This is chapter two of the 1957 book "Rugger My Pleasure" by A.A. Thomson. With typical British understatement the author calls it "Unhistorical survey," but I find it very historical. - Wes
Unhistorical Survey of Rugby
By A.A. Thomson
A pioneer, men always, abuse, like Nebuchadnezzar, the King of the Jews. Yet William Webb Ellis, Rugby's classic innovator, has had on the whole a good press. We know that in 1823 'with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, he first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.' But we do not know what happened immediately afterwards. Did anybody tackle him low? And if so, did he pass to anybody or did he die with the ball? Did he repent of 'this impulsive act'? Evidently not. Other boys, and possibly masters, must have agreed, not merely to forgive this rash, importunate young man, but to encourage him. I have seen him described as ' this little fellow ' or ' this diminutive school- boy.' Is this true? Was he tiny? And if he was, must he not have been a little fellow of tremendous character to impress his one idea upon that exceedingly reactionary society which is a public school? Was he a lean, wild-eyed fanatic, bent on converting the world to a new gospel? Or was he a frivolous farceur, hellbent to beat up the bourgeoisie and cock a snook at convention? Or was he just an arbitrary young gentleman? We shall never know.
We are not in complete ignorance. We know, for instance, that when he heretically ran forward with the ball in his arms he would have been well within his rights to run backwards and, at his leisure, take a good punt or place it for someone else to kick. We have been told that he was an admirable cricketer but that he was generally regarded 'as inclined to take unfair, advantage at football.' After leaving school he went up to Oxford, entered the Church and eventually became Vicar of St. Clement Danes in the Strand. Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's. Modern psychology can explain all and it would seem obvious (to a modem psychologist) that Ellis must from childhood have suffered from an orange-and-lemon psychosis. Even at school his personality was schizophrenically split so that half the time he did not know whether he was playing with a round ball (the orange motif) or an oval ball (the lemon motif). When, of course, he became Vicar of St. Clement Danes, the dilemma was resolved by the peaceful union of oranges and lemons.
Ellis's worst enemies are those unkind critics who claim that he never existed, or, alternatively, that his one exploit is a figment of the imagination of an amiable body of Old Rugbeians. I am pro-Ellis and conceive him to be like Voltaire's Deity: if he had not existed, it would have been necessary (and proper) to invent him.
At all events we know that on the playing fields of Rugby, eight years too late for the battle of Waterloo to be won on them, something new and interesting started which has literally gone round the world. Rugby football came straight from the hands (repeat hands) of an individualist; it was not, as someone once alleged of the ornitherynchus, 'created by a committee. And when you come to think of what people invent nowadays, Rugby football was a happy and harmless thing to invent.
Before this time, football had been a comparatively crude affair. Going back to Elizabethan times, we find it described as 'nought but beastlie furie and extreme violence,' while, a little later, the Puritan Stubbes begins fairly enough by calling it ' a friendly kind of fighte ' and then, striking a sterner note, he goes on to designate it as 'bloody and murthering practice.' It caused a man, he says, 'to lye in waight for his adversaries seeking to overthrow him and piche him on his nose, though it be on hard stones . . .' Which, barring the picturesque detail of the stones, was that those murthering Irishmen did to me in my first real game. Stubbes goes on to speak (licking his lips, one imagines) of 'brawling, murther, homicide and great effusion of blood…' Which again describes the conduct of my Irish friends with some exactitude. Where he was wrong in saying that this conduct brought about ' rancour and malice in him that should be so wounded.' For this, forty years later, I deny. I bear them no malice at all.
Everybody knows the first step, but what was the second? During the 1830's further breaches were made in the old rules and by the early forties, when the author of Tom Brown's Schooldays [Thomas Hughes - Wes] was captain of Rugby, the game had established itself as one in which Ellis's ' running in' was countenanced., Even so the runner must catch the ball directly or on the first bounce and he must run on and touch down himself. There was no such thing as passing to his man. The ball used was one of a type made by a family of craftsmen in the town of Rugby named Gilbert. What we now call the inner tube was a pig's bladder, skillfully inflated, and the case was of cowhide. The rubber tube now in universal use was invented in 1870, also by a Rugby man, and it was not possible to make exact regulations for the dimensions of the ball until after that date.
In 1898, when the laws and formations of the game were much the same as they are today, Thomas Hughes looked back and, with that twinge of nostalgic conservatism which is the mark of most elderly liberals, wondered if the whole thing had not gone too far. Rugby football was, he thought, becoming too much of a handling game, and some of its robust old virtues were departing. He said it had become too much of a carry business. 'Football ought to be football, not armball.' We think we know better. At least I believe that the game, as I saw it at Twickenham in 1912, with Ronald Poulton weaving a magical path through the opposing ranks, gallant as Sir Philip Sidney and elusive as Sir Percy Blakeney, was a better game than doubting Thomas Hughes ever imagined. Whether it is a wholly better game in the year 1955 is another matter.
At all events, the candle lit by Master Ellis at Rugby has never gone out. Friends of his went up from Rugby to Oxford or Cambridge and spent a good deal of their time in spreading the light. Some of them became masters at other public schools and, to change the metaphor, began to lay the ground-bait there. And other Old Rugbeians, as they grew up, went to live in London and became pioneers of the new game from Blackheath to Richmond.
What happened in all these games is difficult to imagine; it was not so much that there were too few rules but too many, for each group of players played the game according to the rules they had followed at their own schools. Rugby, of course, was the most important and most authoritative, and with Rugby went Marlborough. But with other schools there was a rich variety of conventions. It is probable that confusion reigned to a great extent because nobody knew under which rules any particular match was to be played. Usually captains talked over knotty points as they arose and came to some amicable conclusion; it had to be amicable because at this time there were no referees and all outstanding differences had to be solved by the captains themselves in consultation. Later umpires were appointed, but these had nothing like the powers of the modern referee, being there only to give an opinion if consulted. This must have been a great strain on human nature, even the nature of the noblest captain or the most impartial umpire, and in 1863 a committee of masters belonging to the leading public schools met in Cambridge and drew up a code of rules. A meeting was held in London, too, but the broad rules drawn up by the Cambridge committee were regarded as more impressive and came to be known as the Cambridge Rules. One of these rules was a prohibition on 'hacking.' This word meant exactly what it appears to mean, the deliberate kicking of your opponent's shins, and tripping him up if he ran with the ball. This hacking - it now sounds a perfectly horrific practice -was disliked by the more enlightened players, but the conservative elements were reluctant to part with what they no doubt thought to be a grand old tradition, the loss of which would make players effeminate and effete. Blackheath, which was the second club to be founded - Guy's Hospital was the first - was one of the clubs which did not wish to see the end of hacking.
The Cambridge Rules did not settle everything, but they gave a reasonable basis for agreement. About twenty clubs were playing in London and round about. There were twenty players on each side and the offside rules were rather sketchy, but those who played enjoyed the game immensely.
In the meantime the game was, as one of its early historians has said, 'a practice without a theory.' It was on the 26th January, 1871, that the next great landmark in the history of the game was set up, the most important since William Webb Ellis. A meeting attended by thirty-two officials from twenty-one clubs, was held at the Pall Mall Restaurant and here was founded the Rugby Football Union, a union of the twenty-one clubs, eight of which, Blackheath, Richmond, Harlequins, Guy's Hospital, Civil Service, Wellington College, King's College and St. Paul's School, are playing as hard as ever today. Among the thirteen other clubs now defunct, or playing under other names, were the picturesquely named Gipsies, Flamingoes, Mohicans, Wimbledon Hornets, and a Greenwich club called Queen's House. Many famous provincial clubs, founded before 1871, were not founder members of the Rugby Football Union, though, of course, they became members later; among these were Bath, Bradford, Liverpool and Brighton. Within the years immediately following, many other famous clubs came into existence, including Leicester, Moseley, Gloucester, Newport, Saracens, London Irish and Rosslyn Park.
What the newly founded Rugby Football Union did was to draw up a code of laws which, apart from one important proviso, were, in effect, the same as those governing the game at Rugby School. The laws were fifty-nine in number, and they were specifically called laws, not mere rules. The most important was the abolition of hacking, 'hacking over and tripping up, which were not to be allowed under any circumstances' This abolition was achieved, as the pious historian says, ' to the joy of all true lovers of the game, and the loudly expressed disgust of those who trusted in their boot-makers to bring them football fame.' The laws brought a great advance in coherence, but Rugby football was still a long way from the modern game as we know it, both in the formation of sides on the field and in the method of scoring.
At least the size of the team had been reduced from the ragged irregular armies of Tom Brown's Schooldays to a mere twenty a side. Thirteen of the twenty were forwards, whose business was to batter their way through the opposition with the ball at their feet. There were no scrummages in the modern manner, either set or loose. Those forwards faced each other, standing upright, like two moving walls, and, by sheer kicking, one line forced the ball through the other. Even so, the game had its admirers. Looking back, thirty-odd years later, old Tom Hughes said that he held very strongly that the football of the fifties and early sixties was the finest form that football ever attained. And the football of the early seventies was, less hacking, much the same. This was a time when the forwards rather than the backs, were the aristocrats of the game, for the backs were not important enough to be considered as key-players and it took a long time to agree upon what was the best formation in which they should place themselves. Even when, in 1877, it was agreed that sides should be reduced to the ideal number of fifteen, the arrangement of the backs was still a matter for serious argument.
In the first international match between England and Scotland, played only a couple of months after the founding of the Rugby Football Union, there were three half-backs, one threequarter and three full-backs. Over several years changes were frequent and almost every kind of combination was tried. The three full-backs were reduced to two and then one of -these was moved up into the three-quarter line. Apparently this change was not thought to be particularly successful, until to that genius, A. J. Gould, and his Welsh friends came the modern idea of four threequarters. It seems obvious to us now, but in the nineties it was a brand new idea. Gould had played for a London club before returning to his native Wales and there he initiated, experimented with and improved the quadruple line in attack and defence. As surely as Julius Caesar forged the Roman legion, A. J. Gould, handsome, swift, elusive, forged that quadruple line. it was said that he based his strategy on securing a complete under- standing on two points: each threequarter should know, with split-second timing, the exact instant when the ball should be passed and the precise position of the man to whom the pass was going.
At first the English clubs sniffed at the notion of a line of four and claimed that three good threequarters could always beat four, but so skilled was the strategy taught by Gould that when the English and Welsh clubs met, the Welsh triumphed. Welsh technique was precise and Welsh understanding perfect. The four threequarter game as played by the men of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, had come to stay because there was no combination that could match it. Even the varied formation of the 1905-6 New Zealanders, greatest of all touring sides, who played one half, two five-eighths, and three threequarters, did not wholly prove that the line of four threequarters was an erroneous or outdated idea. The All Blacks were so tremendous a side that they virtually massacred almost every team they met and might well have done the same whatever combination they had employed. Moreover, the only game they did not win was the classic encounter with Wales at Cardiff - rugger's equivalent of Jessop's Match - in which the Welsh more than held their own and ran out winners by a try to nil. That game is as much part of history as the battle of Waterloo, and as creditable to the victors. There was no question that a line consisting of E. T. Morgan, Gwyn Nicholls, R. T. Gabe and W. Llewellyn could produce football of the utmost brilliance and give the All Blacks as good as they got. These things are a matter of speculation, but, with the possible exception of the Scottish line of 1924, it is extremely likely that this Welsh threequarter line was the greatest in the game's history.
The conception of modem half-back play owes more to the Oxford player, Alan Rotherham, than to anybody else. What Gould did for the threequarter, Rotherham, working on the foundations laid by the equally famous Scot, A. R. Don-Wauchope, did for the half-back. Before Don-Wauchope and Rotherham, the half was but a groveller at the feet of the enemy forward. Of that forward the pre-Rotherhain half might have said, with Cassius:
"…and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves…"
A half-back's life was sheer misery, but the Rotherham technique changed all that. Coming from Uppingharn, which was not a rugger school at the time, he came into the Oxford University side in 1881 and revolutionised the method of back play. Before that time there had been no planned method of getting the ball out to the backs. If it came out, it came out, but it might come out anywhere. It was not the business of the forwards to put it out, but to push it through. Although Rotherham was not thinking of the pleasure of the spectators, if any, he showed the way in which the game might become an open and attractive spectacle, with the half-back as a smoothly-functioning link between co-operative forwards and threequarters who were eager to run ahead and dash into the attack. In his three seasons at Oxford the whole game moved forward out of its crude and clumsy beginnings towards something which would become both an art and an aesthetic spectacle. ' Constructive' now sounds a conventional adjective, but Rotherham's style of play was truly constructive and all that is beautiful in the game we now know comes from its changes from being a mere hacking competition between two gangs of forwards. One of the early historians of the game said of Rotherham with a kind of awed astonishment: 'He passed before he was collared…' There are some who would attribute to Rotherham all the virtues that go with the 'passing' game' but he himself would not have claimed this, for the Oxford fifteens of his day contained many players from Scottish schools, particularly Loretto, and they, rather than anyone else, were the pioneers, if not the only begetters, of the passing game.
The backs had their great reformers - almost patron saints - like Gould, A. R. Don-Wauchope and especially Rotherham, but these reforms might not have been possible if the forwards had not also had their liberators. Harry Vassall, of Mariborough and Oxford, perhaps a greater pioneer than any of the others, was the Moses who led the forwards out of the wilderness of mere barging and bashing in which they had been lost. Serious-minded Scottish commentators of the day would have strenuously denied this, claiming that Scottish forward play at least was a dignified and scientific form of endeavour. But Vassall visualised a freer game, and his fellow-liberators, who did for Cambridge what he did for Oxford, were the brothers, Temple and Charles Gurdon.
The old pictures show the forwards of the earlier period as stout fellows standing shoulder to shoulder, like the Boys of the Old Brigade; ready and eager to push everything before them till all was blue. Their motto might well have been: "T'is better to have shoved and lost than never to have shoved at all." There is a record of a personal and individual maul between Vassall and Charles Gurdon which is said to have lasted a full five minutes and must have been reminiscent of the Sayers-Heenan fight. Perhaps it was tussles of this kind that set the reformers on a more open road.
Vassall was in the Oxford pack in 1879-80 and 1880-81. In the following year he was captain and, though a great shover, he taught his forwards that there was more in life than mere shoving. He showed that it was possible for them to heel, to wheel, to break at great speed, and to pass the ball out to their more agile backs. He had first-rate material to work on, for in his fifteen of 1882 there were eleven internationals. The open game and all that it meant was what Vassall taught and while he impressed this noble lesson upon his forwards at Oxford, the Gurdons preached the same gospel at Cambridge. Thus a new technique, far nearer that of our own than anything that had been known before, spread from the universities outward and the game which (I think) reached its highest, pitch of perfection some twenty-five years later was already striding forward on its way.
It took a long time to come to an agreement on the methods of scoring. For many years no points were awarded for what we now call a try, but was then called a touchdown or ' rouge.' The crossing of the line was merely the opportunity for a 'try' at goal and conversion by kicking the ball between the posts was the thing that counted. In the first match between England and Scotland, played in Edinburgh in 1871, the Scots won by a goal and a try to a try. This method of reckoning, as you may imagine, was bound to displease many people, especially those who had struggled with heart and soul to cross the enemy's line. There was a period during the seventies and eighties when three touch-downs or rouges counted as one try and three tries made one goal. This seemed a miserly reward for so mighty a labour, even though in 1875 it was conceded that if there were no goals or if the number of goals scored was equal, any tries scored could be counted as a decider.
A dozen years passed before a further change was made and the Rugby Football Union adopted what was known as the Cheltenham system, from the rules then in use at Cheltenham College. The try came into its own at last and, although it only counted one point, it did count. Three tries were reckoned equal to one goal. There were still more changes in the nineties and it was not until 1905, the year of the visit of the first All Blacks, that scoring was fixed almost as we have it today, with five points for a goal from a try; four points from a dropped goal and three points for a goal from a penalty or a mark. This method of reckoning points has remained for fifty years almost the same, except that in the 1948-49 season the value of the dropped goal was down- pointed from four to three. This was a disappointment to the genuinely inspired goal-dropper, but was perhaps a well-merited discouragement to those backs who had been in the habit of attempting drop-kicks at all times and from all angles and thereby risking the breaking up of promising passing movements. Those who were irritated by the habits of droppers were not sorry to see the dropped goal go down in the social scale.
Probably this generally satisfactory method of scoring has lasted for half a century because, on the whole, it is satisfactory. True, there are occasional volcanic rumblings from the old boys in the stand who claim that a sum of three points is too much for a penalty. Or perhaps they only mean that there are too many penalties. They claim that they have seen teams who scored only penalty goals beat teams that have actually scored tries by crossing the enemy line; this, they contend, is immoral. There is something in this; I will concede that there are too many penalties. But the too many penalties are imposed because there are too many infringements. In spite of the pained feelings of the old boys in the stand (and I am myself very old and standworthy) I think it possible that authority may be right.
In the earliest days control of the game was in the hands of the captains to whom all disputes were referred and it is a tribute to their good sense that disagreements could usually be settled in this way. On the rare occasions when no agreement could be reached between the two captains, the aggrieved one would march his men off the field. That is why you sometimes heard that a match had no result.
Afterwards, about 1866, umpires were appointed, one for each side, but their duties were extremely ill-defined, and in 1874 it was reaffirmed that 'the captains of the respective sides shall be the arbiters of all disputes.' What the umpires did then I do not know, but I imagine that the captains used frequently to get together on the Friday evenings over a glass of beer and talk things over for the benefit of the game.
I cannot discover when a referee, as such, made his first appearance. In the season, 1882-83 neutral referees were appointed in international matches. The umpires remained and their functions must have melted into those of modern touch-judges. The year 1885-86 was the momentous one in the history of the referee for that was the year in which he was given a whistle. He was not, however, allowed to blow it indiscriminately, all over the place; he could only grant an appeal if one of the umpires raised his stick. (They had sticks for a time before they were provided with flags.) Gradually the powers and authority of the referee grew and the game has gained enormously by this fact. But I think the old boys in the stand regret that original gift of the whistle. They say that nowadays he performs on it far too frequently. [A complaint I read in the online rugby press all the time. The more things change, the more they stay the same! - Wes]