However, after a momentous decision by the International Rugby Football Board in 1995, rugby union became a professional sport. This was brought about mainly because rugby union was in danger of losing its best players to new rival professional organisations (and to rugby league) and the fact that many countries (the UK excepted) had been secretly paying their top union stars for years anyway.
Rugby union is played in all regions of the UK and has a wider following than rugby league, with the top ten clubs in England playing in the Zurich Premiership (www.zurichrugby.co.uk). Since 1995, club rugby’s administrators have been over-optimistic about the game’s capacity to increase its base of supporters and therefore income, and consequently clubs have lurched from crisis to crisis. Paying players has turned out to be not quite so simple as imagined. Falling attendances at some clubs have exacerbated this funding crisis. Below the Zurich Premiership is National Division One from which there’s promotion for the winners to thePremiership. This is followed by the National Leagues and the geographically based Powergen Leagues. The English Clubs Rugby Union Championship is the national club competition, with most matches being played on Saturdays. The Celtic League involves clubs from Ireland, Wales and Scotland and the Scottish-Welsh League includes only clubs from the latter two.
The Triple Crown
England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland compete each year for the rugby union Triple Crown. The home nations also compete with France and Italy for the International Championship. The ultimate achievement is the Grand Slam, which is when a team wins all its championship matches. The annual England versus Scotland fixture is contested for the Calcutta Cup. Rugby union is also played internationally at the highest level by Australia (the Wallabies), New Zealand (the All Blacks) and South Africa (the Springboks) and at a lower level by many other nations (such as Argentina, Fiji, Romania and Western Samoa). Every four years, the Rugby World Cup is staged in a different rugby-playing country.
Rugby league is played professionally in the UK, mainly by teams in the north of England who compete in the Super League and Challenge Cup, the final of which is played at Millenium Stadium in Cardiff while Wembley Stadium is being redeveloped. There are also many amateur rugby league teams for players of all ages, including a number of teams in the London area dominated by Australian expatriates. Rugby league is played internationally by Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France and Papua New Guinea. Most towns, schools and universities have rugby teams competing in local league and cup competitions, in one or both rugby codes.
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