By Peter Shortell



A sentence by sentence analysis of the Collier Encyclopedia definition for rugby:


"Rugby developed through an infraction of the rules by a Rugby School boy, William Webb Ellis, during a soccer (or association football, as it is known outside the United States) match in 1823."


No.  Apart from the historical myth about the significance of William Webb Ellis (explained elsewhere) there was no such thing as "soccer" in 1823. Schools (and villages) played by their own rules, with no regard for anyone else's, as there were no inter-school matches.  None of the various types of football then played bore much resemblance to modern soccer.


"The ball-carrying play by Ellis spread to a number of other English public schools"


No.  It did not even spread to Rugby School until some 10 or more years later!


"…and in 1839 students at Cambridge University gave it a trial during an intramural game, which they called "Rugby's game."


At least the date is correct.  Arthur Pell tried to introduce a game that incorporated features from the games played at the various public schools, so that Cambridge students could play football together without continually arguing over the rules.


"In 1848 the first code of the game was formulated and Rugby soon acquired wide recognition."


No.  The first printed laws date from 1845, but there are notebooks recording discussions about the laws from earlier dates.  All the boys played to a code of laws from early on - they just disagreed as to quite what it was on occasions.  No change today there then!


"By the 1860's two distinct types of football had developed--handling and nonhandling."


Not really.  The various public schools had largely formalised their own versions of football.  The amount of handling allowed varied considerably, though most allowed some, even if only to stop the ball.  There were still few, if any, inter-school games.


"In 1863 supporters of the nonhandling game formed the Football Association

(association football or soccer)."


No. The first draft of the Association laws contained:

“IX. A player shall be entitled to run with the ball towards his adversaries' goal if he makes a fair catch, or catches the ball on the first bound; but in the case of a fair catch, if he makes his mark he shall not run.

X.  If any player shall run with the ball towards his adversaries' goal, any player on the opposite side shall be at liberty to charge, hold, trip, or hack him, or to wrest the ball from him, but no player shall be held and hacked at the same time.”


After some typical committee shenanigans, over three meetings, and involving another set of laws proposed by Cambridge University, the Association laws eventually read:

“9. No player shall run with the ball.

10. Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed, and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary.”


"In 1871, 21 amateur clubs established the Rugby Football Union and drew up the original laws of the game."


Wow! Something correct!!  Almost.  The laws were nominally drawn up by a sub-committee.  In fact they were largely the work of one Old Rugbeian - L.J. Maton.  He had the misfortune to break his leg while playing rugby just after the founding of the RFU, so the other sub-committee members agreed to keep him in tobacco while he was laid up, provided he did all the spade work.  The original manuscript copy is in the Museum of Rugby at Twickenham.  Interestingly, these laws/rules (both terms were then used interchangeably) were ratified after the first ever international match between England and Scotland, so the two sides had to agree on various aspects of the laws before the game started.



The "what-if?" article by Alison Brooks also shows lacunae in her knowledge of the early forms of the game.  For example, she asks: "Would the scrum develop?"


The scrum already existed.  In fact early games consisted largely of scrums, since it was regarded as cowardly to heel the ball out. This attitude lasted until the late nineteenth century. In Rev Marshall's 1892 book on Rugby Football, there is a chapter by Arthur Budd (England 1878-81) comparing past and present, which is quite entertaining.


"Scrummage: when the ball is put down, and 'all who have closed around 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.'  In 1870, the above definition presented a very fair picture of what a scrummage was; now it depicts exactly what a scrummage is not.  Then, men pushed straight ahead with might and main, while to heel out was regarded as unfair and discreditable; today, they never by chance do the former, while they do not scruple to do the latter at their own sweet will."


"I once heard an old International three quarter, on his return from the Cape, alluding in most uncomplimentary terms to the innovation of passing." [I think this means that passing had been introduced in England while he was away, not that it was being used in the Cape.]


"In this departure [passing between forwards - a precursor to passing between backs] the forwards were greatly assisted by the general recognition of the practice of scrummaging with heads down, which instead of being regarded with disfavour as hitherto, had by degrees become the sine qua non qualification of a good forward.  This innovation was the landmark of scientific scrummaging."  [Earlier the argument had been that by standing up you could squeeze more men i.e. more mass, into a smaller space, and thus generate more pressure.  It also made it harder for a player to dribble through the scrum, as was often achieved.]


"All this had led to a most objectionable practice.  What one now sees in every match, no matter where one goes, is that the moment the ball is put down in the centre of the scrummage, both sides try to be the first to pull it back, and you will behold a forest of legs scraping for its possession. You cannot balance yourself on one leg and scrape for the ball with the other and at the same time apply your weight simultaneously so as to get the first momentum on a scrummage"


"The other canker-worm is heeling out. […] Is it possible for a man to be kicking backwards and pushing forwards simultaneously?  Of course not. Since football began it has been, and till football ends it will be, an enormous advantage to carry the  scrummage."