Wooden spoon: The trophy no sports team wants but where does the tradition come from?

Is the wooden spoon awarded for love, lunch or loss?

Wales face Italy this weekend in what has been dubbed a “wooden spoon decider” but where does the term we hear so often actually come from?

If you are Welsh, you may be forgiven for thinking of linking it to the tradition of giving your valentine a ‘love spoon’ on Dydd Santes Dwynwen.

However, the sporting use of the term is quite different.

When and where did the tradition of the wooden spoon originate?

It is believed that the first known use of wooden spoon as a tool dates back to the Iron Age but the tradition of awarding it to a last-placed competitor is much more recent.

The origins of the tradition lie at Cambridge University during the 19TH century.

When students received their degrees, classmates would hang a wooden spoon behind the individual with the lowest pass mark. This would then also be presented to the individual. Over the years the spoon itself became increasingly oversized until it eventually resembled an oar, as seen below.

Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse with his wooden spoon. Credit University of Cambridge

This poor dab is Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, the last known recipient of the wooden spoon before the tradition was discontinued in 1909.

However, the term and tradition stuck and have become common parlance in sporting circles with it being awarded to teams who finish in last place.

What does it look like now?

The wooden spoon within sports is normally figurative – but not always.

There is no physical wooden spoon in sports such as tennis, rugby union or in Australia’s National Rugby League (the NRL).  However, in America’s Major League Soccer the lowest ranked league team receives a physical trophy, named the Anthony Precourt Memorial Wooden Spoon Award. The current holders are Washington’s D.C. United.

Do teams want it?

The wooden spoon is not held with the same badge of honour as the Lantern Rouge is in the Tour de France, despite their similar sentiments. The Lantern is awarded to the final rider over the finish line. Riders would actively compete for the honour, in some cases hiding behind outhouses in order to ensure they finished last.

Who will win the wooden spoon this Saturday?

In rugby, the team that finishes bottom of the Six Nations Championship is said to win the wooden spoon.

This Saturday Wales travel to Rome to face the Azzuri with both sides looking for their first win of the tournament. Italy have finished bottom in 17 of the 22 tournaments they have competed in since they joined in the year 2000. Wales’ last wooden spoon was in 2003.

France only acknowledge the wooden spoon if a side has failed to win a single game in the championship, absolving them of the honour after their win and a draw in 2013. That leaves Scotland as the only other side to ‘win’ the wooden spoon in the Six Nations era.

The rugby journalist Peter Jackson says that it is a good thing that the trophy is not a physical thing.

He said: “If the worst comes to the worst can you imagine Ken Owens – ‘the Sheriff’ – being persuaded to come out and receive a horrid wooden spoon in front of 80,000 fans at the Stade de France on Saturday week. No I don’t think so.”

Wales are the bookies’ underdogs but Jackson would “never” write Wales off.

“It will be nice to be able to say ‘Ah, there’s been a shock in Rome and Wales have won!’

“Right now, if you offered Wales a 3-0 (win) and the worst game of international rugby that’s ever been played they’d say thank you very much – it’ll stop the rot. At least for the time being. But there’s no disguising the fact that these are very grim times for Welsh rugby.

“Put it this way, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if Wales win. Right now, Wales are probably the only team who’ve brought nothing to this Six Nations.”