Crowns.

This year’s Triple Crown has value precisely because of the names and its place in history. But whether it retains the resonance of those notional victories in the sepia-tinted days, when there were much fewer trophies to win, is open to question.

These days a Triple Crown is also less of a rare event for Ireland as teams in Europe build around World Cup cycles, not the Six Nations Championship. If Ireland win on Saturday, it will be the sixth time since 2004, which would be equal to all the Irish Triple Crown wins prior to that going back to 1894. In modern rugby terms, Ireland's 29-20 defeat of the All Blacks last November in Dublin is more relevant than beating England, Wales and Scotland.

The Triple Crown may not be all it once was but this weekend if the Irish players win, they deserve to celebrate. Unlike the boys of 1982, as the modern game dictates, they will also be presented with an actual trophy.