This is the first of two articles on the subject of rugby rivalries.
Next month, as we head towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, we will take a look at some of the best international rivalries. But first, it is the turn of club rivalries to come under the microscope.
Discover what makes a good rivalry, and then read about six of the most intense from around the rugby world.
What makes a good club rivalry?
Every rugby club will have big rivals. They are the matches you first look for when the fixture lists are published during the summer break, and you will likely make a point of marking them on your calendar.
As they are usually local rivals, it will be easy for supporters to attend the away match. This helps create a great atmosphere before, during, and after the game.
If you are involved in the game as a player, you will feed off that atmosphere, and the history around the fixture, because you know there is more at stake than simply league points.
Many club rivalries often date back many years. Indeed, some on this list started as long ago as the 19th century.
But that does not preclude new rivalries starting up, or what were previously run-of-the-mill encounters suddenly flaring-up like long-dormant volcanoes and getting their own circled date on the calendar.
A win over your big rivals can make a season. A defeat can make you all the more determined to put the record straight at the next meeting.
1. The oldest rivalry of all: Blackheath v Richmond
The best place to start when it comes to club rivalries is with the oldest.
Blackheath were founded in 1858 and Richmond just three years later, and the first match between the two was played in that 1861 season.
It is hard to work out exactly how many times they have played each other over the ensuing years as old club records can be sketchy, but it is certainly a rivalry that has been keenly fought in that time and still persists to this day.
As you would expect, both clubs have ensured that it has continued. If and when they are in different divisions, they will schedule a pre-season match that always has a bit more of an edge to it than other games played in August each year.
2. The battle for West Country dominance: Bath v Gloucester
As rugby has long been the dominant sport in much of the south-west of England, it is inevitable that the region has thrown up a fair share of intense rivalries.
Perhaps none comes with more intensity and history than Bath v Gloucester.
It is a match that means more to the fans of both clubs than any other, as this BT Sport video shows. Kingsholm and the Rec are both sold out months in advance.
It is also an important match for players on both sides, with those from abroad soon becoming aware of what is at stake, such is the passion and desire to win throughout the clubs.
Even when both teams are in the bottom half of the division, the TV cameras are always there, hyping up a match that needs no more hype at all.
3. The Basque rivalry: Bayonne v Biarritz
Sporting passions run high in the Basque region, and there is little to compare with the rivalry between Bayonne and their near-neighbours just five miles away.
The two cities revel in their differences in all aspects of life, from architecture to the quality of food in their restaurants. As a result, it is no surprise that the opportunity for the rivalry to be played out on a rugby pitch in front of packed houses is treated with such relish.
Given that, it is almost unbelievable that there were two attempts, in 2013 and 2015, to merge the two clubs. These were met with fierce resistance from supporters of both, which is probably the only thing they have ever agreed on!
4. A provincial rivalry: Leinster v Munster
You only have to take a quick look across to the other side of the Irish Sea for proof that provincial rivalries can be just as heated as local towns and villages.
Leinster and Munster have faced each other every year since the inception of the Irish inter-provincial championship in 1946.
It is a rivalry that now transcends the international stage as well as their own domestic one, as the European Champions Cup has added an extra layer to the Limerick and Cork v Dublin rivalry.
Even without Munster in the final this year, it did not prevent their rivalry with Leinster being on show. The presence of proud Munsterman, Ronan O’Gara, coaching La Rochelle to a famous victory added some real spice to an already very hot encounter.
5. The battle of South Island: Highlanders v Crusaders
The biggest rivalry in New Zealand rugby works on many levels.
As the only two Super Rugby teams on the South Island, there is an inevitable battle for island supremacy whenever the Highlanders and Crusaders face each other.
It is a battle between the north of the South Island and south of the island, as well as being a tale of their respective cities in Christchurch v Dunedin.
Beyond that, from a rugby history perspective, it is a rivalry between Otago and Canterbury who, prior to the advent of Super Rugby, were two of the most storied clubs in the country.
Given all those plotlines, it is no wonder that matches between the two are so hotly anticipated.
6. East Midlands bragging rights: Leicester v Northampton
Ask any casual fan what they think is the biggest rivalry in Premiership Rugby and they are likely to reference Leicester v Bath.
However, that overlooks a more historic and intense rivalry involving Leicester and their east Midlands rivals, Northampton.
It is certainly not overlooked by followers of both clubs, with BT Sport reporting on the history, passion, blood, and thunder that the rivalry brings with it. The two matches each season are the ones that matter above all others, regardless of league position and what may be at stake in terms of honours.
It is a rivalry with plenty of history behind it, predating the professional era. For example, in 1900 the referee of a match between the two had to be escorted from the pitch, and away from the ground, after some decisions he made were “disputed” by players and supporters of one of the clubs.
A word about Welsh club rivalries
You may well be surprised that there are no Welsh club rivalries on this list, especially bearing in mind the near-religious fervour with which the Welsh approach what is their national game.
One reason for this is that the provincial structure has taken the edge off some of the top club matches, as the best players are no longer guaranteed to be playing.
However, it is more the case that there are so many rivalries within the Welsh game that it is impossible to pick just one.
The history of Welsh rugby includes matches between two local teams played on Boxing Day and then again less than a week later on New Year’s Day. There were even instances of the two games being on consecutive days.
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