24. Scrum on down: Rugby heads towards union

The Ivy League colleges were reshaping rugby into their own national code of football, and in 1882 decreed that four touchdowns took precedence over a goal kicked from the field. Before long, American ‘rugby’ would be almost entirely focused on scoring touchdowns rather than goals. There was a similar shift in British rugby, but only later.

By the 1850s, football was an essential ingredient of any boy’s education, and as most schools had no tradition of their own, they invariably adopted the Rugby School model. With a background at one the country’s most elite institutions, it was manly yet complex and considered the perfect game for character-building .

But as one schoolmaster explained, the Rugby rules “were very incomplete and presupposed a practical knowledge of the game.” To help other schools with the problem, Rugby’s maths tutor, Francis Elliot Kitchener, arranged for a more complete set of rules to be written in 1862. A year later, the Football Association was formed, but very few schools wanted anything to do with its simplified and sanitised rules. They preferred rugby, as did many of the adult clubs. As late as 1870, there were 30 clubs in London playing the FA rules or something like them as opposed to 39 playing rugby-type games, and Montagu Shearman noted that “between 1863 and 1870 the Rugby game was making decidedly more way in the country than the Association game.”

Rugby was triumphing despite having no organised body to govern the game, not that this didn’t cause considerable difficulties. Players “had not acquired a practical knowledge of the principles of the game in early years, and had no mentor to explain to them this rule and that.” Rugby School itself was remarkably aloof about the whole affair, and amazingly, in 1867, when the FA unsuccessfully tried to persuade them to take up their own code, the school responded that its own game needed a governing body and unified laws too, and “if the FA wish to complete thoroughly their good work, they might turn their attention to this subject.” The FA felt it already had enough on its hands, but had it accepted, the whole history of football would have been very different.

By the early 1870s, the FA’s game was finally starting to spread nationally, while an article in The Times in 1870 sparked furious debate about the danger and brutality of the Rugby game, with calls for it to be abolished entirely and replaced with soccer. Rugby clubs needed to act, and Edwin Ash of Richmond called 21 of them together for a meeting at the Pall Mall Restaurant in London in January 1871, at which the Rugby Football Union was founded.

Everyone present was of one heart and one mind that eventful evening, so that the labour was not protracted” and the only major issue was that of hacking. Rugby in those days was generally about scrummaging and not much else – two tight bodies of players gathered behind the ball and kicking away at it, and also the opposing player’s shins. As one player put it “fellows did not care a fig for the ball then except inasmuch as it gave them a decent pretext for hacking.” But at the behest of headmaster Frederick Temple, the practice was being tamed at Rugby, and in 1866 Richmond had sent a circular to fellow clubs that “all hacking in scrummages, except by those immediately on the ball, is contrary to the spirit of the Rugby game.” By 1871, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the RFU would agree to eliminate hacking for good.

The founding president, Algernon Rutter, along with two fellow Old Rugbeians, Edward Carleton Holmes and Leonard James Maton, set to work on drafting the rules, 59 in all, a process that took five months. Ultimately, however, the RFU’s game was not massively different to the one already played at Rugby, other than the complete ban on hacking. Nothing was said about the number of players on a team, although the common practice was to go for 20. Over the following decade, teams started realising that a smaller number not only opened up the game considerably, but also made it far easier to find players and arrange away trips, and by 1877, 15 had become the standard.

The most problematic rule was probably the one that “a scrummage takes place when the holder of the ball being in the field of play puts it down on the ground in front of himself and all who have closed round on their respective sides endeavour to push their opponents back and by kicking the ball to drive it in the direction of the opposite goal line.” Interpretations of what this really meant were varied, but players generally formed a tight unit to stop the opposition from kicking the ball through, and some found they could get better pushing momentum if they crouched forwards, but ‘heeling’ the ball backwards was illegal because, as Arthur Budd explained, it was “entirely opposed to the spirit of the offside laws, seeing that the bulk of the scrummagers are in front of the ball.” Nevertheless, ‘heeling out’ gradually became accepted regardless, and by 1892, Budd was writing that “it is, I am afraid, too late to argue against its continuance.”

The fashion in rugby had changed. Rather than the ‘shoving’ game in the scrummage, and probably influenced by soccer, players wanted to get the ball out in the open and by 1888, Montagu Shearman was writing that in recent years “passing has been all the rage, no player apparently being ever satisfied to run half a dozen yards without passing the ball.”

In 1871, a ‘touchdown’ still only won the right to kick a ‘try at goal’. This was proving unsatisfactory. Shearman remembered how he had played in “one match when nine tries were obtained by one side, and yet the match was drawn.” Unless tries were converted, they were worthless. In 1875, the RFU decided that if games were drawn, the team that had had the most tries would be the winner. American rugby went even further and in 1882 started awarding points for touchdowns, one of the stages of the game’s evolution into American football, but English rugby didn’t follow suit until 1886, awarding a point for a try, and three if it was converted. The new system was popular, and was regularly modified, and by 1893, a try scored three points and the conversion two, the first time it was actually worth more than the kick that followed it. In 1971, the value of the try was raised again, to three, and gained its modern-day value of five in 1992. Meanwhile, 1888 saw the controversial introduction of the penalty kick, which then as it still is now, was worth three points.

The 1870s witnessed a peculiar ‘code war’ between the Rugby and Association games, and it was difficult to predict what the eventual outcome was going to be. Some clubs and some regions drifted towards one game, and others towards the other, but it was impossible for them to exist in total isolation. In most people’s opinion, they were just slightly different approaches to the same game, football, and when clubs met, they generally had to agree which set of rules to play, or otherwise to play one half by each or reach some kind of compromise on the rules, such as playing rugby rules without allowing carrying, or playing Association with rugby’s offside law. As one player remembered “we played every mortal code possible with other clubs away from home as long as we could get a game of some sort.”

But by the 1890s, there were enough established clubs playing both codes for teams not to need to bother with the other, and ‘Rugby’ and ‘Association’ had grown so far apart that they were now being treated as completely separate sports. Following the linguistic tradition of the era, the former was affectionately known as ‘rugger’, which got some people calling the latter ‘soccer’ – a word of British origin, although nowadays rarely used because ‘football’ in most British minds only means the Association game, unlike North America, Australia and Ireland, where a differentiation has to be made between it and their own national forms of football.

Following the FA’s failure to organise a game with Scotland in 1870, due to the Scottish clubs preferring the Rugby rules, the RFU took up the challenge instead, and 4,000 people turned up to watch the first international in Edinburgh in March 1871, Scotland winning by a goal and a try to one goal. But the game was not without controversies over the rules, which would be a constant problem in international matches, with Ireland first fielding a side in 1875 and Wales joining the fray in 1881. The newer nations soon tired of the English dictating to them how ‘their’ game should be played, and matters reached a head in 1884 when the Scots were so unhappy about a disputed English try that they, Ireland and Wales announced that they were forming their separate International Board, using their own rules, and would no longer be playing England.

At the same time, the FA was endorsing professional soccer, and the first Football League was being established, leading to a massive shift in public and media attention to soccer. A rift in the rugby community was the last thing the sport needed at such a delicate time, and an emergency meeting was called. The International Rugby Board was formed, originally by six representatives of the English RFU, and two each from the other three countries, the same organisation that still governs the world game today. A major schism in rugby had been averted. But it wouldn’t be long before a new problem, professionalism, was threatening the unity of rugby. Only this time, there was going to be no compromise and rugby has been divided into ‘Union’ and ‘League’ ever since.

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25. LEAGUES AND GENTLEMEN: Professionalism and the schism between rugby union and rugby league

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