The success of the Toronto Wolfpack threatens to be one of the most important developments in international rugby league for generations. But the game isn't a stranger to Canada - as I discuss in this talk for the League Culture podcast from late last year, it has been played on and off since the 1930s.
Stuart Morris at League Culture [if you don't subscribe, do it now] has also posted a couple of earlier interviews I did with him on the emergence of international rugby league in Yugoslavia and Italy after World War 2 and in North America, the Pacific and points elsewhere.
And if you can't get enough of a Hull accent, here's a link to an interview I did with Bruce Berglund of the indispensable New Books in Sport podcast about my latest book 'The Oval World' and the history of the rugby codes around the world.
I'm publishing the article below in tribute to David Storey, who died today. It originally appeared under the title 'Sex, class and the critique of sport in This Sporting Life' as a chapter in the 2013 book 'Fields of Vision: The Arts in Sport' edited by Doug Sandle, Jonathan Long, Jim Parry and Karl Spracklen.
Lindsay Anderson’s acclaimed film version of David Storey’s 1960 novel This Sporting Life (for which Storey also wrote the screenplay) was released in 1963. Born into a mining family in Wakefield in 1933, Storey had won a scholarship to the local Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. After leaving, he somewhat incongruously straddled his new and old worlds by studying at London’s Slade School of Fine Art while playing rugby league for Leeds ‘A’ (reserve) team at the weekends. At the age of eighteen he had signed a contract for Leeds because, he later recounted, “what I really wanted to do was go to art school. Taking the contract was going to be the only way I could pay for my education”(Observer Sports Monthly, 2005: p. 7). It was from that experience from which the novel was drawn.
Storey’s life was that of a classic working-class grammar school boy, caught between the two contrasting and often conflicting worlds of his past and his future. This was something of which he was acutely aware during his time as a a rugby league player: “being perceived as an effete art student often made the dressing room a very uncomfortable place for me”(Observer Sports Monthly, 2005: p. 7). Nor was his time at art school happy: “at the Slade meanwhile I was seen as a bit of an oaf,” he later remembered (Campbell, 2004: p. 31). His description of the character Radcliffe in his eponymous 1963 novel - “Grammar school broke him in two” - seems to have applied equally to himself. Storey’s ambiguity towards rugby league and sense of alienation from his surroundings inform the narrative of both the novel and the film.
The heart of the novel describes the relationship between the rugby league player Arthur Machin and his widowed landlady Valerie Hammond (their names were changed to Frank and Margaret in the film), combining a finely wrought understanding of the emotional entanglement of the couple with an accurate, if one-sided, description of the seamier realities of rugby league. As in the novel, the film depicts Machin as a young man largely impervious to the world around him, while Mrs Hammond is a woman crushed by the society around her. Although the plot is compressed in the screenplay, the film parallels the major events and the characterisations of the novel as if on tramlines, but Lindsay Anderson’s direction allows the nuances and complexities of the relationships between the major characters to be drawn out visually, arguably giving the film a greater emotional subtlety than is achieved by the novel.
Both the novel and the film are firmly located in what became known in the late 1950s as the ‘kitchen sink’ drama that aimed, largely for the first time in mainstream British culture, to portray the lives of working-class people in a realistic and usually sympathetic framework. The most prominent examples of the genre were Alan Sillitoe’s novels and their film versions Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Shelagh Delaney’s play and subsequent film A Taste of Honey (1961). But This Sporting Life differs fundamentally from Sillitoe’s work (and Delaney’s in a different sense). Although many have described Frank Machin as a ‘working-class hero’ or anti-hero in the mould of Sillitoe’s Arthur Seaton (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) or Colin Smith (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) this is not strictly accurate. Sillitoe’s characters are conscious rebels, kicking against a society which seeks to force them into roles they are not prepared to accept. ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down,’ Seaton memorably proclaims at the start of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
In contrast, Frank Machin is not a rebel. His desire to conform and be accepted is hampered only by his inability to understand the codes by which he is expected to live his life, not by his rejection of them. This difference was recognised by Anderson, who told Sight and Sound during the shooting of the film that “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a thoroughly objective film, while This Sporting Life is almost entirely subjective… I have tried to abstract the film as much as possible from so as not to over-emphasise the locations and keep attention on the situation between the characters” (Milne, 1962: p. 115). Indeed, in contrast to Sillitoe’s work, This Sporting Life has more in common with Walter Greenwood’s pre-war novel Love on the Dole, with its depiction of stultifying conformity and the extinguished hopes of working-class people.
Produced at the end of the New Wave of British realist cinema, the film of This Sporting Life was a major success in Britain and America, with Harris being nominated for an Oscar. Filmed in stark black and white and unremittingly bleak in tone, it was shot largely in Leeds and at rugby league grounds at Wakefield Trinity (for the match scenes) and Halifax (for the external, post-match shots). Somewhat incongruously, a library shot of a crowd at a Twickenham international match can also be fleetingly glimpsed after Machin is seen scoring a try. Anderson made full use of Wakefield Trinity’s players and coaching staff (indeed, the first lines of the film are spoken by former Great Britain player and then Trinity coach Ken Traill), and one of the most memorable scenes is of a flowing movement leading to a try mid-way through the film, which is actually footage of Wakefield’s try in their 5-2 defeat of Wigan in the quarter-final of the 1963 Rugby League Challenge Cup.
Although the film was welcomed by many people in rugby league for putting the sport in the public eye - Harris was made an honorary president of Wakefield Trinity and its players and officials were invited to the premiere - it was not welcomed by everyone in the sport. At a discussion at the 1963 annual meeting of the Yorkshire Federation of Rugby League Supporters’ Clubs, representatives of Hull Kingston Rovers complained that the film was not a fair reflection and was ‘detrimental to the rugby league code’. Supporters from Wakefield Trinity claimed that they were not aware of ‘the true nature’ of the film until it was premiered, presumably not having bothered to read the book (YFRLSC minutes, 15 June 1963). Reviewing the film for the Rugby Leaguer, the sport’s weekly newspaper, Ramon Joyce (a pseudonym used by Raymond Fletcher, who later became the Yorkshire Post’s chief rugby league correspondent) commented that ‘my worst fears of the film… were unfortunately realised’ (Joyce, 1963: p. 4). This attitude towards the film has persisted in rugby league circles, to the extent that the editor of one of the sport’s weekly newspapers told the author in 2012 that he felt that the film was ‘anti-rugby league’.
However, such a narrow view is akin to not seeing the wood for the trees. Despite appearances, this is not actually a film about rugby league or sport, it is a film about relationships and the stifling conformity that crushes the human spirit and distorts sexuality. Rugby league is, as it was and remains in industrial West Yorkshire and other parts of the north of England, part of the complex social structure that provides the context and the backdrop for the personal drama that unfolds. The sport’s acute sense of class position and its rootedness in the region’s industrial working-class culture allowed both Storey and Anderson to highlight the underlying personal tensions of working-class life with a directness that would be impossible using either soccer, where full-time professionalism distanced players from the local community, or rugby union, which was animated by an explicitly middle-class value system.
Indeed, one might mischievously suggest that if Tennessee Williams had been born in Castleford, Yorkshire rather than Columbus, Mississippi, This Sporting Life is perhaps the type of screenplay he would have written. Subtle class distinctions, suffocating social norms and transgressive and dysfunctional sexual relationships are as central to This Sporting Life as they to Williams’ plays. And, of course, Richard Harris’s somewhat uneven performance in the film - most notably in his inability to master the local accent - is rather obviously derived from Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
As with Williams’ work, sex is central to This Sporting Life. In the opening scene, after Machin has his teeth broken by a stiff-arm tackle that leaves him unconscious, the first thing that Ken Traill, the real-life rugby league international who portrayed the fictional team coach in the film, says to him is that ‘you won’t want to see any tarts [women] for a week’.
Before he signs for the club, Machin’s first encounter with the rugby league team is at a dance hall in the city centre when he cuts in on a dance between a player, Len Miller, one of the rugby’s club ‘hard men’. and a young woman. Miller tells him to go away and when Machin refuses, Miller says to him, ‘Do you want a thumping, love?’ and they then go outside to fight. The use of the word ‘love’ between two men, although commonly in usage by miners and other men in the Yorkshire coalfields until at least the 1980s, would have appeared to most viewers of the film to be at odds with the aggressively heterosexual world portrayed on the screen.
Most importantly, almost all of the relationships in the film do not fall within the bounds of what would be assumed to normative sexual relations in the north of England in the late 1950s/early 1960s.
The principal relationship in the film is that between Machin and Margaret Hammond, the widow with whom he lodges. Mrs Hammond’s husband has been killed in an industrial accident in the engineering factory owned by the rugby league club’s chairman, Gerald Weaver, leaving her with two small children. The direct cause of his death is unclear, although Weaver later tells Machin, perhaps maliciously, that it is believed that he committed suicide to escape his wife. The relationship between Machin and Mrs Hammond is frosty, fraught and almost entirely uncomfortable, even when he falls in love with her, and eventually results in him violently raping her. As Lindsay Anderson later described it, this is an ‘impossible story of a fatally mismatched couple’ (Anderson, 1986)
Although this is not highlighted in the film as prominently as it is in the novel, Mrs Hammond (she is almost never referred to by her first name) is clearly significantly older than Frank, who would appear to be in his early twenties. Her life experience, much of it tragic, is clearly something that the much younger Frank does not understand and the cause of much of his frustration and subsequent violence towards her. Their age difference is something that clearly falls outside of what is deemed to be a ‘respectable’ relationship, as can be seen by the reactions of Mrs Hammond’s neighbours to Frank, most notably when he returns home with the gift of a fur coat for her, much to the silent disgust of her visiting next-door neighbour.
Machin’s other major relationship is with, ‘Dad’ Johnson, played by William Hartnell, the club scout who arranged for him to have a trail for the team which led to him signing a contract to become a professional player. The suspicion that Johnson’s interest in Frank has a strong homo-erotic element is articulated by Mrs Hammond: ‘he ogles you. He looks at you like a girl’, she complains to Frank, who, from his reaction, is also aware of Johnson’s attraction to him. Perhaps as a consequence of this knowledge, Machin is needlessly cruel to Johnson on several occasions, taking advantage of the older man’s feelings. Johnson’s effeminacy is emphasised by Mrs Hammond again, who complains that he has soft hands, by club chairman Gerald Weaver, who calls him Frank’s ‘little dog’ and also in a scene when the players get off the team coach and pass a ball amongst themselves. It is passed to Johnson, who drops it - a sure sign of effeminacy in the intensely competitive male world of sporting prowess.
Gerald Weaver himself also seems to have interests in Frank above mere rugby. Gloriously played by Alan Badel, he seems to flirt with Frank, the sexual undertone mixing with the fact that, now that Frank has signed for Weaver’s team, he is Weaver’s property. Giving Frank a lift home in his car, Weaver ostentatiously puts his hand on Frank’s knee, an act that Frank clearly suspects is something rather more than mere friendliness. However, as with Miller’s use of the word ‘love’ to Machin in the earlier dance hall scene, it should be noted that this type of close physical contact, such as squeezing another man’s knee, between men of the industrial working class was, and continues to be, common in the north of England. The ambiguity of a middle-class man like Weaver making physical contact with a working-class man such as Machin raises questions not just of sexual but also class transgression.
On a personal level, Machin’s consciousness of the sexual undertone in his relationships with Weaver and Johnson may also reflect something about himself. The pin-ups in his room at Mrs Hammond’s house are all of male boxers or rugby players and the film pays particular attention to the fun Frank has in the communal plunge bath that all the players use after a match.
The fourth overtly transgressive relationship is that involving Mrs Weaver (played by Vanda Godsell), the wife of Gerald Weaver, who invites Machin to her home when her husband is at work. Like Mrs Hammond, she too is considerably older than Frank but unlike Mrs Hammond, she is sexually confident and attempts to seduce him. She fails because Frank tells her that he thinks it is unfair on Mr Weaver, an excuse that Mrs Weaver finds puzzling, suggesting that she and her husband have a non-monogamous marriage. She suspects Frank’s reticence is because he is in love with Mrs Hammond. ‘Is it the woman you live with?’ she snaps at him, to which he quickly corrects her: ‘she’s the woman I lodge with’ he says, emphasising the gulf of respectability that separates the two words.
Moreover, Frank is clearly not the first player that Mrs Weaver has invited back home. Team captain Maurice Braithwaite disparagingly calls her ‘Cleopatra’ and Arthur Lowe, playing Weaver’s rival director Charles Slomer, asks Frank about ‘what I call Mrs. Weaver's weakness for social informalities’. Moreover, the Weavers’ Christmas party that the team attends appears to resemble an orgy, something alluded to in the promotional posters for the film, which emphasised the sexual aspects of the film over its sporting ones.
In fact, all of Machin’s principal relationships in the film could be termed as sexually transgressive or potentially so, concerning either homo-erotic attraction or cross-generational heterosexual relationships. The only ‘normative’ relationship in the film is that of Maurice Braithwaite (played by Colin Blakely) and his fiance Judith (played by Anne Cunningham), whose blossoming courtship runs through the narrative, culminating in their marriage at the end of the film, presenting an oasis of respectable conformity in contrast to the complexities and frustrations of Frank’s tortured emotional life.
There are two key points to be made about the sexual politics of the film. The first one is that This Sporting Life presents the complexity of relationships within a working-class community in a way that had never previously happened in British film, and this in itself is an important achievement. Of course, some of the same themes can be seen in other British new wave films. For example, the figure of the older woman appears in Room at the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (in which she is also played by Rachel Roberts) and homosexuality is dealt with in A Taste of Honey. However, This Sporting Life is unique in the range and complexity of the sexual relationships, both overt and implied, it portrays not only in a working-class community but also across classes.
The second point is perhaps more intellectually interesting. What is the relationship between the portrayal of sport in the film and the centrality of sex to its plot?
Lindsay Anderson and David Storey, whether consciously or not, set up the film’s shifting sexual scenario against the norms of sport. Anderson, the public-school educated gay intellectual is the outsider looking in and Storey, the working-class, rugby league-playing grammar school boy, is the insider looking out. Together, they instinctively grasped that the nature of sport is based on the reinforcement of traditional heterosexual masculinity. Sport is a masculine, aggressively heterosexual world, in which might is right and weakness punished. This is a world that Frank Machin understands. But his mastery of that world puts him at a disadvantage in the real and complicated world of sex and personal relationships. And this tension between sport and sex, I would argue, is the driving force of the film.
Although it can be argued that This Sporting Life presents an unfairly brutal and bleak portrait of rugby league - for example, no player expresses any enjoyment in playing the game - the film should be seen solely as a critique of rugby league, but of sport as a whole. Modern sport is founded on a rigid differentiation between men and women, the masculine and the feminine, the sexually normative and the transgressive. This was summed up in the Muscular Christian motto ‘Mens sana in corpore sana’ - ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, which referred to not the creation of intellectual minds in healthy bodies, but of morally pure minds, free of the temptations of sexuality (Haley, 1990).
Tom Brown’s Schooldays, modern sport’s foundational text in which rugby and cricket were raised to the level of moral education, served as a handbook for this Muscular Christian worldview. The book explains that new boys who did not ‘fit in’ with their schoolmates would sometimes get “called Molly, or Jenny, or some derogatory feminine name” (Hughes, 1989: p. 218). In the second part of the book Tom Brown and his best friend East are approached by “one of the miserable little pretty white-handed curly-headed boys, petted and pampered by some of the big fellows, who wrote their verses for them, taught them to drink and use bad language, and did all they could to spoil them for everything in this world and the next” (Hughes, 1989: p. 233). Unprovoked, they trip him and kick him, much like Machin’s treatment of ‘Dad’ Johnson. This campaign against effeminacy and homosexuality also animated the drive to place sport at the heart of the school curriculum as a way of diverting male adolescent energies that might otherwise have taken a sexual direction (Puccio, 1995: p. 63).
The link between sport and opposition to transgressive sexual practices was highlighted by the activities of some the nineteenth century’s leading sporting figures of the time. Lord Kinnaird, president of the FA for thirty-three years, was a prominent supporter of the Central Vigilance Society for the Suppression of Immorality and the National Vigilance Society, which in 1889 was behind the jailing of an English publisher for publishing 'obscene' works by Zola and Flaubert (Sanders, 2009: p. 77). Edward Lyttleton, captain of the Cambridge University cricket team and a batsman with Middlesex, campaigned against the alleged dangers of masturbation. And of course it was the Marquess of Queensberry, one of the founders of the Amateur Athletic Association and the man after whom the laws of modern boxing are named, who was fatefully sued by Wilde in 1895 for calling him in ‘Somdomite [sic]’ (Hall and Porter, 1995: p. 144). Modern sport was founded on the most rigid imposition of conformity, social and sexual.
In contrast to this Manichean world, This Sporting Life presents the richness and complexity of sexual desire as it struggles against the oppressive conformity of gender roles and class distinction. It portrays sport as the accomplice and the instrument of sexual oppression and misery. In this way therefore, This Sporting Life could be said to be the Anti-Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
It has long been argued that sport is rarely successful in films. This Sporting Life is successful however - but that is because it is not really about sport, or rugby league, at all.
It is all about sex.
Campbell, James (2004) ‘A Chekhov of the North’, Guardian, 31 January, p. 31-32.
Haley, Bruce (1990) The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Hill, Jeff (2006), ‘Acting Big’: David Storey’s This Sporting Life’ in his Sport and the Literary Imagination : Essays in History, Literature, and Sport, Oxford: Peter Lang.
Hill, Jeff (2004), ‘Sport Stripped Bare: Deconstructing Working-Class Masculinity in This Sporting Life’, Men and Masculinities, Vol. 10 No. 10: pp. 1-19.
Holt, Richard (1996) 'Men and Rugby in the North', Northern Review, Vol: 4: pp. 115-123.
Hughes, Thomas (1989) Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Oxford: OUP World’s Classics edition.
Hughson, John (2005) ‘The 'Loneliness' of the Angry Young Sportsman’ Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies Vol. 35, No. 2 pp. 41-48.
Hutchings, William (1987) ‘The Work of Play: Anger and the Expropriated Athletes of Alan Sillitoe and David Storey’, Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, No.1: p. 35.
Joyce, Ramon (1963) Rugby Leaguer, 15 February, p. 4.
Mansfield, Jane (2010) ‘The Brute-Hero: The 1950s and Echoes of the North’, Literature & History, Vol. 19 No. 1: p. 34-39.
Milne, Tom (1962) ‘This Sporting Life’, Sight and Sound, Vol. 31, No. 3: p. 113-116.
Observer Sport Monthly (2005) 'The Fifty Best Sports Books of all Time', 8 May: pp. 5-9.
Pittock, Malcolm (1990) ‘Revaluing the Sixties: "This Sporting Life" Revisited’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2: pp. 97-108.
Porter, Roy, and Hall, Lesley (1995) The Facts of Life, Yale: Yale University Press.
Puccio, Paul M. (1995) ‘At the Heart of Tom Brown’s Schooldays: Thomas Arnold and Christian Friendship’, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4: pp. 57–74.
Sanders, Richard (2009) Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football, London: Transworld.
Shafer, Stephen C. (2001) ‘An Overview of the Working Classes in British Feature Film from the 1960s to the 1980s: From Class Consciousness to Marginalization’, International Labor and Working-Class History, Vol. 59: pp. 3-14.
Solomon, R. H. (1994) ‘Man as Working Animal: Work, Class and Identity in the Plays of David Storey’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. 30, No.3: p. 193.
Spracklen, Karl (1996) ‘Playing the Ball: Constructing Community and Masculine Identity in Rugby: An analysis of the two codes of league and union and the people involved’, unpublished PhD thesis, Leeds Metropolitan University.
Storey, David (1998) Radcliffe, London, Vintage.
Storey, David (1962) This Sporting Life, London: Penguin.
Yorkshire Federation of RL Supporters’ Clubs [YFRLSC] (1963) annual conference minutes, 15 June.
The 'field goal' had a long history in rugby. It was a specific type of goal in which a rolling ball on the ground was hacked over the bar and between the posts. It was always controversial because it was usually scored more by luck than by skill.
But by the end of the nineteenth century the game had moved on from the wild kicking that was sometimes a feature of early rugby and the field goal had become almost extinct. Rugby Union's International Board abolished it in March 1905, coincidentally a month before the last field goal was scored in a major rugby league match, when Hull KR centre Billy Phipps kicked one in Rovers' 1905 Challenge Cup semi-final win over Broughton Rangers.
It didn't completely disappear from league. The 1922-23 RFL Official Guide notes that a query had been raised the previous season about whether a goal could be scored by a player kicking a loose ball over the cross bar and between the posts. The RFL ruled that it would be counted as a field goal. (Interestingly, in the summer of 1922 the RFL had abolished the 'goal from a mark' whereby a player could catch the ball, make a mark and then kick a drop goal.)
It wasn't until 1950 that the Rugby Football League - acknowledged at that time as the final arbiter of all rule disputes - finally struck the field goal from the rule book. But in Australia a field goal meant a drop goal.
This anomaly was raised on the 1954 Lions tour of Australia by the managers of the tourists, Hector Rawson and Tom Hesketh. They discussed the matter at an Australian Board of Control meeting in Sydney on 11 June 1954.
The minutes of the meeting state that: ‘The RFL wrote advising that attention had been drawn to the fact that in a recent match played in Sydney the total of one side was made up of four tries, three goals and a field-goal. When the the laws of the game were re-written several years ago, the field-goal was abolished and it is now stated quite definitely that a goal can only be scored from a conversion of a try, from a penalty goal and from a dropped goal. It would appear that perhaps the press had referred to the latter as a field goal. It was decided that it was the considered opinion of the Board that a field-goal represents a dropped goal from the field of play and we are of the opinion that no great harm would come from people referring to a drop kick by a player going over the cross bar and between the posts, as a field-goal. (proposed by SG Ball and Ron McAuliife)’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this wasn't good enough for RFL secretary Bill Fallowfield. He complained about Australian terminology at an RFL Council meeting on 12 November 1954:’The Secretary reported that it had come to his notice that the field-goal i.e. the kicking of a loose ball over the cross bar, was still allowed in Australia and New Zealand. It was agreed unanimously that the attention of Australia and New Zealand be drawn to the fact that the field-goal was deleted from the laws of the game when they were rewritten in 1950’.
This difference in terminology for a drop-kicked goal existed well before it was raised by the British tour managers. On the 1946 Lions tour many of the match programmes for games in the country areas carried a description of the rules of the game, 'Helpful Hints to those on the Touchline', which stated that 'a player can drop kick a field-goal while play is in progress and his team is awarded two points’.
It's unclear why a drop-goal became known as a field-goal in Australia, but it has become fashionable in British league to use the Australian term. But it's terminologically incorrect.
It’s unlikely that the term has been borrowed from American football, where the NFL categorised drop-kicked goals separately from ‘field goals’ until 1963. The field-goal in the gridiron game today refers to any goal that is not a point-after conversion, so a drop-goal is regarded as the same as a place-kicked goal. If America was the source of the use of 'field-goal', logic would mean that it also includes goals scored from penalty kicks (which, incidentally are not 'penalty goals’ in rugby league, as they are sometimes called by some parts of the media, but simply ‘goals’).
The drop-goal is not something that regularly troubles the NFL's scorers, as only New England's Doug Flutie has kicked one in the last seventy-five years. You can see it here - and at least we can be certain that the ball went between the posts.
-- This is the transcript of the keynote presentation I gave to the Rugby Union World Cup conference held in September 2015 at the University of Brighton.
In the beginning was the scrum.
The scrum is a common feature of almost all pre-modern football games. It was an essential part of the mass football games played between villages or districts, in which hundreds of men would struggle endlessly for possession of the ball.
But it was also a vital part of the types of football played at English public schools in the mid- nineteenth century, from which the modern football codes of association (soccer) and rugby are directly descended.
For example, at Eton school (which the sociologist Eric Dunning claims, in my view incorrectly, as the progenitor of soccer) there were two types of football, the wall game and the field game. The wall game resembles a continuous scrum played against a wall.
The Eton field game is more open, but the scrum - called a ‘Bully’ - is still a central part of the game. At Winchester school, again traditionally seen as an ancestor of soccer, the scrum, which is known as a ‘hot’ is also a central part of the game.
In fact, the scrum was common to all mid-nineteenth century codes of football, including American football, where it evolved into the scrimmage, and even Australian Rules, where it had died out largely by the 1880s.
The scrum at Rugby
But in the football played at Rugby school, the scrum was the central feature of the game. As can be seen from the account of the game in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (published in 1857), rugby was a game of continual scrummaging. Play revolved around scrummaging and kicking to set up scrums. Handling the ball was severely limited and running with ball in hand was only permitted if the ball was bouncing when it was picked up - even a rolling ball could not be picked up by hand. At this stage in its development, it would not be accurate to describe Rugby football as a ‘handling code’ of football.
Most players took part in the scrum, with the aim of pushing the scrum towards their opponents’ goal or to the dribble the ball forward to the opposition goal line. Forwards in the scrum stood upright and pushed, kicking the ball or their opponents’ shins (‘hacking’). Putting one’s head down in a scrum was seen as an act of cowardice because it implied that that the player was concerned for his own safety.
As in soccer, forwards were the attacking players and their role was to drive the opposing scrummagers as far back as possible and then capitalise on their disarray by dribbling the ball. Backs were the defensive players, whose role was to defend the goal or kick the ball to set up another scrum. The idea that the forwards would deliberately heel the ball out of the scrum for the backs would be seen as cheating, or even worse, as cowardice.
In 1871 the English Rugby Football Union was formed and it amended Rugby school rules to make the game more acceptable for adult players. For example it banned hacking and simplified scoring. But the scrum retained its importance. RFU secretary Arthur Guillemard described the workings of the scrum in 1877, explaining that as soon as the ball-carrying player was brought to the ground with a tackle,
the forwards of each side hurry up and a scrummage is instantly formed, each ten facing their opponents’s goal, packed round the ball, shoulder to shoulder, leg to leg, as tight as they can stand, the twenty thus forming a round compact mass with the ball in the middle. Directly the holder of the ball has succeeded in forcing it down to the ground, he shouts ‘Down’ and business may be commenced at once.
In this description one can see both the origins of American football’s use of the term ‘down’ for a completed tackle and the antecedent of rugby league’s play the ball rule.
But the centrality of the set-piece scrum to the early game inevitably led to problems. This was due to some extent to the fact that grown men were playing a game that had been originally developed by and for adolescent schoolboys. A scrum made up of varyingly sized youths was a very different proposition to one comprising heavy, mature men. Also, adult clubs were committed to winning and that meant that tactics were developed to ensure victory, or to avoid defeat at the very least.
The difficulties could be seen in this description of a typical scrum of the early 1870s by England and Richmond forward Charles Gurdon:
It would last, if skilfully manoeuvred (as we then thought), ten minutes or more, sometimes swaying this way, sometimes that; and on special occasions, when one side was much heavier than the other, this rotund mass would gravitate safely and unbroken, some thirty or forty yards towards the goal line of the weaker side, leaving a dark muddy track to mark its course.
‘Straight ahead propulsion’ was the primary tactic used in the scrum. Sometimes the most central forward would grip the ball between his feet while his fellow-forwards concentrated on pushing him through the opposing pack of forwards, allowing him to dribble the ball forward once they had broken through their opponents.
There were generally few opportunities for backs, not least because there were so few of them. In a team of fifteen or twenty, there would be two full-backs, two half-backs and one three-quarter, although two three-quarters gained popularity in the mid-1870s. The rest would be forwards. Passing the ball was extremely rare.
Reforming the Game
By 1875 these tendencies had brought rugby to an impasse:
How much longer are we to be wearied by monotonous shoving matches instead of spirited scrummages, and disgusted at seeing a 14 stone Hercules straining every muscle to move an opposing mountain of flesh a yard or two further from his goal-line, whilst he is all the time blissfully oblivious of the fact that ball is lying undisturbed at his feet
asked the London newspaper Bell’s Life.
To solve these problems, proposals were raised to lower the number of players in a team to fifteen. In 1875 the Oxford versus Cambridge varsity match was first played fifteen-a-side and the following season international matches became fifteen-a-side, although strangely the law was not formally changed until 1892.
The move to fifteen-a-side led to a number of structural alterations to the way the game was played. Scrums no longer lasted for minutes, because it was easier for the ball to come out of the scrum. Forwards now started to put their heads down in the scrum to see where the ball was. The frequency with which the ball now came out from the scrum meant that forwards began to look for opportunities to break away and dribble the ball downfield independently. And the danger of a forward breaking away with the ball at his feet meant that a third three-quarter had to be added in order to defend against the quick breakaway.
Moreover, and to the horror of traditionalists who tried unsuccessfully to persuade the RFU to outlaw the practice, teams began to deliberately heel the ball out of the scrum to the backs. Wheeling the scrum also emerged as a tactic, as teams with an extra player in the scrum, following the withdrawal of an opposing forward to the three-quarter line, realised that they could turn the weaker set of forwards around.
Above all, the change opened the way for the development of the passing game. The speed with which the ball left the scrum and the ease with which forwards could peel away from the pack offered a quick-thinking half-back the chance to move the ball quickly out to his three-quarter or loose forward.
The process was helped significantly in 1878 when the rules were changed so that a tackled player was forced to release the ball immediately the tackle was completed. This meant that forwards now had to keep up with the play, rather than take their time to get to the scrum, increasing their fitness and expanding the available space on the field.
Facilitated by these rule changes and spurred by the tremendous growth in the popularity of the game, the 1880s became a decade of innovation. The Welsh invented the four three-quarter system and the scoring system was changed to allow points to be awarded for tries and goals - previously matches were won, as in soccer, by the team that scored most goals, regardless of tries.
In the north of England, Thornes. a team from a mining village near Wakefield, won the Yorkshire Cup in 1882, they did so thanks to revolutionary scrum tactics, such as using a wing- forward to protect their scrum-half, heeling the ball out of the scrum quickly, and allocating specific positions in the scrum and line-out to their forwards, anticipating the 1905 All Blacks by a generation.
But many of these changes were not welcomed by senior figures in English rugby. RFU president Arthur Budd regretted the increased importance of tries:
the very fact that try-getters are plentiful while goal-droppers are scarce shows that the latter art is very much more difficult of acquirement. Now this being so, why, I should like to ask, ought the more skilful piece of play to be depreciated, while a premium is placed on mere speed of foot?’
In 1896 he even proposed that heeling the ball out of the scrum should be made illegal.
On the other side were those who thought the changes had not gone far enough. In 1892, James Miller, the president of the Yorkshire Rugby Union, argued that rugby:
had now reached a period when another radical change must be considered, and that was the reduction of players from fifteen to thirteen. ... the end of the ‘pushing age’ had been reached and instead of admiring the physique and pushing power of those giants which took part in the game in the early stages, in the future they would be able to admire the skilful and scientific play of the game.
So, we can see the emergence of two different conceptions of how rugby should be played. Although the 1895 split in English rugby was caused by the issue of payments to players, it also broadly reflected this division over how rugby should be played.
Rugby League and the scrum
Within two weeks of the split, the Northern Union discussed moving to thirteen a side.The rationale, explained Leeds’ official Harry Sewell, was that
we want to do away with that scrummaging, pushing and thrusting game, which is not football, and that is why I propose to abolish the line-out and reduce the number of forwards to six. The football public does not pay to see a lot of scrummaging…
But his proposal to move to six forwards in thirteen-a-side teams was voted down, and over the next decade the number of scrums in rugby league grew dramatically. In 1899, in an attempt to get rid of messy rucks and mauls, the NU introduced a rule that if a tackled player could not release the ball, a set scrum had to be formed - an example of which can be seen below from the 1901 Oldham versus Swinton match.
These rule changes led to matches like Hunslet’s 1902 match with Halifax in which there were 110 scrums. In fact, the set scrum now had more importance in the rugby league game than in the rugby union. It was claimed by many that the excessive number of scrums in the game was turning young players towards soccer.
Eventually, in June 1906, the NU reduced the number of players to thirteen-a-side. And to solve the problem of endless scrummaging, it also introduced a new rule for playing the ball after a tackle. Now, instead of a scrum being formed, the tackled player was allowed to get to his feet, put the ball down in front of him and play it with his foot, usually to a team mate standing behind him.
This was a conscious decision to return to the modified principles of the original form of rugby scrum, whereby the tackled forward would place the ball down on the ground before the scrum commenced, albeit with only one opposition player directly in front of him.
Rugby Union and the scrum
After the split, the RFU was unchallenged in its ideas about the centrality of the scrum. But it was a different matter when facing teams from New Zealand and Australia. The 1905 All Blacks were heavily criticised for their seven man scrum and a free-standing wing-forward or ‘rover’, who fed the scrum and shielded his scrum-half to allow quicker passing of the ball from the base of the scrum. It was felt by many in England that the wing-forward was unsportsmanlike at best and downright illegal at worst.
The All Blacks’ forwards packed down in the scrum in a 2-3-2 formation, with two men in the front row, three in the second and two in the third, with the wing-forward where the scrum-half would traditionally stand at the side of the scrum. The system was believed to allow more focused pushing and also, because the scrum-half was protected, to facilitate quick ball from the scrum.
This method of opening up play from the scrum was very similar to that of the Northern Union, which in its first season had banned the defending scrum-half from going beyond his own front row until his opposite number had taken the ball from the scrum, thus providing more time to get the ball to the backs.
The controversy came to a head on the 1930 British Isles tour to Australasia. At an official dinner British manager James Baxter implied that Cliff Porter, the All Black captain who played as a rover, was a cheat. The fact that the British lost the test series 3-1 to New Zealand may also have exacerbated Baxter’s antipathy. On his return he had little difficulty in persuading the RFU to change the scrummage rules to effectively outlaw the wing-forward and the 2-3-2 formation.
Ironically, despite the RFU’s criticisms of All Black scrummaging methods, the England national side won four grand slams in the 1920s playing a power forward game inspired by the All Blacks. The architect of this success was William Wavell Wakefield, who brought a tactical planning to scrum play that had not previously be seen in English rugby union. The power of his teams was based on having back-rowers (known as ‘winging-forwards’ to distinguish them from the New Zealand detached roving wing-forwards) who could cover every inch of ground whether in defence or attack. Essentially it was the birth of the modern flanker.
But by the mid-1930s Wakefield’s innovations had led to matches became dominated by defensive back-row play. As Howard Marshall pointed out, ‘Defence overcame orthodox attack, and the decay of real scrummaging set in.’ The back-row forward had, he complained, ‘got somewhat out of hand’. The desire to receive or stop quick ball from the scrum led to interminable problems in putting the ball into the scrum, as front rows sought to stop their opponents getting the ball, and the keenness of the back-rowers to close down the half-backs led to constant penalties for off-side. The combination of back-row dominance and rule-changes designed to re-assert the centrality of the scrum meant that try-scoring dried up.
The game continued to be oppressed by forward domination and kicking throughout the 1950s. BBC radio commentator G.V. Wynne-Jones even called for the number of forwards to be reduced to six. The International Board made significant changes to the rules in 1954 to stop the deliberate collapsing of the scrum. It returned to the rules again in 1958, once more to reform the scrum and to speed up play through a variety of minor measures. But far from opening up the game, the IB reforms added to the problem, not least by significantly adding to the technicalities of the scrum.
It was not coincidence that the French, frustrated with their failure to win the Five Nations despite the strength of their club competition, finally found success in 1959 by emulating English forward play, rather than by playing the open game that supposedly marked the essence of the Gallic game. Scrum work, argued the French rugby writer Denis Lalanne, was the basis for winning rugby:
we know where rugby begins and where it must begin all over again. It certainly does not begin in the back row. It begins in the FRONT ROW. [emphasis in original].
And so it remained until the 1980s. The great French sides of the 1960s and 1970s were based on this very principal. But the advent of the World Cup and then professionalism gave rise to new problems that would undermine the centrality of the scrum to rugby union.
The continuing importance of the scrum to rugby league can be seen in the fact that the first major gathering of rugby league officials after the First World War was a special conference in 1921 to discuss the problems of scrums. Not only was it felt that there were too many - with an average of between fifty and sixty a match - but hookers (a title which was just coming into common parlance, in preference to striker or centre-forward), props and scrum-halves were all criticised for refusing to obey the rules of the scrum.
The problem continued to occur throughout the interwar years. There were rule changes to prevent the more obvious reasons for scrum problems, such as the 1930 rule forcing forwards to pack down with three in the front row, two in the second row and a loose forward binding the second row - designed to prevent teams having four in the front row and unbalancing the scrum - and the 1932 ban on the hooker having a loose arm in the scrum.
But little changed and the debate became more intense in the late 1930s, when it was not uncommon again to see matches of between eighty and a hundred scrums. Indeed, rule-breaking was almost inherent in the very nature of the scrum - when former Wallaby hooker Ken Kearney arrived to play for Leeds in 1948 he asked a referee what were the best tactics to use in English scrums. ‘Cheat’ was the one-word reply he allegedly, but quite believably, received.
The seemingly never-ending cycle of clampdown, dismissals and eventual reassertion of the norm continued into the 1970s when the introduction of limited tackle rugby league in 1966 meant that struggle for possession, and consequently scrums, lost much of its previous importance. Indeed, the technical problems of the scrum were gradually solved by the expedient of allowing, albeit informally, the scrum-half to feed the ball to his own forwards.
In 1983 a handover of the ball to the opposing side, rather than a scrum, was introduced when the attacking side was tackled in possession on the sixth tackle. The final break with the past came with a series of changes in the early 1990s to the play-the-ball rule that removed the last vestiges of the struggle for possession and made it simply a device for restarting play.
The future of the scrum
The advent of professionalism in rugby union in 1995 was accompanied by continuous attempts to improve the game as a spectacle, from the legalisation of lifting in the line-out to tinkering with the ruck and the maul in order to ensure quicker ball and more continuous play. The scrum has come under particular scrutiny.
I would argue that the reason for this intense scrutiny of the rules of the game, and especially of the scrum, is because professionalism has renewed rugby union’s evolutionary impulse. The impact of commercialism, a century after it had originally shut the door on radical change, is taking union down the same road that league has traveled.
League had evolved on a trial and error basis by providing answers to the traditional problems of those football codes that had emerged from the rules of football at Rugby School - just like American and other football codes. The problem of the breakdown, or what to do when the player with the ball had been tackled, had been solved by replacing the ruck or the maul with the orderly play-the-ball. Excessive touch kicking had been curbed by penalizing direct kicking into touch. The domination of the forwards had been diminished by reducing the number of forwards and cutting the opportunities for scrummaging.
Moreover, experience had led league to gradually abandon the idea of the struggle for possession of the ball, and thus reduce the importance of the scrum. As professionalism and the importance of winning had become paramount, it discovered, as union has begun to, that no matter how detailed the rules of the scrum or the breakdown, players and coaches would always find a way to circumvent or undermine them. In its place, league had evolved into a struggle for territory and position.
Rugby union is now faced with a paradox. The symbolism of the scrum has increased in the past two decades as many of its traditional shibboleths - such as amateurism - have disappeared. The supercharged collision of the two front rows to begin the scrum is itself a new phenomenon, unknown to earlier front rows, for whom the struggle would begin as the two packs bound themselves together.
Yet, ironically, the importance of the scrum to the playing of the modern game is rapidly diminishing. In the 2011 Rugby World Cup the average number of scrums per match was just seventeen, compared to twenty-seven in the 1995 tournament and thirty-one in internationals staged in 1983. The 2015 6Nations and 2014 Rugby Championship saw just 12 - roughly the same number as in league. Moreover, the ‘contest for possession’ is also steadily declining in importance - the leading international sides now retain possession at the scrum and the line-out 85%-90% of the time. In 2005, the IRB discovered that the side in possession retained the ball thirteen out of fourteen times at the breakdown.
What’s the solution to the problem of the rugby union scrum? More yellow cards for scrum offences? Already tried in RL - and failed.
There is no answer - the scrum will whither, but it will not die. Rugby of both codes is too rooted in its traditions, culture and belief systems. Logic is not necessarily a determining factor in rugby decision-making. But the importance of the scrum will continue to decline, until it becomes, like the human coccyx, an almost redundant vestigial reminder of the evolutionary past of rugby, and indeed of all football codes.
In September 1930 a short but vigorous debate broke out about the two rugby codes in the pages of the Daily Worker, the recently established daily of the Communist of Great Britain (CPGB). To my knowledge, it is the only time that the ostensibly Marxist left ever discussed the rugby split.
Fascists Who Play Rugby. A Game Where Snobbery Reigns Unchallenged.
The Rugby code of football has built up for itself a reputation for ‘snobbery’. When we analyse this, however, we find that it truly reflects the type who play the game.
Strike-breakers, little business-men and middle-class ruffians in general form the nucleus of the players of the game.
We have already drawn attention to the unsavoury reputation the English touring side in Australia has earned for itself [this refers to the British Isles team that toured Australia and New Zealand in the summer of 1930]. Incidents at banquets, and scathing press articles show the said to be the typical ‘gentlemanly’ one.
A recent report, following their defeat by New South Wales by 23 points to 3, says that one English player said after the match, ‘I never want to see a football again’.
No doubt the round of gaiety is beginning to pall, and the lads, limited in intellectual ability as they are, are no doubt extremely unhappy. Fortunately they have nice jobs to return to, unlike many of our worker sportsmen who, on their return from the USSR or the continent, are sacked for taking parts in workers’ sport.
Let us have a look at some of the ornaments of rugby. Irish internationals of last season include E.F. de Verre Hunt, of the Army, and G. Beamish, of the RAF. Most of the 29 men who represented Scotland last year are university loafers, whilst Bassett and Hollingdale, Welsh ‘caps’, are in the police force.
Of about 120 [of] last season’s internationals, almost 50 per cent served, and they are very proud of it, as ‘assistants of the Crown’ at the time of the General Strike in 1926.
In the Services, Rugby is the acknowledged game for the officers, whilst ‘soccer’ is the game for the proletariat - literally, ‘gun-fodder’.
Next time you see a Rugby game just pick out the ‘blacklegs’ you know. You will get more enjoyment out of it than is usually the case in the game of ‘kick and rush’.
- - Daily Worker, 12 September 1930
Northern Union and Rugby Union. Two Similar Codes With Very Different Followers.
A letter has been received from Comrade Bob Davies of Warrington concerning Rugby League (Northern Union) football. He says:
In the article entitled ‘Fascists Who Play Rugby’, I think you should be careful to make a distinction between the Rugby Union code and the Rugby League code. Your remarks in the main do not apply to the latter, where the big majority of the players are manual workers and do not give up their work when they become regular paid players.
The sum paid to players in the Rugby League varies but on the average I should think is about £2 per match and no summer wages.
It is true that among the Rugby League players there are some who would act as strike-breakers, for example Sullivan, the Wigan international full-back is credited, or discredited, with having tried to persuade the miners to return to work during the 1926 lockout. On the other hand I know at least three internationals who are quite close to the [Communist] Party; one was on the Wigan Local [CP branch] books for some time.
Not A ‘Swank’ Sport
Of course, all the general criticism made against capitalist sport applies to the Rugby League, but it is certainly not a ‘gentleman’s’ sport. The Rugby Union has no connection with the Rugby League and the Rugby League supporters regard the Rugby Union with a great amount of contempt.
In conclusion, I think the Daily [Worker] should give a little space weekly to the Rugby League, because in certain areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire Rugby is the most popular game. In St Helens, Widnes, Warrington, Leigh and Wigan there is very little support for soccer, yet all have one or more first-class Rugby League teams.
[Sports editor: We quite agree that the distinction between the Northern Union and the Rugby Union codes should have been made clearer in the article in question. It will be noticed, however, that only Rugby Union players were mentioned in that article.
In our opinion the Northern Union code is far superior as a game to the snobbish, ‘posh’ Rugby of the Rugby Union. As to the players in it, they are, we agree, in the main, workers and cannot be compared with the swagger fascists who play Rugby in London and the South. The game itself is only open to the same degree of criticism as is professional soccer and all other boss-class sport.
We shall willingly publish news and comments on Northern Union games. Will our St Helens comrades help us to obtain the same?]
- - Daily Worker, 17 September 1930
In 2009 I was lucky enough to be able to spend almost two hours talking to Harry Jepson about his long life in rugby league. The interview covered his entire career in the game, from his first memories of going to see Hunslet in the early 1920s, through his career as a Hunslet official and on to his second career at Leeds.
Along the way he remembers the great matches and players of the past, going to Wembley when Hunslet won the cup in 1934 (an event also recounted in Richard Hoggart's classic book The Uses of Literacy), the Second World War, relations with rugby union, the influx of Australian players in the 1980s and much, much more.
It was probably the best two hours I've ever spent as a historian of rugby. The interview was part of project that sadly never saw the light of day. When I got the news that Harry had died on Monday, I spent some time watching it again. I've uploaded the video here in its entirety, unedited and still with timestamps and video artefacts. I hope it is a tribute that gives the full measure of this remarkable man and his wonderful life.
Harry Jepson died on Monday aged 96 after a lifetime of service to his community as a teacher and as a coach, official and mentor to rugby league. He died, if a death can ever said to be fall appropriately, on the anniversary of the founding of the Northern Union on 29 August.
Harry was born in 1920 in Hunslet and became a fan of his local team Hunslet at a very young age. Along with Richard Hoggart, who was in the same class, he attended Cockburn High School and went on to became a teacher, rising to be deputy head at Clapgate School. He learned French at school and was one of the few people to be able to speak to Jean Galia in his own language when the pioneering French rugby league tourists visited Leeds in 1934. You can read his full biography here.
He became secretary of Hunslet Schools Rugby League and began to work with Hunslet RLFC, becoming secretary of the club in 1963. During his time at Hunslet he got to know the legendary Albert Goldthorpe and worked closely other officials of the club, such as Joe Lewthwaite, who had been personally involved in the 1895 split that established the Northern Union.
In the late-1960s he was head-hunted by Leeds to become their de-facto football manager and he played a central role in reshaping the club, eventually becoming club president.
In 2008 I sat down with him for a compelling two-hour conversation about his life and his memories of rugby league for a planned DVD. Sadly the project never came to fruition but I still have the tapes. Below are two short extracts (complete with timecode stamp!); in the first he describes what the phrase "Best int' Northern Union" means and in the second he describes going to see the great Harold Wagstaff.
I'm in the process of editing the full interview - stand by for an announcement shortly!
- - Tonight Rugby League Cares hosts the Rugby League Hall of Fame tribute to Roger Millward and Mick Sullivan, two Hall of Famers who died this year. Unfortunately I won't be able to make it, so I'm posting my obituary to Roger that appeared in the May 2016 edition of Forty20.
How do you know when you have finally grown up? Of course, you can leave school at 16 and vote at 18, both of which officially admit you into the adult world. And there are other landmarks too. Leaving home. Moving in with a partner. Having kids and getting a mortgage.
But the ties of childhood linger deep into adulthood, and the moment of change is hard to identify. Musical tastes, TV shows, even food extend long into the decades of life. And for many men and women, the sporting experiences of childhood burn so bright that they never depart. The club you support, the matches you remember, and the players you idolised bind you to your formative past, when the world was new and the future was limitless.
For me, growing up in Hull in the 1960s, Roger Millward was the player I idolised. My dad took me to see Hull KR a few days after my eighth birthday. We’d already gone to a couple of Hull Dockers’ matches before just to see if I enjoyed going to a match. I did and, just as my grandad had taken him to Rovers in the 1940s and his dad had taken him before World War One, on 11 October 1969 we went to see Rovers play Featherstone Rovers.
I’d already heard about Roger. The were other boys at school who were Rovers’ fans and Roger was the player they talked about most. He didn’t do much in this match however. Most of the attention was on Cyril Kellett, Rovers’ former full back who was making his first appearance at Craven Park after transferring to his hometown club. But every time Roger got the ball, there seemed to be a fraction of a second when the crowd held its breath, waiting to see what he would do.
I was hooked. Not just on the game but on being a part of the crowd. It was an experience that I’d never experienced before. The sense of camaraderie. The quick-fire wit. The reminiscing. The complaining. The women with bee-hive hair-do’s who I’d never met before who insisted on feeding me sweets. The fact my dad seemed to know most of the people in the crowd. And best of all, the collective joy when Rovers scored.
From then on, my dad started taking me to every home match. ‘What will Roger do this time?’ became the question I’d ask every time we started out to match.
The answer was pretty much everything. Roger was a master of all the arts of rugby league. A geometrically-perfect passer of the ball. A laser-like kicking game. A sense of anticipation that bordered on the clairvoyant. And a turn of speed that could take him through the narrowest crack in an opposition defence.
His stats don’t really tell the story. 207 tries and 607 goals in 406 games for Rovers are the candles on a multi-layered career. He first lit up the game as a teenager in an ITV-broadcast amateur competition in the early 1960s. He was snapped up by Castleford in 1964, his hometown club, but when it became clear that great Alan Hardisty was the first-choice stand-off, he transferred to Rovers in 1966.
In no time at all he became the idol of the fans. He was simply the best player ever to play for the club. What’s more, he was quite possibly then the best player in the world - which, at a time when the club was struggling to rebuild the team, was a source of immense pride to all Rovers’ supporters.
What made him such a great player was more than his command of all of the skills of the sport. His greatest attribute was an intuitive sense of how the game was unfolding and what was going to happen next. In attack he could anticipate a gap and race through it or pass to someone else to burst into it. When a team-mate made a break, Roger would time a run to pick up an off-load that would leave his opponents flat-footed. And in defence, he seemed to be able to predict opponents’ moves before they knew themselves, picking off passes that often led to spectacular interception tries.
He commanded the pitch with an authority that very few players had. Alex Murphy led by charisma and the arrogance of unlimited ability. Wally Lewis was a general leading his troops from the front, never retreating. But Roger was a chess grandmaster, always several moves ahead of everyone else, ready to attack at the slightest sign of weakness. It’s difficult to think of an equivalent today - maybe the closest would be if Jonathan Thurston was the same size as Rob Burrow.
Roger was probably at the height of his powers playing for Great Britain against Australia. The unforgettable second test of the 1970 Ashes tour saw him brought into the side and score twenty points to level the series, and then scoring the try that sealed the third test win to bring home the Ashes for the last time. He became as feared by the Aussies as much as he was by Rovers’ club opponents.
There was no satellite TV in those days and we had to wait until the following week to see the highlights on Grandstand. Like every other Rovers’ fan I felt an enormous sense of pride that our Roger had won the Ashes. Eddie Waring’s commentary on the try that sealed the third test - ‘Millward, MILL-waaaard!’ - is seared into my memory.
But perhaps his greatest achievement was as the architect of Rovers’ gilded age between 1977 and 1986. He took over as coach in the most harrowing of circumstances when Rovers’ great Harry Poole dropped dead of a heart attack in 1977. Supported by the equally astute Colin Hutton, Roger built on Harry’s foundations to win everything, including the famous 1980 all-Hull Challenge Cup final and three championships. In the early 1980s he tried to persuade the board to make the players full-time as a way of building for the future. They disagreed, and shortly after Maurice Lindsay took Wigan full-time and built one of the great dynasties of the game.
In 1980 I left school and went to Warwick University, so I became a long-distance supporter. But even in the rugby league deserts that I lived in, I found that people had heard of Roger, partly through Eddie Waring’s nicknaming him Roger the Dodger, but mostly because they had seen his incredible skills on TV. The first time I went to Australia, a taxi driver asked where I was from. When I told him Hull, he said ‘Roger Millward’s town’. Going through Auckland airport security on another visit, the guard made a crack about the losing British Lions union side. ‘I’m leaguie so it doesn’t matter to me,’ I said, at which he confessed he was too. Roger’s name once again cropped up as he frisked me down.
When he coached Rovers for the last time in 1991 and came onto the pitch to take the applause from the crowd, tears flowed freely from me and many other fans. It was more than the closing of an era for the club, it seemed like the end of our relationship with Roger. He was leaving us, and a little part of each of our pasts had gone too.
He had a season coaching Halifax but his heart didn’t seem to be in it. Although he had had many disagreements with Rovers’ directors over the years, he was so inextricably linked to East Hull that in many ways he was Rovers. Once he left, his magic deserted him.
I was lucky enough to meet him several times in later life, most notably when he was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2000. More than once, I found myself thinking ‘I’m talking to Roger Millward!’ as if I was eight again. He became a school caretaker in Kippax, and I often wondered if the kids at the school, which included a young Ryan Hall, realised that Mr Millward was one of the greatest footballers of any code anywhere in the world. I’m not sure Roger even appreciated how good he was - he was just an ordinary bloke blessed with a very extraordinary talent.
And now he’s gone. A man who had been a formative part of my life, the player who more than anyone else showed me the magic of rugby league. He died just a few weeks after my dad went into a home due to Alzheimer’s disease. He doesn’t remember much now, but he still asks how Rovers are doing. I haven’t told him that Roger’s dead yet. The two events seem to mark the final severing of the ties that connected me to my eight year old self.
And I‘m not sure that want to grow up yet.
For those rugby league supporters who haven't been paying attention, a quick glance at the history of international league will show that the national team organised by the Rugby Football League has changed its name several times over the past century or so. Now known as England, at various times the same team has been known as the Northern Union and Great Britain.
Indeed, on some occasions England and Great Britain have both played matches against the same touring national side. And Welshmen such as Jim Sullivan and Gus Risman have captained England. To unravel the knotty nomenclature of the national side, we have to take a step back into the history of international rugby league.
The first rugby league international was played on 5 April 1904 between England and Other Nationalities at Central Park Wigan. Originally it had been planned for New Year’s Day but had been postponed due to severe frost. The Other Nationalities' side consisted largely of Welshmen and a couple of Scots.
It was also a twelve-a-side match, staged as part of the Northern Union’s experiments to find the best way to play rugby. A couple of years later, the game as a whole moved from fifteen-a-side to thirteen-a-side. In fact, the next England international, in 1906, was played under fifteen-a-side rules.
So far, so simple.
But in 1907 rugby league began to expand to the Southern Hemisphere, and in September 1907 Albert Baskerville’s New Zealand tourists arrived in Britain. And things started to get more complicated.
The All Golds - originally a derogatory title but one which came to be seen as a badge of honour - played test matches not against England or Great Britain, but against a side called ‘the Northern Union’. The NU side was selected from the best players in Britain.
The term test match came from cricket and it was seen as the ultimate ‘test’ of a nation’s sporting prowess.
However, the New Zealanders also played matches against England and Wales. These were not considered test matches but ‘representative’ matches, similar to county matches. During the same season England played Wales for the first time, with the Red Dragons winning 35-18.
England, Which England?
In 1908 the first Kangaroos toured Britain and in 1910 the British toured Australia and New Zealand for the first time. The touring party was officially known as the Northern Union. But most newspapers down under referred to the side as England, despite the fact the Welsh players were also in the side.
However, from 1924 the Northern Union test match team was officially named England. In 1922 the Northern Union had changed its name to the Rugby Football League and clearly the test team had to change its name too.
This meant there were two sides known as England, because England and Wales, and France from 1934, still played each other in non-test internationals.
The fact that Welsh players turned out for the England side and that it was captained by Welshmen Jim Sullivan raised no eyebrows at the time. In fact, it was common for English national sports teams to include non-English British players.
The England rugby union side routinely included Australians and South Africans. In 1937 England were even captained by South African test cricket HG Owen-Smith. And even in recent memory, the England cricket side has been captained by the Welshman Tony Lewis and the Scotsman Mike Denness.
Even the Indomitables, the 1946 team that toured Australia and New Zealand in the immediate aftermath of World War Two were officially known as England, despite being captained by Welshman Gus Risman.
Enter Great Britain
It was only in the 1940s that this state of affairs began to be questioned. The status that the game had acquired during World War Two when its democratic image seemed to fit with the mythology of the ‘People’s War’ led to a discussion about a more inclusive name for the national side.
The first test match of the 1947 Kiwi tour of Britain saw a new name appear. The programme for the match announced that it was between ‘The Rugby Football League v New Zealand’. But as an article in the programme explained, this was just a transitional name:
‘The appellation of the team representing the RFL has always been the subject of much controversy. All players of British nationality are eligible to play, and it seemed rather incongruous that Welshmen and Scotsmen should be invited to represent England. The Rugby League Council have decided henceforth to refer to this composite team as Great Britain.’
Bill Fallowfield went on to explain that ‘at first this new title may seem a little strange, but none can deny that it is more appropriate’. So, from the second test match of the 1947 series, the RFL’s national side was known as Great Britain.
Even then, some anomalies persisted. The England side still played in non-test matches with Wales, France and Other Nationalities. In the 1975, 1977 and 1995 world cups, England and Wales played as individual countries, while the Great Britain name was used for the other world cups, including the 1954 and 1972 wins.
Confusingly, Great Britain matches against France were not classed as full test matches until 1957, despite Puig Aubert’s French side of the early 1950s being unarguably the best team in the world.
And back to England
Sixty years after the name had been introduced, Great Britain played its last game as the RFL’s national side. In 2008 England, Scotland and Ireland took their places in the world cup and a new era of international rugby league began.
But for those interested in the history of the international game, it only served to deepen the confusion...
- - On 27 April Gus Risman was inducted alongside Billy Boston as a founding member of the Welsh Rugby League Hall of Fame. In 1988 both Gus and Billy were among the nine founding members of the Rugby Football League Hall of Fame. By way of a tribute to Gus, the following is my introduction to the 2008 edition of his 1958 autobiography Rugby Renegade published by Scratching Shed.
Augustus John Ferdinand Risman was simply one of the greatest players ever to step on to a rugby pitch. No-one played at the highest level for longer. No-one led international sides for longer. Only one man played more matches. Only two men played the game to a greater age. Only two men ever scored more points. And these facts are just the bare bones of his story.
But it is only when we compare his career to those of great athletes of other sports that we can really get a sense of the epic achievements of the man. No-one in any other code of football can approach his longevity at the top of their chosen sport. American footballer George Blanda played for twenty-six seasons, but his last five seasons was spent as a kicker, with little to do other than come onto the field to take a shot at goal. In rugby union, Newport and Wales forward George Boots played for twenty-seven seasons but his international career only lasted seven years; Risman’s lasted fourteen. Peter Shilton played soccer for thirty-one years but he of course was a goalkeeper.
The simple truth is that in all of the football codes around the world, there is no-one who can match Risman’s record of twenty-six seasons at the very top of his sport. Gus Risman was not only unique in rugby league, he was unique in world sport. This was truly remarkable man.
Gus was discovered playing club rugby union by Frank ‘Bucket’ Young, the great Welsh full-back who played for Leeds and toured with the first Lions in 1910. Young suggested to his former club that they might want to take a look at the young Risman but the Headingley side, with Jim Brough, the former England rugby union international, ensconced at full back, were not interested. They were also to turn down Brian Bevan just after World War Two, so Gus was in good company. In fact, the move to Salford could not have worked out better.
Under Lance Todd, a member of the pioneering 1907 New Zealand ‘All Golds’ side, Salford were one of the most attractive and innovative sides in the game during the 1930s. They were noted for their brand of sparkling attacking rugby league and featured not only Risman but great players such as Alan Edwards, Emlyn Jenkins and Barney Hudson. They won the championship three times, performed a hat-trick of Lancashire Cup wins and won the cup in 1938, which resulted in the now iconic photograph of Gus holding the cup aloft. Such was the thrilling nature of their rugby that the RFL chose Salford to be the first British club side to visit France in October 1934, where their style of play led the French press to nickname them the Red Devils.
When World War Two began Gus joined the Army, where he managed to pursue a dual career in club rugby league and forces rugby union. Salford closed down operations for the duration of the war in 1941 and the RFL allowed players to appear for any club as ‘guests’. As his army duties took him around the country, Gus turned out for Leeds, Bradford and Dewsbury, as well as making a handful of appearances for Hunslet. In 1941 he won a war-time championship medal with Bradford and the following season won the Challenge Cup with Leeds. Thanks to the lack of restrictions on players he also played for Eddie Waring’s Dewsbury team of all stars in the same season, appearing in the side that defeated Bradford in the 1942 championship final. Moreover, he made five appearances for Wales in war-time rugby league internationals.
If that wasn’t enough, he also became one of the great players of war-time rugby union too, captaining the Army and Wales in union services internationals, thanks to the RFU lifting its ban on league players in the forces for the duration of the war. In an early services’ match for the British Army against the Army in Ireland, The Times’ rugby correspondent highlighted him as the difference between the two sides - the Army in Ireland, he commented, ‘had nobody who could quite match the brilliance of Risman, the British Army’s rugby league stand-off’. By February 1942, The Times was highlighting those games in which he would make an appearance. The following month Wales beat England 17-12 in the first-ever services international: ‘the success of Wales was largely due to their captain, A.J.F. Risman, the rugby league player, who was always dangerous in attack and very dependable in defence. He scored eight points himself and was responsible for at least one of the tries.’
The accolades continued throughout the war. At the beginning of the 1942-43 season Gus was described as ‘Risman, the rugby league player whose genius has so often changed the fortunes of a game’. Service internationals continued after the war ended in 1945, most notably by a tour of the New Zealand Army which was regarded as almost a full All Black tour. The New Zealanders routed the Army 25-5 in December 1945 yet The Times could still single out Gus: ‘Risman at right centre was brilliance itself both as a runner and a kicker’. It is worth remembering that Gus’s experience of adult rugby union had ended a decade and half earlier at the age of seventeen. To be able to walk into a rugby union match with such limited experience and take complete charge was an indication of his natural genius with an oval ball.
A similar statement could be made about the next stage in his career. When he returned home from the 1946 Lions tour to Australia he was no longer a Salford player but had signed up as the player-manager of the newly formed Workington Town. Cumberland had been a bastion of rugby league since the creation of the game in 1895, supporting a successful county side and supplying dozens of top-class players to clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire, but it wasn’t until the mid-1940s that it proved to be economically viable to establish professional sides in the county, firstly with Workington in 1945 and then Whitehaven in 1948. Gus provided both on-field leadership to the team and the charisma to give supporters belief in the side. As he recounted in Rugby Renegade, he inadvertently made himself a hostage to fortune by referring to a five-year plan when he arrived at the club, yet amazingly the side managed to win the championship in 1951 and the Challenge Cup in 1952. Of course, he played in both matches, the latter at the age of forty-one.
But perhaps his greatest achievements took place in the test match arena. Gus had been surprise selection for the 1932 Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand, winning out over Jim Brough as the reserve full back to Jim Sullivan. He got his chance to play in the third and deciding test in the cauldron of Sydney’s SCG. The side won 18-13 to take the Ashes. His international career had begun on a high note and was to get even better. He played in twelve Ashes test matches, was captain in seven and, as Robert Gate points out in his wonderful essay in Gone North, was never dropped from the test side. He played stand-off, centre and full back and tasted defeat just once, in the last match of the 1937 Kangaroo tour after Britain had wrapped up the series by winning the first two tests. He also played in five test matches against New Zealand and won eighteen caps for Wales.
The highlight of this amazing career was his captaincy of the 1946 Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand. In 1945 he had told the Australian league journalist W.F. Corbett that he was ‘too long in the tooth now’ to undertake another tour, but clearly the prospect of one last crack against the Australians was too much to miss. Much has been written about how the 1946 Lions had to make their way to Australia on an aircraft carrier, the HMS Indomitable and then had spend days on a train crossing the Nullaboor Plain. But what is often forgotten is the deprivations that the players had to endure before they even left for Australia. The RFL issued each player with a trunk to carry their belongings down under with them, yet Gus, and probably the rest of the side too, had trouble filling it. The war had ended yet rationing was still in operation. Clothing could only be bought if one had the right coupons, and that included sports equipment.
‘I have found it difficult to obtain sufficient clothing for the trip,’ Gus told the Daily Despatch shortly before the tourists left. ‘I shall travel in my demob suit [the suit issued to each soldier when they left the army]. My football boots have been patched so often that their are now more patches than the original leather on the uppers.’ His wife described to the reporter how ‘it has been an awful job. I have patched and darned so that Gus could save his coupons for the tour but we have barely managed to scrape through.’ When the tourists finally arrived in Australia they found themselves showered with gifts, including food parcels to send home to their families. One of Gus’s regular duties as captain during the Lions’ visits to the country towns of New South Wales and Queensland was to receive a symbolic food parcel of local produce that would be sent to Britain as part of Australia’s support for what they still saw as the ‘Mother Country’ as it recovered from the war.
On the field, the 1946 tour was as fierce and competitive as anything that had gone before. On 17 June Gus led the side out on to the Sydney Cricket Ground just as he had done almost ten years previously. A twelve-man Britain held the Australians to an 8-8 draw, after Bradford’s Jack Kitching had been sent off for allegedly punching Australian captain Joe Jorgensen. In the key matches, Gus was regularly singled out for praise by the press. In the match against NSW in Sydney, Truth reported that he ‘showed what a fine player he is... Cool and calm, he collected the ball at will and found the open spaces with well- judged kicks. We had no counter.’
In the second test at Brisbane, which Britain won 14-5, W.F. Corbett singled him out for his ‘heady deeds’. For the third test, the teams returned to the SCG where the Australians found themselves overwhelmed 20-7. One of Australia’s major problems in the last two tests was the failure of their centres to make any progress against the British combination of Risman and Bradford’s Ernest Ward. It is worth remembering that Gus had celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday shortly before the side left for Australia. When he returned almost six months later, it was as captain of the only British side ever to go through an Ashes series undefeated.
The curtain finally came down on this unprecedented career in 1954. Gus left Workington at the end of the 1953-54 season after a dispute with the club’s directors and played for a few months for Batley before finally retiring in December 1954. He was 43 years, 279 days old. He had played 873 first-class rugby league matches. He had kicked 1,678 goals and scored 232 tries. No-one even knows how many appearances or points he scored in war- time rugby union.
Following his retirement, he looked certain to become one of the game’s great coaches. But it was not to be. Eddie Waring in his warm and generous tribute to Gus in The Great Ones described how he too thought that Risman would be ‘a natural as a manager, but he was unable to click as he done as a player-manager’. Perhaps it was his very longevity as a player that made it difficult for him to connect with players when he could no longer lead by example. His stints at Salford, Bradford and Oldham were sadly undistinguished.
At Oldham, where he had a short stint as manager in the late 1950s, it seems that players found him aloof. Whether this was a generational gap or the problem of the prodigiously gifted player trying to instruct those who were less talented is unclear. Sadly, as a manager he was never able to develop the rapport with players which he had when he played. Unlike his great rival Jim Sullivan he was never to become the great coach that everyone in the game expected him to be.Maybe having the equivalent of three great careers was enough for one mortal.
In 1938 he had written How To Play Rugby League Football, the first book about the game ever to be produced by a national publisher. It was part of a series of instructional books that included England cricketer and Arsenal footballer Denis Compton on How To Play Association Football, Jack Hobbs on The Game of Cricket, James Hartley on How To Play Bowls Scientifically, and many others. In contrast to the huge numbers of books about soccer and rugby union, it took almost fifty years for a publisher to recognise the interest in rugby league. Even Harold Wagstaff’s autobiography was only published in weekly parts in a local newspaper. It was to be another two decades before another league book found a national publisher.
The fact that the next book was Gus's autobiography was testimony to his longevity and standing in the game. Rugby Renegade appeared in 1958 as part of the publisher Stanley Paul’s burgeoning line of sports books. It was ghost-written by the soccer commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme - later to find fame as the man who exclaimed ‘some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now,’ when England won the world cup in 1966 - who as a school-boy in Bolton had seen Gus play in the 1930s. Although we do not have any sales figures, it must have been enough of a success for Stanley Paul to publish Lewis Jones’ King of Rugger later in the same year.
Rugby Renegade is a fascinating book. Most sporting biographies, then as much as now, are usually straightforward narratives of the highs and lows of the athlete’s career. But Gus’s book is remarkably modest and tends to gloss over many of the highlights of his playing career. It’s difficult to get a sense of his towering reputation from reading the book. Perhaps this is due in part to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s lack of appreciation of Gus’s greatness and standing in the game. But it is also because the book, in true rugby league fashion, is also about the politics of rugby and most of its chapters are actually about controversies in the game, whether it is rugby union hypocrisy or why the cup final should be played at Wembley. This is one of the reasons why the book is so interesting. Gus is not bland and uncontroversial, as books of this nature often are, but determined to get his point over about what he feels is best for the game.
But there are also some wonderful moments of insight. Gus’s description of the moment in the second half of the 1951 Championship Final when he realised that Workington had beaten Warrington (‘it nearly made me swoon’) or his memories of returning to Cumberland with the cup in 1950 are striking insights. He also proves to be something of a prophet, predicting the emergence of a BBC2 Floodlit Trophy style competition and the move to two divisions. Twenty-first century readers reading the book for the first time may also experience a sense of deja vu.He debates whether the BBC are guilty of not giving the sport the publicity it deserves. And his assessment of the differences between league and union - ‘league is a faster game, a much more intense and open game’ - is one which has stood the test of time.
Reading Rugby Renegade one gets a sense that Gus took to rugby league so quickly as a teenager because it suited his temperament. He felt like an outsider, having been born to immigrant parents and brought up in the multi-racial melting pot of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. Interestingly, he attacks rugby union’s treatment of rugby league as the equivalent of the ‘colour bar’, as discrimination against non-white people was known in 1950s Britain. The book’s title is as much an affirmation of who he was as much as it was a description of his status. And like all those who are proud to be rugby league people, he turns the accusation that he is a renegade around to argue that it is not he who is in the wrong, but ‘those who have insisted that that there should be two organisations’ who are the real renegades, fostering intolerance and bitterness.
How did Gus compare to other truly great players? In 1988 he was one of the inaugural nine players to be inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame. Like Harold Wagstaff, Jim Sullivan, Brian Bevan and Alex Murphy, he would have been an automatic choice. In terms of games played and points scored, his record, to use the cliche, really did speak for itself. But changes in the way the game is played make comparisons between different generations almost impossible. But in the 1930s there was really only one player who could be compared to Gus and that was Wigan’s Jim Sullivan.
Gus and Jim were the binary stars of rugby league in their era, Although Sullivan was seven years older, they shared similar biographies, both being Welsh full-backs who became rugby league players at seventeen. Until Neil Fox eclipsed Sullivan’s points scoring record, it was Sullivan and Gus who stood at the head of the all-time points scorers records. And while Sullivan played for just under twenty-five years, Gus played for just over a quarter of a century although Sullivan played in more matches.
In the early 1930s it looked like Gus would have a limited international career because of Sullivan’s absolute domination of the full-back position. Whenever Wigan played Salford there was always a bite in the air, as Salford carved a reputation as the Cherry and Whites’ bogey team in the years before the war. It would have been easy for Gus to have been resentful yet it is clear from Rugby Renegade that both held each other in high regard. Their contrasting styles were sufficiently different that neither saw the other as a threat. Sullivan was Rome to Risman’s Greece. Sullivan was aggressive, driven and war-like.
After the 1932 Battle of Brisbane, in which Great Britain were finally beaten by a ten-man Australian team in the bloodiest test match of the interwar period, Sullivan left the field raging at the loss, angrily telling his side after the match that if the game had gone on for five minutes they could have won. His game was based not only on monumental skills but on physical intimidation. No-one who was tackled by Sullivan forgot it. Gus, in contrast, could be tough and uncompromising when necessary, especially in test matches, but played a game based on artistry and creativity. His was a game of the finely-crafted pass, the imperceptible change of pace and the anticipation of an opponent’s mistake. As well as a full-back, Gus was an all-time great centre and stand-off, but Sullivan commanded the full back position like no-one before or since.
When he died at the age of eighty-three in 1994 it was just five days before Great Britain’s twelve-man 8-4 victory over Australia at Wembley. It was somehow appropriate that his death should be followed by an epic Ashes test, just like so many in which he had been involved. But words like epic, monumental and incredible were always a feature of Gus Risman’s career. It is the sheer scale of his achievements in rugby league that allow us to be so definite in our assessment of his genius. No-one will ever play the game for as long. It is very unlikely that anyone will ever score as many points as he did. And the nature of the game is such today that no-one will be able to build two or three separate careers in the way that Gus did. His achievement is singular and will remain so.
Gus Risman was no renegade. He was an athlete, an artist, a visionary and a leader of men.
- - On 14 April I gave this paper at Harvard University's 'Soccer as a Global Phenomenon' conference. It was a genuinely international and interdisciplinary gathering that brought together scholars from around the world. Below is that paper I gave, which is based on a larger forthcoming piece of research about the global expansion of football of all codes in the late Nineteenth Century.
How and why did soccer become the global game? There have been numerous studies of soccer as an existing globalized sport but very little exploration of the historical roots of how soccer actually globalized. The game path to globalisation has invariably been portrayed as a smooth and seamless rise from its origins in mid-nineteenth century England to today’s undisputed ‘world game’. Yet this unproblematic view of soccer history ignores the complex early history of the sport and particularly the struggle for football hegemony between the Association and Rugby football games in Victorian England.
This paper will suggest that soccer only became the global game we know today due to two crucial factors: its successful long struggle against the rugby code, and its adoption of professionalism in 1885. These two processes allowed soccer to eclipse rugby’s early Anglophone-centric partial globalisation and enabled it to transcend the control of its British originators, creating a sport that had a modern, meritocratic appeal to the non-English-speaking middle classes of Europe and South America.
The ‘beautiful game’ in the eye of the beholder
Today, most historians of soccer attribute its expansion around the world to what they believe to be its intrinsic qualities as ‘the beautiful game’. David Goldblatt, in his global history of football The Ball is Round, argues that 'football... offers a game in which individual brilliance and collective organisation are equally featured. ... The game's balance of physicality and artistry, of instantaneous reaction and complex considered tactics, is also rare’.
These observations may well ring true for aficionados of soccer, but supporters of other types of football also argue similar things for their sports. The aesthetics of sport, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.
More important for scholarly debate, such reasoning is ahistorical. It ignores the fact the it was rugby and not soccer which was initially the more popular sport in Victorian Britain. It fails to appreciate that up until the 1880s, the differences between the association and rugby codes of football were neither as clear nor as distinctive as they are today. And it also sidesteps the fact that rugby-type football remains, in significant regions of the world, more popular than soccer. Even if one accepts that the aesthetic argument is correct in our contemporary world, it cannot explain the historical reasons for soccer’s eclipse of rugby in the nineteenth century.
I want to suggest that explanations of soccer’s globalisation that are based on what are perceived to be its intrinsic qualities cannot provide an adequate historical explanation of the complex forces that enabled soccer to eclipse other forms of football to become the world game we know today. Instead, it argues that it was the English Football Association’s acceptance of professionalism is 1885 that laid the basis for it to overtake rugby in popularity and for its subsequent development as a mass spectator sport in Europe, South America and eventually the rest of the world.
Rugby’s early ‘globalisation’
If the global expansion of soccer was not due to its perceived intrinsic merits, what did propel it around the world? By looking at the question in its broad historical context, we are led to a number of interesting questions regrading the relationship between soccer and other codes of football.
The first of these is the fact that until the mid-1880s, rugby was the more popular code of football in Britain. The formation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863 was a messy and incoherent affair. Indeed, given that the aim of those who sought to form an association was to create a unified set of rules to enable all adult football clubs to play each other, the process could be seen as a failure.
By 1880 rugby’s popularity among the industrial workers in northern England and south Wales had begun to change perceptions of the class composition of the two codes’ support. As The Field explained in January 1884, that ‘it is quite possible that the lower classes prefer watching a Rugby Union game, but that the Association rules find more favour in the eyes of the middle and upper classes is made amply evident by the crowds of respectable people that assemble [for major soccer matches] even in apathetic London’.
The popularity of rugby over soccer at this time should not be surprising. Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the 1857 novel about life at Rugby School by former pupil Thomas Hughes, had become a huge best-seller in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world. At the heart of the book was a thrilling description of the Rugby School version of football and as the influence of Muscular Christianity spread in the mid-nineteenth century, so too did rugby, the sport most associated with it.
Thanks to the cultural importance of Muscular Christianity to the British Empire, rugby soon become the hegemonic code of football in the ‘White Dominions’ of the British Empire. Even the distinctive form of football played in the Australian colony of Victoria, which became known as Australian rules football, was originally based on Rugby School’s rules. The Southern Rugby Union was formed in Australia in 1874. Matches between Australia and New Zealand sides began in 1884 and rugby tours to and from the British Isles started in 1888. The first British tour to South Africa took place in 1891. The Canadian Rugby Football Union was founded in 1882 and led the move from Rugby rules to a distinctively Canadian code of football.
Tom Brown was also best-seller in the United States and became the model for football in U.S. colleges. In November 1872 the New York World reprinted the book’s famous description of a football match as part of its coverage of the first-ever Yale-Columbia game. Teddy Roosevelt went so far as to assert that Tom Brown’s Schooldays was one of two books that every American boy should read. The Intercollegiate Football Association adopted the rules of the RFU with minor changes in 1876, and these laid the basis for the evolution of American football in the 1880s and beyond.
It is therefore the case that in the 1870s and 1880s rugby and its derivatives established itself as the dominant winter game in the English-speaking world due to the tremendous social and cultural cachet of rugby’s links with Muscular Christianity, particularly as popularised through Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The argument that soccer’s failure to become the major winter game of the United States can be attributed to ‘American Exceptionalism’, as argued most cogently by Andre Markovits and Steven Hellerman in their Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, misunderstands how the international balance of forces between the football codes shifted in the early twentieth century. Far from America being ‘exceptional’ in its embrace of rugby-style football over soccer, it was conforming to the pattern of adoption of sport in the English-speaking world in the late nineteenth century.
In contrast, soccer had a much weaker international profile and cultural network at that time. It did not provide the same self-confident moral ideology for the Anglophone middle classes for whom rugby was an educational force. By the time that it had developed a strong international ideological profile in the early twentieth century, rugby-derived games were unchallenged as the winter sport of the English-speaking world (with the exception of much of England and Scotland which were dominated by professional soccer). This can be seen in the dates of the formation of governing bodies for the football codes. Outside of the British Isles, only Denmark and the Netherlands had created governing bodies for soccer before 1890.
Yet in the same period governing bodies for rugby had been established in the British ‘Home’ nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as for the rugby-style codes in Australia and the United States. And, unlike soccer, international rugby matches were regularlyplayed across the hemispheres. By the end of the nineteenth century rugby and its derivatives had become the global game of the English-speaking world.
Professionalism in soccer and rugby
Soccer’s profile had begun to grow in the late 1870s when the F.A. Cup, which had started in 1871, became popular. In the industrial heartlands of Britain, both rugby and soccer began to evolve into commercial entertainment businesses during this period. Rumours spread that working-class players were being paid to play. In soccer, concern over payments to players came to a head in 1884, when Preston North End played Upton Park, a London club of middle-class ‘gentlemen’ in the FA Cup. The match was drawn but the Londoners protested to the FA that Preston had used professional players. Preston maintained that they had done nothing wrong and, supported by forty other clubs in the north and midlands, threatened to form a breakaway ‘British Football Association’. Faced with a potentially disastrous cleavage, the FA decided to compromise and in January 1885 voted to legalise professionalism. Although it could not be appreciated at the time, this decision would transform soccer.
The consequences of soccer’s move to open professionalism had a crucial impact on its rugby rival. Rugby was engaged in exactly the same debate about payments to players in the industrial regions of England and Wales, and the RFU was becoming increasingly alarmed that working-class players and spectators were driving out the middle classes.
So in October 1886 the RFU declared rugby to be an amateur sport, banning professionalism and outlawing all forms of payment, monetary or otherwise. The explicit aim was to curtail the influence of working-class players. The impetus for this draconian measure came in large part in reaction to soccer’s legalisation of professionalism, as was made clear by another future RFU president, Arthur Budd:
Only six months after the legitimisation of the bastard [of professionalism] we see two professional teams left to fight out the final [FA] cup tie. To what does this all end? Why this - gentlemen who play football once a week as a pastime will find themselves no match for men who give up their whole time and abilities to it.
He was correct in his prediction. Teams of working-class professional soccer players quickly eclipsed middle-class clubs such as the Royal Engineers and Old Etonians, with whom the leaders of rugby union closely identified. After 1883, no team composed of middle-class ‘gentlemen’ ever again reached the final of the F.A. Cup.
But the adoption of amateurism did not settle the issue of increasing working-class domination of rugby. Instead, it led to the outbreak of a civil war between the RFU and the predominantly working-class clubs in the industrial north of England that believed players should be entitled to ‘broken-time’ payments to compensate for time taken off work to play the game. In 1895 the conflict came to a head when the leading northern clubs, followed by the majority of other clubs in the region, broke away from the RFU and formed the Northern Rugby Football Union, which soon established a completely new form of the sport that became known as rugby league. The league version followed in soccer’s footsteps and allowed professionalism, but the union game cherished its exclusivity and rigorously defended the amateur ethos for another one hundred years until it abandoned its amateur principles in 1995.
Rugby’s civil war had left it exhausted - and soccer was the winner. Little more than a decade after rugby’s 1895 split the FA had over 7,500 affiliated clubs, roughly fifteen times the number of rugby clubs playing under either of rugby’s two tattered banners. Rugby could no longer counter the appeal of soccer, and public perceptions of rugby as a fractured sport at war with itself did nothing to help it win new supporters or players. By 1900, the balance of power between the two football codes was the opposite of what it had been in 1870.
Professionalism and sporting modernity
What impact did soccer’s legalisation of professionalism and its eclipse of rugby have on its international development?
The legalisation of professionalism decisively tilted the balance of power in soccer in favour of clubs composed of working-class professionals and organised on commercial lines. It opened the way for the widespread acceptance of league competitions throughout the game. In 1888 the Football League was formed, comprising the top northern and midlands professional sides. Within half a decade, almost every soccer club in Britain was part of a league competition.
Professionalism and the league system gave soccer the appearance of being a meritocracy. It could now claim to be a ‘career open to talents’, regardless of the social or educational background of the player. The introduction of leagues also meant that teams could be assessed objectively on the basis of their playing record rather than their social status.
Soccer therefore began to move towards a system of formal and objective regulation. This was in sharp contrast to amateurism’s informal social networks that were central to British middle-class male culture, in which the selection of players and the choice of opponents was often based on social status. Amateurism and the ‘code of the gentleman’ placed the informal understanding of the rules above their formal application, favouring the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Amateurism therefore privileged the insider who understood implicit unwritten conventions over the outsider whose understanding was based on the explicit written rules.
But in soccer, the opposite was now true. Professionalism brought continuous competition, precise measurement and the supplanting of personal relationships by the exigencies of the commercial market.
The leaders of professional soccer saw themselves as bringing the principles of science to the playing and organising of sport, as much as they did to their businesses. Their enthusiasm for cup and league competitions, and for the fullest competition between players and teams, reflected their belief that opportunities that should be available to them, free from social restrictions imposed from above. This conception of sport as an expression of the modern industrial meritocratic world, in which advancement was based on talent and skill, would be critical in making soccer so appealing to the world beyond Britain and its empire.
Professionalism meant that an external, objective set of rules for the governance of the game developed. Soccer was no longer based on social status and networks, but ultimately controlled by rules that were independent of whoever led the sport. Soccer’s relationship to Britain was now a conditional one.
Thus the men who formed FIFA in Paris in 1904 did not need the FA or the Football League for their legitimacy - soccer existed independently of its British administrators and British officials could do nothing to prevent FIFA’s formation. Moreover, the intense parochialism, and huge success, of British soccer meant that its leaders were largely uninterested in the spread of the game to Europe and therefore indifferent to the formation of FIFA or its work. The road was clear for soccer to become part of non-British and non-English-speaking cultures.
Soccer as a symbol of global modernity
The young men who took up soccer in Europe and South America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were drawn largely from the technical and managerial middle classes, sharing similar backgrounds with British tradesmen, businessmen and engineers who established many of the first clubs outside of Britain.As Chris Young has described the situation in Germany, soccer found its most important constituency among ‘technicians, engineers, salesmen, teachers and journalists, who had previously found their personal and professional advancement blocked for lack of the right certificate or university examination’.This desire for a ‘career open to talent’ was precisely what soccer’s open structure offered, in contrast to amateur sports such as rugby union.
Almost all of those who founded soccer clubs outside of the English-speaking world had Anglophile sympathies, but their Anglophilia was part of a wider cosmopolitanism, as Pierre Lanfranchi has noted. Their admiration was for what they saw as liberal, modern capitalist values of the British legal and political system. This was the Anglophilia of Voltaire, who believed that Britain represented a modern liberal future, rather than the conservative Anglophilia of Baron de Coubertin, who admired the tradition and hierarchy of Britain (and was also a keen supporter of rugby and amateurism).
Residual controversy about soccer’s relationship to amateurism continued into the 1920s as the game in Europe and South America replicated the pattern of late-Victorian Britain and became a commercial mass spectator sport. Even though a number of national soccer associations remained nominally amateur until after World War Two - for example, West Germany’s Deutscher Fussball Bund did not officially recognise professionalism until 1963 - they never developed the elaborate systems of discipline and punishment that the British built to defend amateur principles.
FIFA self-consciously promoted a universalist philosophy for soccer. Five weeks before the outbreak of World War One, FIFA’s eleventh annual congress pledged itself to ‘support any action aiming to bring nations closer to each other and to substitute arbitration for violence’. In 1929 FIFA president Jules Rimet lauded soccer as an alternative to war, arguing that the game turned war-like emotions ‘into peaceful jousting in stadiums where their original violence is subject to the discipline of the game, fair and honest’. This sharply conflicted with prevailing attitudes to sport in Britain, whose soccer organisations left FIFA in 1920 in protest over its plans to arrange matches with teams from the central European nations defeated in World War One.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of how soccer’s modernist universalism triumphed over its British origins can be seen in Argentina. Argentinian soccer history has been without exception portrayed as a seamless story of upward progression after its introduction to the country by the British. But soccer became a mass spectator sport in Argentina only when it slipped out of the control of the local British community, which then embraced rugby as its premier sport.
In the 1890s, rugby and soccer were of equal status and popularity in Argentina. Its first soccer league began in 1891, and its championship was won seven times in the first decade by clubs that also played rugby.
As was the case elsewhere, British sport came to Argentina as part of the Victorian enthusiasm for Muscular Christianity. In 1882 Alexander Watson Hutton, who would become known as the ‘father of Argentinian football’, introduced football to South America’s oldest English school, St. Andrew's Scots School in Buenos Aires. But the catalyst for the rapid expansion of sport and especially soccer did not come from the English-speaking community but was a result of the 1898 Argentinian Ministry of Justice and Public Instruction decree that all schools, public or private, had to teach physical education and establish sports clubs for past and present pupils. Hundreds of clubs were formed in response and the sport began to be taken up by working-class Argentines, especially immigrants from Italy.
However, despite its status and high profile in Argentina, rugby did not participate in this transition to mass spectator sport. As working-class Argentinians and other non-British immigrants took up soccer, English-speaking sports clubs that played both games abandoned soccer in favour of rugby union’s amateur exclusivity. Even Alexander Watson Hutton’s son, Arnaldo, became a prominent rugby player. Rugby became a haven for those who wished to stay aloof from popular sport.
The same process of rugby union consciously choosing exclusivity over popularity can also be seen in Brazil. There, the rugby game was confined to elite social strata even more than in Argentina. Its major stronghold was the São Paulo Athletic Club, the club that was introduced to soccer by another ‘father of football’, Charles Miller. As in Argentina, the popularity of soccer among the masses proved to be unpalatable for the British-educated elite that ran the club and, despite winning São Paulo’s soccer championship in the first three years of its existence, it severed its soccer link in 1912 to focus on rugby.
The experience of Argentina and Brazil therefore suggests that, although football was introduced to South America by the British, they were not responsible for popularising it. Those who established soccer as the national sport of their respective countries were young men of the professional middle classes who were attracted to the modernity and openness of the sport.
This explanation of the complex rise of soccer outside of British influence dovetails with the recent work of South American historian Matthew Brown, who argues that British involvement in popularising soccer is overstated and, pointing to the cases of Peru, Colombia and Chile, that in many South American countries the game was introduced and popularised by young men from local elites. Their attraction to soccer was not its British links but the fact that it represented a modernity based on ‘commerce and aspirational lifestyles’ and their promotion of the game was not based on a relationship with Britain. Just as Christiane Eisenberg has pointed out in Germany, football for these Spanish-speaking young men ‘football was an indicator of their receptiveness to new things, in particular to economic modernity’.
The overwhelming global popularity of soccer today can have a distorting effect on our understanding of the historical process by which it achieved this position. Our familiarity with the game can lead to assumptions about its ‘naturalness’ or popularity that were not held by people at the time of its decisive development in the late nineteenth century. Hindsight can mistakenly allow us to imagine that sports were played or appreciated in the same way as they are today. Studying the history of ‘football’ as a generic category that includes all forms of the sport, can provide a much more rounded insight into the development of individual codes than can be found be studying each one individually.
This paper has therefore sought to put the development of soccer into the broader context of ‘football’ development in nineteenth century Britain and the wider world. Its underlying argument is that there was nothing inevitable or automatic about soccer’s rise to globalism. Its ascension to become the world’s most popular sport was not an unimpeded arc of progress. It was based on the defeat of its rugby rival and the eclipse of soccer’s British leaders by European and South American administrators - and both of these could not have been possible without soccer’s adoption of professionalism in 1885, which provided the basis for the meritocratic and modern outlook that would free the sport from the suffocating grip of British Muscular Christianity.
In short, soccer’s globalization required the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon attitudes upon which it was founded.
A common assumption about Australian Rules is that it was started as an alternative to football as played in Britain – but in fact the culture of the sport was created entirely within a British, Muscular Christian framework. Thus the motto on the masthead of the house organ of the Victorian Football League (VFL), the Football Record, first published in 1912, was the unashamedly British 'Fair Play is Bonnie Play'. Nor, despite the significant Irish presence in Victoria, was the VFL the slightest bit hesitant in its monarchism. ‘It is the law of the game that there must be matches on the day when all the English-speaking world is celebrating the anniversary of the birthday of our King,’ the Football Record informed its readers in June 1914.(1) In Sydney, where the sport was not strong, the New South Wales Football League published in the early 1900s a guide to the sport titled The Australian Game that described football as being ‘the British boy’s training’.(2)
These sentiments were not merely for public consumption. Internally, the leadership of Australian Rules resorted to British values and principles in organisational debates. Thus, when in 1911 a dispute broke out between the South Australian National Football League and the Australasian Football Council, Charles Brownlow of the AFC defended his position by saying that ‘it was only British fair play to hear both sides of the question’.(3)
Of course, the sport promoted itself as uniquely Australian, not least when contrasting itself to other codes of football. But this was not counterposed to being British. Like cricket in Yorkshire or rugby union in Cornwall, the promotion of a strong regional identity that thought itself superior to the metropolitan centre did not threaten, nor did it seek to threaten, its essential underlying Britishness. This can be seen in the famous address by Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin to the Australian Rules’ 1908 Silver Jubilee carnival, in which he stated that ‘the game is Australian in its origin, Australian in its principle, and, I venture to say, essentially of Australian development. It and every expression of the sporting spirit go to make that manhood which is competent for a nation's tasks.’
This statement is often interpreted by Australian historians as a clear expression of a distinct Australian national sporting identity. But in fact the speech was an example of the widespread use across the British Empire of sport as an auxiliary to the growing martial patriotism that had emerged since the Anglo-South African war and was to become increasingly shrill in the years leading to 1914. Not only did Deakin quote Newbolt’s British militaristic poem Vitai Lampada, the final sentence of his speech made it clear that the ‘nation’s tasks’ were preparation for Britain’s future wars:
And when the tocsin sounds the call to arms, not the last, but the first to acknowledge it will be those who have played, and played well, the Australasian game of football before they play the Australian game of nation-making and nation-preserving to stand by the old land.(4) [my emphasis]
Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of World War One saw the leadership of Australian Rules follow the lead of football organisations in Britain. As in Britain, defenders of amateur sport sought to stop all professional sport from taking place while the so-called ‘greater game’ was taking place. In Victoria, the chief proponents of this view could be found in the Metropolitan Amateur Football Association (MAFA). Its president L.A. Adamson declared in 1914 that Victorian Football League (VFL) players who continued to play during the war should receive the Iron Cross instead of a premiership winner’s medal for their service to the German cause.
In 1915 the VFL’s rivals in the Victorian Football Association (VFA) voted to stop playing for the duration of the war. The VFL itself split down the middle. In 1915 it voted narrowly to stop playing but the season continued because its constitution required a majority of three-quarters for binding decisions. In 1916 only four VFL clubs took to the field, a number that increased to six in 1917. Both sides of the debate looked to Britain for justification. The MAFA pointed to the actions of the Rugby Football Union in canceling all rugby for the duration of the war.(5) Those in the VFL who sought to carry on used the example of soccer in England and Scotland. South Melbourne official L. Thompson explained 'they did not put off football playing in England’, while an editorial in the Football Record commented:
I saw by the cable messages the other day that in Scotland they were going about business as usual, and had given out that their sporting affairs would go on too, notwithstanding the war. Consequently I see no good reason why the same sort of confidence in regard to the ultimate issue of the greatest war in history should not be expressed in Melbourne.(6)
The appeal to Britishness was repeated in World War Two, Writing in the VFL's 1941 annual report, its secretary L. H. McBrien wrote that ‘the history of the British race is replete with evidence of the value of sport to prepare men for the fighting front’.(7)
The umbilical cord to Britain and its imperial trappings proved difficult for the sport to sever. As late as 1970 the Melbourne Herald Sun published a guide to the 1970 VFL season entitled Football ’70: the Royal Year, the first five pages of which consisted of photographs of the Queen and her family. Perhaps most telling is the fact that ‘God Save The Queen’ was still being sung at the VFL Grand Final in 1980, despite the fact that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ had become the official Australian national anthem (at least on non-regal occasions) in 1974.(8)
The only example of an anti-British political opposition in Australian Rules is that of J.J. Simons, secretary of the Western Australia Football League in the decade before World War One and founder of the quasi-militaristic Young Australia League. Simons promoted the Rules game over what he saw as ‘British’ soccer, not least because of his racist suspicion that the British government favoured unrestricted Chinese immigration that would undermine white Australia. Australia Junior, the magazine of of the Young Australia League, featured racist cartoons of Chinese people to highlight to its young readers the supposed threat to Anglo-Saxon Australia. Even this opposition was based on racial fears commonly held across the British Empire and reflected in many ways what Humphrey McQueen described as the desire of many emigrants Down Under to create a ‘New Britannia’.(9) And sadly, as we have seen, racism in Australian Rules was not confined to such fringe activists of the sport. An editorial in the Football Record in 1912 congratulated players for their performances in recent games with the words ‘the work was high class. No Chinese factory stamp on it. Pure White Australian’.(10)
But in general it appears that it wasn’t until the 1960s that the idea that Australian Rules football represented an overt cultural alternative to Britain became commonly accepted. Westminster’s abrupt shift in its relationship with Australia - exemplified by Britain’s undermining of the economic link with Australia in favour of the European Common Market and the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act’s restrictions on Australian visitors to the UK - forced Australians to rethink their relationship with the culture of the ‘Mother Country’. This was reflected strongly in sport. In both rugby league and cricket, Australian attitudes moved from a rivalry underpinned by an ultimate deference to a distrust that bordered on hostility.(11)
Although Australian Rules football had no direct link to British sports, something of this changing relationship can be seen in its attempts to build an alliance with the Gaelic Athletic Association and its abandonment of ‘God Save the Queen’ on the 1967 tour of Ireland. Indeed, without cricket and rugby league’s heritage of colonial tours, it was much easier for Australian Rules to be seen as a symbol of the spirit of independence that was now abroad. Today, the AFL’s continual focus on the heritage of the sport, real or imagined, is a conscious part of its strategy to portray itself as the uniquely Australian national sport.
Conclusion - the invention of sporting tradition
As in all historical disputes, the debate over the origins of Australian football raises a number of historiographical questions.
The first of these is the extent to which historians accept the assumed traditions of a sport. Those who take the a priori viewpoint that the sport’s origins are uniquely Australian naturally look for points of difference with those football codes based in Britain. Thus evidence of the similarity between the various types of football, such as the widespread use of the mark - is overlooked or dismissed. The differences that are taken as the point of departure are largely drawn from football as it played today, not in the 1850s and 1860s. Thus commonplace assumptions are taken as self-evident and historical research starts from these premises, rather than beginning with an interrogation of them.
Moreover, because differences are automatically assumed, there is little rigor applied to the logic by which those differences are affirmed. Thus Australian Rules is seen both as an older form of football than those in Britain - Bill Murray describes it as ‘the code of football that is closest to nature, the game of the noble savage‘ - and as a new sport that reflects the modernity of its birthplace, Melbourne - Rob Pascoe believes that it ‘reflects the liberal social democratic milieu in which it was formed’.(12)
Other examples of one-sided logic can also be seen, such as the claim that the use of cricket ovals for Australian Rules football matches demonstrates the unique abundance of space in Australia. Yet it could also be argued that this shared use of pitches far, from highlighting an abundance of space, could be taken to suggest restricted space for sport, forcing cricket and football to share the same playing space in a way that was almost unheard of in Britain.
This is related to the second problem, that of hindsight. By assuming that the configuration of the football codes in their formative years is essentially the same as exists today, non-contextual or ahistorical meanings and significance can be ascribed to events or actors. Thus the phrase ‘a game of our own’, which was unexceptional in the football context of 1860, now assumes the importance of ‘a radical proclamation’ from the perspective of modern Australian nationalism.(13) By looking the wrong way through the telescope of history, those facts that confirm the beliefs of today will be highlighted and those details that do not will appear to be inconsequential.
It is instructive to examine a British colonial football code that did not survive. In Cape Town, South Africa, a unique set of football rules developed in the 1860s and 1870s based on a variation on Winchester College rules. Known locally as ‘Gog’s Game’, after the nickname of Canon George Ogilvie, the headmaster of Cape Town’s Diocesan Collegiate School where it originated, it was codified in 1873. By 1876 the Cape Times could refer to it as the ‘well-known game which has grown up in the colony ... its principles are generally understood by young South Africa’.(14) It was only in 1879 that the local game began to be eclipsed by rugby.
Yet the South African rules of football were not an expression of English-speaking South African nationalism, but simply an attempt to find the most pleasing way to play a game of football. Yet the logic underlying the assumptions of Australian Rules’ historians should lead them to suggest that Gog’s Game was a nascent nationalist project that reflected the character and particularities of the local population.
This also raises a third methodological issue, that of comparative perspective. Because the creation and sustenance of invented tradition is based on the claim of an individual sport to be unique and exceptional, origin stories exclude meaningful comparisons with other sports. Indeed, for Australian Rules the British football codes as the ‘other’ against which is defines its origins. Yet without a comparative perspective, any research into the history of football, of whatever code, becomes a form of tunnel vision that can only confirm the premise from which one started.
But, of course, this is not simply a debate about historical evidence or research methodology. Invented traditions also play an important commercial role in the business of sport. Rugby union’s world cup is fought for the Webb Ellis trophy. Well-heeled spectators at Twickenham can enjoy luxury corporate hospitality in the stadium’s exclusive ‘Webb Ellis Suite’. Visitors to Cooperstown can stay in Doubleday inspired hotel suites, visit the Doubleday exhibit in the Hall of Fame and watch a game at Abner Doubleday Field.(15) Heritage is now part of the ‘revenue stream’ of all commercial sporting organisations. Presenting a complex and often uncomfortable view of the past that challenges existing and perhaps cherished notions of sporting history is rarely compatible with ‘revenue-generating’ schemes.
So while the AFL’s campaigns since the 1990s to stamp out racial vilification in the sport are highly laudable, its use of heritage for commercial and public relations purposes is no different from any other sporting body. Martin Flanagan’s seemingly rhetorical yet actually plaintive question - that if the Wills/Marn Grook story is wrong, ‘the AFL has got no more claim to having a connection with indigenous culture than rugby union does and so all these big games it has like the Marn Grook Trophy and 'Dreamtime at the G', what are they? Are they just marketing exercises?’ - has to be answered largely in the affirmative.(16)
Commercial exigency today plays a major role in the shaping of sporting history and heritage. The re-fashioning and even the falsification of history for commercial, publicity or political reasons is just as likely in sport as it is in politics or any other activity. Indeed, the shallow reach and narrow focus of much of the current historical research into sport means that this tendency faces little challenge when its misapprehensions enter the public arena, as was the case with the Australian Rules ‘football history wars’ in 2008.
In many ways, this is only to be expected. The contemporary importance of sport to national identity increases the power of the invented traditions of sport. As we have seen in the case of Australian Rules football, the stories that are re-woven from the historical fabric of sport are not merely narratives about sport, but are projections of how Australian nationalists today want to perceive themselves and their history. As Hobsbawm commented about to the invented traditions of the USA, they became important because ‘Americans had to be made’.(17)
And so too did Australians in the final third of the twentieth century as the umbilical link with ‘Mother’ Britain was cut. Just as the culture of ‘football’ in the mid-nineteenth century offered supporters of the British Empire, whether at ‘home’ or in the colonies, the reassurance of the superiority of British male, today each football code provides comfort to and confirmation of its ideology and values to its supporters. In the constant reinvention and revitalisation of national identity, sport occupies a central position.
And that means that if, in Ernest Renan’s words, getting its history wrong is part of being a nation, so too is inventing its history a part of every sport’s culture and function.
1 - Football Record, vol. 1, no. 1, 27 April, 1912 and vol. 3, no. 9, 13 June, 1914
2 - NSWFL, The Australian Game, Sydney, undated, unpaginated, in the E.S. Marks Collection at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, shelfmark 728.
3 - Australasian Football Council, minutes of meeting August 1911, p. 81.
4 - Deakin’s speech of 28 August 1908 is reprinted in full in Richard Cashman, John O'Hara and Andrew Honey (eds), Sport, Federation, Nation, Sydney, 2001, p. 111-3. For similar sentiments expressed by British rugby union writers in the years before 1914, see Tony Collins, ‘English Rugby Union and the First World War’ The Historical Journal, vol. 45, no. 4. (2002) pp. 797-817
5 - Joseph Johnson, For the Love of the Game: the centenary history of the Victorian Amateur Football Association, South Yarra, 1992, p. 50. For the war and Australian Rules in general, see Richard Stremski, Kill For Collingwood, Sydney, 1987, pp.63-5; Dale Blair, ‘War and Peace 1915-1924’ in Hess and Stewart, More Than A Game, ch. 4 and Michael McKernan, ‘Sport, War And Society: Australia 1914-18’ in Richard Cashman and Michael McKernan (eds), Sport in History, Queensland, 1979, pp. 1-20.. For a British perspective see Colin Veitch, 'Play up! Play up! And Win the War!' Football, the Nation and the First World War 1914-15’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 20 (1985) pp. 363-78.
6 - Thompson in Football Record, vol. 4, no. 1, 24 April, 1915 Editorial by ‘Wideawake’, Football Record, vol. 3, no. 20, 29 Aug. 1914.
7 - McBrien quoted in Keith Dunstan, Sports, Melbourne, 1973, p. 184
8 - Australian Football Yearbook 1990, Melbourne, 1990, p. 157. I am grateful to Roy Hay and Dave Nadel for their help and advice on this issue.
9 - see Simons' magazine Australia Junior, vol. 2 (undated, c. 1907) in the J.C. Davis Collection in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.
10 Football Record, vol. 1, no. 5, 25 May 1912.
11 - For a discussion of this change see Tony Collins, ‘Australian Nationalism and Working-Class Britishness: the case of rugby league football’ History Compass, 3 (2005)AU 142, pp. 1-19.
12 - Bill Murray, The World’s Game: A History of Soccer, Aldershot, 1984, p. xiii-iv. Rob Pascoe, The Winter Game, p. xvi.
13 - See Martin Flanagan’s 2001 Alfred Deakin lecture Sport: Touchstone of Australian Life transcribed at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/deakin/stories/s291489.htm, accessed 14.06 31 May, 2008.
14 - Cape Times, 18 July, 1876, quoted in Floris van der Merwe, ‘Gog’s Game: The Predecessor of Rugby Football at the Cape, and the implications thereof’ paper presented to the 35th Conference on Social Science in Sport, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 24-27 August 2006. I am grateful to Prof van der Merwe for providing me with a copy of his paper.
15 - The importance of the Doubleday myth to baseball’s Hall of Fame is described in Vlasich, A legend for the legendary: the origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
16 - Flanagan interviewed on ABC television’s ‘The 7.30 Report’, 22 May 2008, transcript available at http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2007/s2253142.htm, accessed 14.21 on 20 Sept. 2008.
17 - Hobsbawm, ‘Mass Producing Traditions’, p. 271.
The mythology of Australian Rules’ origins highlights a problem that is often encountered in the writing of the history of sport, one not of invented but of assumed traditions. Assumed traditions in the history of football in Australia are accepted by almost all historians who have written on the subject. First and foremost among these historical assumptions is the belief that, to quote Richard Cashman, ‘the invention of new sports and and sports culture is indisputably linked to national pride’.(1) Yet, like an invented tradition, this assumption projects backwards into history current thinking about the role that sport plays today in expressing national and regional identity.
If we look at the context in which football developed in Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century, we find that there is nothing uniquely Australian about the rules of football played in the colony at that time. As Hobsbawm noted, sport was ‘one of the most significant of the new social practices’ of this period for the middle classes as much as the working classes, because ‘it provided a mechanism for bringing together persons of an equivalent social status otherwise lacking organic social or economic links’.(2)
Wills, Thompson and the rest of the Melbourne football pioneers were merely emulating the activities of their equivalents in Britain. ‘Football’ in its generic sense was at this time a cultural expression of British middle-class nationalism. ‘It is the very element of danger in our own out-of-doors sports that calls into action that noble British pluck which led to victory at Agincourt, stormed Quebec and blotted out the first Napoleon at Waterloo,’ wrote one Australian commentator, echoing a widespread belief succinctly expressed by the Yorkshire Post that football was one of ‘those important elements which have done so much to make the Anglo-Saxon race the best soldiers, sailors and colonists in the world’.(3)
In the mid-nineteenth century, all organised or codified forms of football saw themselves as part of this Muscular Christian cult of games. Football was played not merely for recreational enjoyment, but also for a moral purpose. The sport, whatever its rules, was played for the lessons it taught and the examples it set. It was part of the socialisation of young men and boys across the British Empire, and the wider English-speaking world. Muscular Christianity, and the football which based itself on its principles, was an expression of British cultural nationalism. And the colonies of Australia were nothing if not British. Indeed, as the economist and noted Australian Rules historian Lionel Frost has noted, such was the integration of the Australian colonies with the economy and culture of the British Isles that ‘nineteenth century Australia may therefore be thought of as a “suburb of Britain”.’(4)
So it should therefore not be surprising that when we examine those features of early Australian Rules football that are held to be uniquely Australian, we can find their equivalents in the wider Imperial world of football.
To modern eyes, perhaps the most distinctive difference is the lack of an offside rule. For Rob Pascoe this is the first of the ‘basic laws of Australian Rules which distinguish it from Rugby and reflect Melbourne’s different social history’.(5) Attacking players can advance beyond the ball-carrier, and indeed their opponents, at will and without restriction. In contrast, the rugby codes allow no player to advance beyond the ball carrier and even soccer has an offside rule.
But in the primordial soup of football’s early evolution in the 1850s and 1860s, offside rules were fluid and changing. Although the major public school codes of football had rules regulating off-side play, the original rules of the Sheffield Football Club, formed in 1857 (two years before the first Melbourne rules were drawn up), had no offside rule at all until 1863. Sheffield FC was a considerable factor in the early football in England and by 1867 enough clubs played under its rules for it to form the Sheffield Football Association. (6) It should also be noted that Gaelic football and basketball, although both codified after the Melbourne rules (in 1884 and 1891 respectively), did and do not have offside rules, suggesting the possibility that dissatisfaction with offside restrictions was not uniquely Australia.(7)
Australian Rules’ second distinctive feature is the mark. Robin Grow’s belief that ‘if there is one aspect of the Australian game that distinguishes it from all other codes, it is the mark’ is also shared by almost all historians of the sport.(8) But in fact the mark was commonplace across almost all codes. Commonly known as a ‘fair catch’, the rule allowed a player who caught the ball cleanly before it touched the ground to claim a ‘free kick’, the right to kick the ball unimpeded by his opponents. The second edition of C.W. Alcock’s Football Annual in 1868 outlined in some detail the widespread use of this rule:
Catching the Ball
At Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Marlborough, Cheltenham, Uppingham, Charterhouse, Westminster, Haileybury, Shrewsbury [public schools], Football Association, Sheffield Association and Brighton [College], catching is allowed, but at Eton, Rossall and Cambridge the ball must not be touched with the hands.
Privileges obtained by a Catch
At Harrow and Shrewsbury, ‘free kick’ with a run of three yards is allowed. According to the Football Association, Sheffield Association, Charterhouse and Westminster, the ball must be kicked at once. Rugby, Westminster, Marlborough, Cheltenham, Haileybury, Brighton and Uppignham allow running with the ball, on certain conditions. At Winchester a player may run with the ball as long as one of the other side follows him: at Uppingham until he is stopped or held. (9)
The original 1863 rules of the Football Association specified that ‘if a player makes a fair catch he shall be entitled to a free kick, provided he claims it by making a mark with his heel at once’. Even the Cambridge version of the sport originally allowed the ball to be handled, as an 1863 description of one of the first games under Cambridge rules highlights: ‘any player may stop the ball by leaping up, or bending down, with his hands or any part of the body’.(10)
Although its use disappeared from the London and Sheffield Football Associations by the late 1860s, the fair catch was already a major feature of the Rugby game. Indeed, the definition of a fair catch was rule number one in Rugby School’s ‘Football Rules’ of 1845.(11) The 1862 rules of Blackheath F.C., a founding member of not only the Rugby Football Union (RFU) but also of the Football Association, in which it defended the use of Rugby rules, defined a fair catch as
a catch direct from the foot or a knock-on from the hand of one of the opposite side; when the catcher may either run with the ball or make his mark by inserting his heel in the ground on the spot where he catches it, in which case he is entitled to a free kick.(12)
This was essentially the definition adopted by the RFU in its ‘Laws of the Game’ at its foundation in 1871, although the complexity of situations affecting the mark meant that its governance stretched across rules twenty-eight, forty-three, forty-forty, fifty and fifty-one. It was not until 1892 that the RFU rules specified that a mark could only be made by a player catching the ball on the ground, thus outlawing what in Australian Rules would be called a high mark, when the mark is awarded to a player who catches a ball while airborne.(13)
The third distinctive feature of the playing of Australian Rules is the fact that the player in possession of the ball can only run with it if it is bounced or touched on the ground regularly (current rules specify that this must be done at least every fifteen metres, although it was originally ‘five or six yards’).(14) Again this can be found in Gaelic football, although given the limited state of scholarly research into the history of that code it is impossible to assess how much the Irish game was influenced by the Australian.
Nevertheless, bouncing the ball to advance it was not unknown in English codes of football in the 1860s. Indeed, the 1864 rules of football as played at Bramham College, a private school in West Yorkshire, explicitly incorporates this rule. Carrying the ball by hand was not permitted but the college’s football rule fourteen stated that ‘the ball may ‘bounced’ with the hand, and so driven through the opposite side’.(15) It is worth noting that this rule was in use at least two years before it was introduced into the Australian game in 1866. [Since this article was written in 2010 it has come to light that the form of football originally played at Princeton University also insisted on running players bouncing the ball and Australian-style hand-passing – see my 2013 article ‘Unexceptional Exceptionalism’]
Some historians, such as Gillian Hibbins, have found a uniquely Australian aspect in Melbourne footballers’ distaste for ‘hacking’ in the Rugby School game and claimed that the Melburnians’ ban on hacking was ‘the chief decision which was ultimately to give rise to a distinctive Australian football game’. Most famously, J. B. Thompson claimed in 1860 that he and his fellow rule-framers forbade hacking because ‘black eyes don’t look so well in Collins Street [Melbourne’s commercial centre]’.
But again, this concern was also widespread in Britain. The FA outlawed hacking and many rugby-playing clubs also forbade hacking, Rochdale, and Preston Grasshoppers being some of the more prominent sides to do so. The reasons were exactly the same as those expressed by J.B. Thompson. Before the first Lancashire versus Yorkshire rugby match in 1870, the Yorkshire captain Howard Wright sought an assurance that his opponents would not hack, because, echoing Thompson, ‘many of his men were in situations and it would be a serious matter for them if they were laid up through hacking, so it was mutually agreed that hacking should be tabooed’.(16)
Alongside the technicalities of playing the game, those who believe that the rules developed in Melbourne were uniquely Australian also point to broader features of the sport. The most sophisticated of these historians is Richard Cashman in his outstanding Sport and the National Imagination. Cashman argues that there are also participatory and spatial issues in Australian Rules that reflect the uniqueness of Australian society in the mid-nineteenth:
Australian football is an expansive game both in terms of the size of the playing field, the number of players - originally there were 25, then 20, then, in modern times, 18 - and the length of play. In the early years play continued until a goal was scored or dusk intervened. ... Some of the large Australian football grounds are approximately twice the size of rugby, soccer or American football grounds. ... The character of Aus fbl reflected this abundance of cheap land in close proximity to cities and suburbs. It is a practical demonstration that Australia has abundant space for sport.(17)
But, again, such features were not unique to Melbourne. Neither the original rules of the FA nor of the RFU specified the number of players in a team. Until 1876, when it was reduced to fifteen, the usual number of players in an adult rugby team was twenty, although school-boy sides would often number far in excess of twenty. At Rugby School, ‘Big-Side’ matches, as described famously in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, regularly had sixty players on each side.(18) Nor was their any fixed period of play specified in the rules of the RFU, the FA or the Sheffield FA. As in Melbourne, teams generally decided that a game was won when one side had scored a specified number of goals. Perhaps the most famous example of this can be found in the 1862 football rules of Rugby School, in which rule thirty-nine stated that: ‘all matches are drawn after five days, or after three days if nogoal has been kicked’.(19)
As Cashman implies, the question of the dimensions of the playing area is one which is regularly highlighted as having a distinctively Australian character. Rob Pascoe in his simultaneously evocative and provocative The Winter Game argues that Australian Rules’ ‘oval and rather carelessly measured’ playing field distinguishes the pre-capitalist mind-set of English football codes from that of Antipodean ‘post-feudal society’.(20)
There are two problems with this assumption. Firstly, as Geoffrey Blainey has made clear, most football grounds in the first fifteen years of the Australian code were not oval but rectangular, exactly the same as every other football code. The first published diagram of player positions, in the Melbourne yearbook The Footballer of 1876, shows a rectangular playing area. Indeed, as late as 1903, the ‘Laws of the Australasian Game of Football’ published by the New South Wales Football League, also showed a rectangular pitch.(21)
The second problem is that the English codes were originally similarly imprecise in their specifications. The Melbourne rules of 1858 and 1860 stated that ‘the game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide’. The 1866 revised version of the rules were the first to define the length and width of the playing field. Rule one stated that
the distance between the goals shall not be more than 200 yards; and the width of the playing space, to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centre of the goals, not more than 150 yards.(22)
This sounds uncannily similar to the first rules of the FA, whose rule number one stated that ‘the maximum length of the ground shall be 200 yards, the maximum width shall be 100 yards’, as did that of the Sheffield Association. The difference in dimensions was quantitative, not qualitative. What is more, and in contrast to the English soccer-style codes and the Melbourne rules, the RFU did not originally specify any measurements for the size of the rugby pitch. It was not until 1879 that an amendment was added to rugby’s ‘Laws of the Game’ that laid down that ‘the field of play must not exceed 110 yards in length nor 75 yards in breadth’.(23)
Cashman also points to the somewhat indeterminate nature of the early Melbourne football and the fact that ‘matches were sometimes held up so that players and officials could debate the rules’ as an example of the democratic nature of the Australian game.(24) Yet this too was no different to football in Britain, where disputes between captains over disputed points had become so common by 1870 that it was accepted practice to add time on to the length of a match to cover the time lost for play through arguments. As York rugby club captain Robert Christison admitted ’the more plausible and argumentative a player was, the more likely he was to be considered as a captain’. As in Australia, the referee or umpire was not initially part of either the rugby or soccer codes.(24)
Therefore, in the context of the ‘British world’ of sport, we can see that the set of rules developed in Melbourne in the 1850s and 1860s was simply one of many dozens of variations in the playing of football throughout the British Empire. As a correspondent to Bell’s Life in London wrote in 1861 ‘its rules are as various as the number of places in which it is played’. The Melbourne rules were no more indicative of Australian nationalism than the Sheffield FA’s rules were of an aspiration in the north of England for independence from the south.
Indeed, J.B. Thompson’s famous remark that the Melbourne rules would ‘combine their merits of both [Eton and Rugby football codes] while excluding the vices of both’ did not express antagonism towards British football but was merely an echo of the wider debate going on in British football circles about how to develop a common set of rules for all adult football clubs. Many sides in England had gone down the same path as the Melburnians; Lincoln FC for example described their rules as ‘drawn from the Marlborough, Eton and Rugby rules’.(25) The impetus for the drawing up of the Cambridge football rules in 1848 was also based on this desire to transcend the divisions between Eton and Rugby rules, and the formation of the Football Association in 1863 was based on an unsuccessful attempt to take the best from each variant to unify the football codes.(26)
Thus Wills’ alleged remark about developing ‘a game of our own’ had nothing to do with national pride but was just one more example of the commonplace frustration with the existing rules of football as played at the various public schools. With its code of rules Melbourne would now have a game of its own just like the English schools had games of their own, like Cambridge University had a game of its own and like Lincoln too had a game of its own.(27)
1 - Cashman, p. 43.
2- Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Mass Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870-1914’ in The Invention of Tradition, pp. 298-9.
3 - Quoted in Leonie Sandercock andIan Turner, Up Where Cazaly?, Melbourne, 1981, p. 33. Yorkshire Post, 29 Nov. 1886. See also W.F. Mandle ‘Games People Played: cricket and football in England and Victoria in the late-nineteenth century’, Historical Studies, vol. 15, no. 60, April 1973, pp. 511-35.
4 - Lionel Frost, Australian Cities in Comparative View, Penguin, Victoria, 1990, p. 4.
5 - Rob Pascoe, The Winter Game, 2nd Edition, Melbourne, 1996, pp.xiv.
6 - For the Sheffield FA, see Rules, Regulations & Laws of the Sheffield Foot-Ball Club, Sheffield, 1859, Brendan Murphy, From Sheffield With Love, Sports Books, 2007, pp. 37-41, and Adrian Harvey, Football: The First Hundred Years, London, 2005, . 11 and pp. 162-3.
7 - See Joseph Lennon, The Playing Rules of Football and Hurling 1884-1995, Gormanstown, 1997, p. 10.
8 - Robin Grow, ‘From Gum Trees to Goal Posts, 1858-76’ in Rob Hess and Bob Stewart (eds), More Than A Game, Melbourne, 1998, p. 21.
9 - C.W. Alcock (ed.) Football Annual, London, 1868, p. 74.
10 - Rule eight, reprinted in The Rules of Association Football 1863, Oxford, 2006, p. 49. John D. Cartwright, ‘The Game Playedby the New University Rules’, reprinted in reprinted in Jennifer Macrory, Running with the Ball, London, 1991, p. 164.
11 - Football Rules, Rugby School, 1845, p. 7.
12 - Percy Royds, The History of the Laws of Rugby Football, Twickenham, 1949, p. 6.
13 - RFU rules of 1871, reprinted in O.L. Owen, The History of the Rugby Football Union, London, 1955, pp. 65-72. Royds, pp. 7-8.
14 - Rule eight of the 1866 rules, in Geoffrey Blainey, A Game of Our Own, 2nd Edition, Melbourne, 2003, p. 225.
15 - ‘Bramham College Football Rules, October 1864 ‘ in The Bramham College Magazine, Nov. 1864, p. 182.
16 - Hibbins, ‘The Cambridge Connection’, p. 114. Thompson in the Argus, 14 May, 1860, quoted in Blainey, p. 45. For hacking in Britain, see Collins, Rugby’s Great Split, pp. 10-12.
17 - Richard Cashman, Sport and the National Imagination, Sydney, 2002, p. 45.
18 - See, for example, the reminiscences of Arthur Pearson in ‘Rugby as Played at Rugby in the ‘Sixties’, Rugby Football, 3 Nov. 1923.
18 - ‘Football Rules of 1862’ reprinted in Jennifer Macrory, Running with the Ball, London, 1991, p. 101.
19 - Pascoe, pp.xv-xvi.
20 - Blainey, pp. 49-50. Thomas P. Power (ed.)The Footballer: An Annual Record of Football in Victoria and the Australian Colonies, Melbourne, 1876, p. 126. NSWFL, The Laws of the Australasian Game of Football, Sydney, 1903 in the E.S. Marks Collection at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, shelfmark 728.
21 - For pitch dimensions see the respective rules reprinted in Blainey, pp. 222-4.
22 - For the FA and Sheffield FA, see C.W. Alcock (ed.) Football Annual, London, 1869, pp. 40-1. For rugby, Royds, p. 1.
23 - Cashman, p. 46.
24 - Tony Collins, Rugby’s Great Split, London 1998, p. 13.
25 - Bell’s Life in London, 8 Dec. 1861. J.B. Thompson in the Victorian Cricketers’ Guide, 1859-60, quoted in Hibbins and Mancini, p. 27. Bell’s Life, 21 Nov. 1863.
26 - Harvey, p. 48.
27 - ‘A game of our own’ was first attributed to Wills in the 1923 autobiography of fellow rule-framer H.C.A. Harrison, The Story of An Athlete, Melbourne, 1923, reprinted in Hibbins and Mancini, p. 119. For a broader discussion,see also Roy Hay "The Last Night of the Poms: Australia as a Post-Colonial Sporting Society' in John Bale and Mike Cronin (eds), Sport and Postcolonialism, Oxford, 2003, pp. 15-28.
- - The Australian Rules football season kicks off this week. Despite its geographical isolation the sport has a fascinating history, both in itself and as it relates to the other codes of football. To mark the new season, I'm posting the first of three parts of an article - 'The invention of sporting tradition: national myths, imperial pasts and the origins of Australian Rules Football' - that originally appeared in Myths and Milestones in the History of Sport, edited by Stephen Wagg and published in 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan.
The history of sport is a palimpsest. Meanings, interpretations and purposes are written and rewritten over that history as people seek to give a broader significance to the act of play. Details and fragments are reassembled and rearranged to create a story that meets the desires and demands of different generations, social groups and ideologies.
These stories have been fashioned around incidents, such as Babe Ruth’s 1932 supposedly ‘called’ home run; artefacts, like W.B. Wollen’s 1895 ‘Roses Match’ painting of a northern English rugby match; or philosophies, for example de Coubertin’s reinvention of the Greek Olympics as a beacon of amateur sport.
But the most powerful re-imagined narratives have been those that have invented creation stories for their chosen sport. William Webb Ellis’ picking up that ball and running with it for the first time at Rugby School in 1823 and Abner Doubleday’s invention of baseball at Cooperstown in 1839 have little to commend them as examples of historical accuracy.(1)
Yet their resonance lives on, not least in the name of rugby union’s world cup and at Doubleday Field, Cooperstown’s ball park. These invented traditions acquired their power and resilience because they articulated the desires of each sport’s leaders and supporters for special social significance. For rugby union, Webb Ellis demonstrated that this was a game created by and for the middle classes. For baseball, Doubleday confirmed that this was truly a uniquely American game.
In 2008 a ferocious debate broke out in Australia about the origins of Australian Rules football. Tracing its origins back to 1858, the code was founded and has it centre in Melbourne. Its national competition, the Australian Football League, was until 1990 named the Victorian Football League, and outside of New South Wales and Queensland it is Australia’s most popular code of football. The controversy was ignited by the publication of a lavishly-illustrated official history, ‘The Australian Game of Football: Since 1858’ that aimed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Australian football match.(2)
Two of the opening chapters in the book detailing the formative years of the code were written by the widely respected Melbourne historian Gillian Hibbins. The first, ‘Men of Purpose’ recapitulated much of her earlier detailed work on the men involved in drawing up the first rules of football in Melbourne in 1859. A second much shorter piece examined popular claims that the sport had its origins in Aboriginal ball games and dismissed such beliefs as a ‘seductive myth’.(3)
Nothing in these chapters was new or unknown to historians. Yet they attracted the wrath ofmany Australian Rules supporters and writers across the game’s heartlands. Accusations of inaccuracy, insensitivity, poor scholarship and even racism were raised. Throughout the middle of 2008 a battle raged across newspapers, radio, television, the internet and even literary magazines over what seemed to be the minutiae of football rules.
For historians, it was a rare moment. Like astronomers witnessing the birth of star, they were observing a new tradition in the process of being invented.
Inventing an Australian tradition
Hibbins’ critics major charge against her work was that she had written out of the sport’s early history the influence of Aboriginal ball games and especially one called Marn Grook. Her adveraries argued that Tom Wills, the man who had written to Bell’s Life in Victoria July 1858 suggesting the formation of a football club and who had been one of the four men who had drawn up the first set of football rules in Melbourne in 1859, was heavily influenced by Marn Grook when he drew up the rules of Australian football. The reason for this influence was, in the words of Martin Flanagan, author of The Call, a novel based on Wills’ life:
It's recorded that games of Aboriginal football, commonly called marn-grook, were played at the Victorian gatherings and that one of the groups that attended the meetings, or corroborees, were the Tjapwurrung. Wills grew up in Tjapwurrung country, his father being the first white settler in the Ararat area, arriving in 1838 when Tom was three.(3)
According to nineteenth century descriptions of Marn Grook by white European colonists, the game featured high kicking and leaping for a ball. ‘The ball is kicked high in the air, not thrown up by hand as white boys do, nor kicked along the ground, there is general excitement who shall catch it, the tall fellow stands the best chance’, wrote James Dawson in 1881. ‘When the ball is caught it is kicked up in the air again by the one who caught it, it is sent with great force and ascends as straight up and as high as when thrown by hand’.(4) Descriptions such as this were combined with accounts of Wills’ boyhood activities with Aboriginal children to claim that the true origins of Australian football were to be found in Aboriginal ball games.
There are a number of significant problems with the idea that Wills developed Australian Rules from Aboriginal ball games. Firstly, there is no evidence to suggest he was the primary force behind the drawing up of the 1859 set of football rules. He was merely one of four men who met to draw up a code of rules for the Melbourne Football club on 17 May 1859.(5)
Secondly, even if he were, there is nothing in the historical record would suggest that Wills, who despite being born in New South Wales was educated at Rugby School in England, was in the least influenced by Aboriginal ball games. As Gregory de Moore has found during his exhaustive biographical research, there is not a single mention of the subject in any of Wills’ private or public writings. Quite the opposite in fact, as Wills favoured rules that bore a closer resemblence to those of Rugby School such as a cross bar on the goalposts and a designated kicker to take kicks at goal.(6)
All supporters of the ‘Wills/Marn Grook tradition’ shared a common misapprehension, best expressed by Ciannon Cazaly in the literary magazine Meanjin. She quoted James Dawson’s 1881 account of the ball being kicked high in an Aboriginal game and concluded by saying ‘to me, that sounds a lot like what happens at the MCGmost weekends’ [Melbourne Cricket Ground is the sport’s premier stadium].(7) The problem, of course, is that this an anachronism - the description may sound like what happens at the MCG today but it does not sound like an Australian Rules match during the formative decades of the sport.
Indeed, the sport’s now characteristic ‘high mark’, where a player leaps above an opponent to catch the ball in the air, seems only to begin to become a significant feature of the game in the mid-1870s, almost twenty years after the first rules were drawn up. In its 1876 edition the handbook of the game, The Footballer, advised players to avoid ‘jumping for marks’ because of its inherent dangers.(8) Loose scrummaging was a more important part of the game than the high mark in its early years.
Such was the importance of scrummaging that the 1874 Victorian rules of football laid down that ‘a scrummage commences when the ball is on the ground, and all who have closed round on their respective sides begin kicking it.’ Even as late as the 1890s complaints were heard in Melbourne that the game had become dominated by scrummaging in which sides would often each have ten players competing for ball. Australian Rules football in its formative years bore little resemblance not only to Aboriginal ball games but also to its modern self.(9)
This type of anachronistic misinterpretation is one of the typical features of all forms of invented tradition. As Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger noted in their introduction to their 1983 collection, The Invention of Tradition, 'the peculiarity of "invented" traditions is that the continuity with ['a historic past'] is largely factitious ... they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition’.(10)
Moreover, in addition to an anachronistic view of the past, the Tom Wills, Webb Ellis and Abner Doubleday myths highlight four other key characteristics shared by invented sporting traditions.
The first of these is the fact that the ‘founding father’ of the sport must have had minor rather than extensive involvement in it. Webb Ellis had no involvement in football after he left school. Doubleday built a career in the U.S. military apparently untroubled by any involvement with baseball. Similarly Wills’ major contribution to the development of football in Victoria occurred while he was secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club. The lack of substantive long-term engagement with the sport is an important factor in such invented traditions due to the narrative space it leaves open for speculation and supposition.
Secondly, the weight of evidence to support the invented tradition is based on largely on hearsay or personal affirmation, usually of one person. Thus Webb Ellis’s role was founded on nothing more than the testimony of Matthew Bloxam, an old boy Rugby School who based his case entirely on his ‘enquiries’. The Doubleday story was predicated on a letter by Abner Graves, had been a five-year old child in Cooperstown in 1839.
Wills’ famous claim that Australia now had ‘a game of our own’ is based on the recollections of his cousin H.C.A. Harrison written some sixty years later. Claims that his boyhood interaction with Aboriginal youths provided the inspiration for his innovations in football rules lacks any supporting evidence. (11) Again, the plasticity of the evidence allows the story to be fashioned according to the needs of the advocate.
The third common feature is that these traditions emerge at pivotal moments in the history of the sport. Thus the Webb Ellis myth came to prominence at the time that rugby union felt itself to be in mortal danger from the threat of working-class influence in the sport, which resulted in the split in the rugby code of 1895, the year that the Old Rugbeian Society’s inquiry into the origins of the game decided that Webb Ellis was its inventor.
Similarly the Doubleday myth emerged in the mid-1900s due to the 1905 Mills Commission report on the origins of the game, published in 1908, at precisely the point that baseball was emerging from turmoil in labour relations and intra-league disputes, leading to the National League’s acceptance of the American League as partner major league and the first World Series in 1903. In Australian Rules, the emergence of the Wills/Marn Grook tradition has emerged as the sport is seeking to position itself as the national football code of all Australia, highlighted by the transformation of the Victorian Football League into the Australian Football League in 1990 and the subsequent expansion of the game.
Fourthly, supporters of the invented tradition ultimately base their position on an unverifiable act of faith rather than on the historical record. Thus the official 1970 history of the Rugby Football Union wrote of those who wanted proof of the Webb Ellis story, ‘what these materialists are unable to understand is that not only are we unable to prove it, but also that this fact does not bother us at all’.(12) In a similar vein, the exhibit on Doubleday at baseball’s Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown reads: ‘In the hearts of those who love baseball, he is remembered as the lad in the pasture where the game was invented. Only cynics would need to know more.’ (13)
Writing in defence of the idea that Australian Rules derived from an Aboriginal game, Jim Poulter wrote that ‘we should reverse the onus and accept the indigenous origins to our game, unless somebody can clearly prove otherwise’, putting those who disagree in the position of having to prove a negative.(14) All three statements serve to seal off their arguments from critical enquiry, elevating the invented tradition to an article of faith for followers of each particular sport. Once more, the history of sport becomes the tablet on which to write about society using the metaphors of play.
And finally, the invented tradition projects back into the past a picture of how the inventors see the modern world. For rugby union followers, Webb Ellis confirmed their belief that theirs was a game for the middle classes. For baseball, Doubleday supported their ideas of American exceptionalism. And for Australian Rules, the Wills/Marn Grook story of cultural exchange between European colonists and Aboriginal peoples offers a sanitised version of the bloody genocidal reality of race relations in nineteenth century Australia.
Like all Australian sports, Australian football was no less racist than the society which nurtured it. One of its most famous clubs, Essendon, was for the early decades of its history known as ‘the blood stained n-----s’. Aboriginal football clubs were often excluded from local competitions and even the greatest of aboriginal footballers faced racist taunts and humiliations.(15) Doug Nicholls, who was to become governor of South Australia, transferred from the leading Carlton club in the late 1920s because the other players claimed that he smelled. The Marn Grook story views Aboriginal involvement in Australian Rules football through the rose-tinted spectacles of the late twentieth century.
The AFL’s record of racial equality and integration is no better than that of its major rival, the National Rugby League. The percentage of Aboriginal footballers in the National Rugby League (NRL) in 2009 stood at eleven per cent, the same as in the Australian Football League, although a further twenty-nine per cent of NRL players were of Polynesian heritage, a group with little representation in the AFL. Since the 1960s, Aboriginal players such as Arthur Beetson and Mal Meninga have captained the national side and coached at the highest levels of rugby league.
Moreover, some of the arguments used in support of the Wills/Marn Grook are based on racially-stereotyped conceptions of the ‘natural affinity’ of aboriginal players for Australian Rules. ‘They express themselves both on and off the field, to watch them play is exhilarating at times’, claimed Essendon coach Matthew Knights, a racially-encompassing view that is unlikely to be expressed about ‘European’ players.(16)
Since the 1950s the debate on the historical roots of Australian Rules football has been a barometer of changing ideas about Australian national identity. In 1958 the journalist C.C. Mullen published a history of the game which speculated, on the flimsiest of evidence, that the sport had been popular in Scotland in the years before World War One, reflecting the prevailing sense of ‘different but equal’ Britishness then prevalent in Australia.(17)
In the 1960s and 1970s, after Harold MacMillan’s government had effectively broken the imperial link by ending free entry into Britain for all Commonwealth citizens and by applying to join the European Common Market without consulting Australia, a more radical nationalist outlook became fashionable, bringing comparisons with Ireland to the fore. In 1967 an Australian Rules side undertook a short tour of Ireland, where‘Waltzing Matilda’ was played before matches instead of ‘God Save The Queen’ (still the Australian national anthem at the time). They returned the following year. The idea that Australian Rules was derived from Gaelic football also became fashionable, despite the fact that Melbourne rules were codified twenty-five years before those of the Gaelic game.(18)
Today, the dominant liberal (and largely official) view of Australian national identity is based on diversity and reconciliation between European and Aboriginal Australians, as highlighted by prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the country’s Aboriginal population for what he described in a mild euphemism as past ‘mistreatment’. Thus it has now become popular to imagine that the sport has its roots not in Australia’s imperial past but within its native Aboriginal culture.
The invention of an Aboriginal pre-history for Australian Rules football therefore plays the role of, as Hobsbawm and Ranger point out in different contexts, ‘establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities’ and ‘legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority’.(19) For the sport, it plays a crucial role in authenticating its claim to be Australia’s true nation football code.
1 - For Doubleday, see Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, Oxford 1960, pp. 8-12 and James A. Vlasich, A legend for the legendary: the origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Wisconsin, 1990. pp. 162-8. For Webb Ellis, see Tony Collins, Rugby’s Great Split, London, 1998, pp. 5-8 and William Baker, ‘William Webb Ellis and the Origins of Rugby football’ Albion, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 117-30. Douglas Booth his The Field, Abingdon, 2006, ch. 6, pp.111-26, discusses sporting myths but in typical post-modern fashion draws no distinction between actuality and invention.
2 - Geoff Slattery (ed.) The Australian Game of Football, Melbourne, 2008. Controversially, the book was published to mark the match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College on 7 August 1858, which, as Gillian Hibbins pointed out, was definitely not played under any type of ‘Australian’ rules. See Hibbins, ‘Are We Celebrating a Year Too Early’?, The Age (Melbourne), 2 Aug. 2008 and Martin Flanagan’s defence, ‘Football ebbs and flow with tide of society’, The Age (Melbourne), 9 Aug. 2008.
3 - Hibbins, pp. 31-45 in The Australian Game of Football. Her views had already been widely disseminated in ‘The Cambridge Connection: The English Origins of Australian Rules Football’ in J.A. Mangan (ed.) The Cultural Bond, London, 1993, pp. 108-27, and (with Anne Mancini) in Running With the Ball: Football’s Foster Father, Melbourne, 1987.
4 - Martin Flanagan, A Battle of Wills, The Age, 10 May 2008. The general outline is also suggested in David Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round: A global history of football, London, 2006, p. 93.
5 - James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: the language and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 1881, p. 85.
6 - See Hibbins and Mancini, p. 23-4.
7 - Greg de Moore, Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, Sydney 2008, pp. 161, (for his support for a rugby-style cross bar and designated kicker), and pp. 283-6 for lack of mention of Aboriginal ball games. As Rob Hess has pointed out, Wills involvement in the 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour of the UK make it unlikely he would seek to disguise any aboriginal influence.
8 - Ciannon Cazaly, ‘Off The Ball’, Meanjin, vol 67, no. 4 (2008) [http://www.meanjin.com.au/editions/volume-67-number-4-2008/article/off-the-ball/ accessed 11.23, 28.5.09]. The quote is from James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: the language and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 1881, p. 85.
9 - Blainey, pp. 118-22.
10 - Blainey, pp. 64-5 and 227. For a discussion on scrummaging, See Robin Grow ‘From Gum...’ in Hess, pp. 15, 30 and 78.
11 - Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition Cambridge 1983, p. 2.
12 - It was J.B. Thompson, one of the four Melbourne rule-framers who used the phrase in the Victorian Cricketers’ Guide for 1859-60. See Hibbins and Mancini, p. 18.
13 - U.A. Titley and R. McWhirter, Centenary History of the Rugby Football Union, London, 1970, p. 9.
14 - Quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, ‘The Creation Myths of Cooperstown’ in his Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, New York, 2003, p. 199.
15 - Jim Poulter, From Where Football Came... (September 2007) at www.sportingpulse.com/assoc_page.cgi?client=1-5545-0-0-0&sID=75914&news_task=DETAIL&articleID=5854332§ionID=75914 accessed 13.05, 25 May 2009.
16 - For example, see the accounts of Aboriginal footballers in the 1920s and 1950s in Richard Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: a history since 1800, Sydney 2005, pp. 224-5. For a post-war example, see Peter Read, Charles Perkins, A Biography, Penguin revised edition, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 51-2.
16 - For participation rates, see Roy Masters, ‘League’s Polynesian powerplay muscles in on indigenous numbers’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April, 2009, and Antonia MacGee, ‘Sports stars embrace Rudd apology’, Herald Sun (Melbourne),13 Feb. 2008, which also includes the Knights’ quote.
17 - C.C. Mullen, History of Australian Rules Football from 1858 to 1958, Carlton, 1958. The Scottish link is examined in John Williamson’s Football’s Forgotten Tour, Applecross, 2003.
18 - For the tours to Ireland, see Peter Burke, ‘Harry and the Galahs’ ASSH Bulletin, no. 29, Dec. 1998, pp. 9-17. Barry O’Dwyer, ‘The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football’, Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1, pp. 27-41, argues the case for the Irish origins of the game, but see Blainey, A Game of Our Own, pp. 187-96. for a debunking of this myth.
19 - Hobsbawm and Ranger, p. 9.
- - England play Wales tomorrow at Twickenham in rugby union's Six Nations tournament. This extract from A Social History of English Rugby Union describes the last time that England played a home game against Wales before rugby split apart in 1895.
For almost a decade the Welsh had dazzled and defeated their opponents through the brilliance of their backs and the innovation of their four three-quarters system. While England and the other nations still played with nine forwards and three three-quarters, the Welsh had moved a man out of the pack and into the three-quarter line, opening up play to create sweeping back line moves across the width of the pitch.
But now in January 1894, after years of debate and hesitation, England had decided to use the four three-quarters system. And the team they would use it against for the first time was none other than Wales.
This was no ordinary Welsh side. Captained by Arthur Gould, arguably the greatest Welsh centre of his or any other age, the side featured seven players from the Newport club, four of whom made up a mighty pack. Wales had carried off the Triple Crown in 1893 and were tipped to do the same this year. Even English reporters described them as ‘a side whose combination was never more perfect’.
The match was the first and only international ever to be played on Merseyside, at the ground of Birkenhead Park. It had snowed on the Thursday before the match, necessitating straw being spread over the pitch to protect it from the elements. The temperature was approaching freezing when Bradford’s Jack Toothill kicked off at half past two, but the weather was quickly forgotten.
Despite intense forward pressure from the Welsh, it was England who scored first. Fly-half Cyril Wells made a break from his own quarter, got the ball to Geordie scrum-half Billy Taylor who passed back inside to West Hartlepool centre Sammy Morfitt to score between the posts on his debut. Captain Dicky Lockwood converted and England had the initiative. Just before half-time Charles Hooper caught a Welsh clearing kick on the full and made a mark, allowing Taylor to successfully kick for goal and record a rare four point ‘goal from a mark’. When the whistle blew for half-time England were surprisingly 9-0 ahead.
If the Welsh supporters who had travelled up for the match expected their side to turn the tables, they were to be disappointed. After the break, Taylor and Wells combined again to put Halifax’s Fred Firth in the clear. As he approached Wales full-back Billy Bancroft, he deftly chipped the ball over the Welshman, where it was regathered by Lockwood to score England’s second try. Lockwood again converted to make 14-0.
A few minutes later, Bramley forward Harry Bradshaw picked a loose ball from a scrum and barrelled his way over the line for another Lockwood-converted try. Then from a scrum Wells slipped the ball to Lockwood who broke through tired defenders before being brought down on the Welsh twenty-five, where Billy Taylor picked up the ball and scored in the corner, converting his own try from the touchline. Complete embarrassment was partially avoided when Newport scrum-half Fred Parfitt scored a consolation try just before the final whistle but at 24-3 the match, in the words of the Liverpool Mercury, ‘was not a beating, it was an annihilation’. It was England’s biggest win against the Welsh since their first meeting in 1881, when they had run in thirteen tries against a neophyte Welsh team.
More importantly, this was a very different sort of England team from that of 1881. Nine of the side came from clubs in the north of England. At least eight were manual workers. Only four players came from the traditional public-school based sides in the south. The captain, Dicky Lockwood, was an unskilled manual labourer from Heckmondwike. In this, the team was a vivid illustration of the way in which rugby had become a sport of the masses. No longer the preserve of the upper-middle classes, it was vigorously played and keenly watched by all sections of society, from the doctor at Harlequins to the docker at Hull Kingston Rovers.
But it was not to last.
Of course, I've got no more idea than anyone else. But the question of how, rather than who, the rugby league champions will be decided has not always been as obvious as it appears. In fact the Grand Final at the end of the season is only the latest of half a dozen different ways of deciding the champion team.
Over the 121 years of its existence, rugby league has continually honed and fine-tuned the structure of its competitions in a search for the optimum relationship between competitive balance, spectator interest and financial well-being. And that has led to significant changes in how the champion club has been decided.
One of the Northern Union’s fundamental aims when it was founded in 1895 was to establish a league system similar to that of the Football League, which had been formed seven years earlier. The huge popularity and commercial success of the Football League was the model the NU wanted for rugby.
So in the first season, the Northern Rugby Football League was created, comprising all 22 teams that had formed the NU, playing each other home and away. It produced an exhausting 42 league matches for each club and by the end of that first season many sides were complaining about the costs of travel and the length of the season.
The situation was also made worse at the end of the first season by large numbers of clubs leaving rugby union and wanting to join the NU. So it was decided to replace the Northern League with separate Lancashire and Yorkshire Leagues.
Yet bizarrely there was no final between the winners of the two leagues, so effectively there was no champion club from 1897 to 1901.
The first Super League
This anomaly had not escaped the attention of the game’s leading clubs and in April 1901 Halifax proposed starting an elite Northern Rugby League of the top 14 teams.
The new ‘super league’ makes strange reading today. Only, Hull, Huddersfield, Salford and Warrington of today’s Super League were present, with many more familiar names, such as Leeds, Wigan and St Helens playing in the Lancashire and Yorkshire leagues, seen as the second tier of professional sides.
The following year the system was changed yet again, this time to two divisions with 18 teams. The new set-up led indirectly to the formation of Leeds United soccer club. At the end of the season St Helens and Holbeck tied for the second promotion place in the second division.
A play-off match was arranged which Saints won and Holbeck - who played at Elland Road - resigned from the NU in a fit of pique. Weeks later the club reformed as Leeds City AFC, the forerunner of Leeds United.
One division to rule them all
The early 1900s were a time of economic depression and most clubs experienced financial problems. In a bid to generate more interest in the game, in 1905 a one division league was introduced consisting of all 31 professional NU clubs. But there was no central organisation of fixtures and clubs played different numbers of matches. League positions were decided on winning percentage.
This system inevitably threw up anomalies. In 1906 Leigh were declared champions because their winning percentage was highest, despite the fact that Leeds, Hunslet and Oldham all had won more matches.
This was so ridiculous that the 1907 season saw the introduction of a top four play-off system to decide the champions, culminating in a Championship Final, the forerunner of the modern Grand Final, that was won by Halifax.
This system lasted, with minor adjustments, over fifty years. Championship finals provided many of the most dramatic moments in the history of the game and attracted monster crowds, culminating in the record 83,190 who crammed into Odsal to watch the Wigan dismantle Wakefield in 1960.
One goes into two... or not
But as early as the 1920s a number of people were arguing for two divisions because of the huge number of meaningless games in the latter half of the season. For most clubs, there was nothing to play for by the time the season reached half-way.
It was until 1962 that the RFL, faced with rapidly declining attendances, bit the bullet and introduced a two division system. But crowds continued to plummet and after just two seasons, the one division system was back.
This time the top four play-offs were replaced by a top sixteen play-off to give more clubs something to fight for towards the end of the season.
But the problem with such a large play-off system was highlighted in the first season when seventh-placed Halifax were crowned champions after defeating league leaders St Helens in the championship final.
The system produced its most sensational result in the 1973 play-offs, when a Mick ‘Stevo’ Stephenson-marshalled Dewsbury side that finished eighth in the league defeated league leaders Warrington and then outplayed third-placed Leeds in the final to be crowned champions for their first and only time.
Champions or Premiers?
This was to be the last season of one division football. Two divisions were introduced in the 1973-74 season and the team that finished top of Division One was crowned champions, as in soccer. But a new end-of-season tournament was also introduced in 1975, confusingly called the Premiership.
This baffled many Australians, for whom the words premiership and and championship are synonymous, yet the tournament was completely separate from the championship. Yet in Britain, a team could be champions and not premiers, and vice versa.
The principle that the First Division leaders were champions lasted over twenty years. Even after the turmoil of the introduction of Super League, the principle remained in place for the first two seasons of summer rugby.
Super League: back to basics
It wasn’t until 1998 that the Grand Final was introduced, based on the Australian model where the grand final had been part of the game since its earliest days.
But although the Grand Final was portrayed by its critics as an alien import, in reality it was a return to that older tradition of the Championship Final. It’s this link that has made the Grand Final so popular in British rugby league.
The concept was introduced to English rugby union and is still not widely understood and embraced even less. There is no chance that soccer would abandon its first-past-the-post system. Yet the final showdown for the championship, where the season’s struggle is decided by death or glory, has become central to the culture of rugby league.
That’s because the Grand Final is the ultimate test of stamina, nerve and daring. And that’s precisely what rugby league is all about.
This is the third part of the October 2015 talk I gave to the Institute of Historical Research about the themes of The Oval World, which has just been published in paperback.
The Oval World looks at the history of rugby in a comparative, international way. Perhaps the most striking thing about this approachis that it clearly shows that, despite being the dominant force in international rugby, the RFU was also the aberrant organisation in the game’s development around the world.
What do I mean by this? In all countries that adopted the sport in the nineteenth century, rugby was initially the property of those schooled at elite educational institutions. This is obviously the case in England, but it is also true throughout the the British Isles (including Wales), the white dominions of the British Empire (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), the Pacific Islands and France.
But as rugby expanded and became an adult game, it saw the introduction of local cup competitions as a focus for growing local and civic rivalries and rugby rapidly became a mass spectator sport that was played and watched by all social classes. In the British Isles we can see this process in the north, south west and the east midlands of England, in South Wales (superbly described in Gwyn Prescott’s This Rugby Spellbound People), in the Borders region of Scotland, and in southern Ireland around Cork and Limerick, where the game becomes the dominant popular sport..
In Australia, the expansion of the game to the inner city districts of Sydney and Brisbane consolidated rugby, rather than Australian Rules football, as the game of masses of New South Wales and Queensland, and after inter-provincial competition began in New Zealand in the 1880s rugby quickly became the dominant popular code there too. In France, the introduction of the Championship competition in 1892 was the catalyst that cemented rugby as the game of the South West. Only in South Africa was the development of the game more restricted, because of the deep racial divisions in English- and Afrikaans-speaking regions.
So rugby around the world started to develop as a mass spectator sport in largely the same way as soccer in England and Scotland, and as baseball in the United States. Indeed, in England, Wales, France, Australia and New Zealand the game shared exactly the same social and commercial characteristics as soccer. So naturally the game in these countries began to move towards commercialism and professionalism.
But RFU truncated this development with its adoption of amateurism in 1886 and its zealous imposition of the amateur regulations wherever the game was played. In fact, amateurism was an explicit attempt to control the popularity of rugby. ’The loss of followers to the grand old game is regrettable,’ wrote an RFU supporter in the 1889 Football Annual, ‘yet looking at the present state of all professional sports we cannot but think that this possible loss is far preferable to legalising professionalism’.
These artificial restrictions on the popularity of rugby caused significant conflict in those areas where it was the dominant winter sport. In England it was driven by the RFU’s fear that its authority would be destroyed by the growing dominance of predominantly working-class teams in the industrial north, and led to the 1895 split that resulted in the creation of rugby league.
Although the 1895 split took place entirely within England, the broader debate about payments to players quickly spilled over into Wales. A split with Wales was only avoided 1897 when the RFU decided to compromise with the Welsh rugby union over the payment of an illegal testimonial to the great Welsh three-quarter Arthur Gould - a decision that led to Welsh rugby union pretended to be amateur for the next century and the RFU pretending to believe them.
This deep fracture over the way that rugby should be organised spread across the global stage. Newspapers in Australia and New Zealand carried significant coverage of the split in English rugby, and the growing divergence between the huge commercial popularity of the sport Down Under and the sacrifices made by players to play the game in those countries became an increasingly controversial issue. The fact that 1905 All Blacks’ tour made over £10,000 profit yet left many players personally in debt brought matters to a head and became the catalyst for the establishment of rugby league in New Zealand and Australia in 1907.
But even by this time, it was clear that a compromise could have been reached over payments in rugby, has had happened in soccer when the Football Association legalised professionalism in 1885. What prevented a solution being found was the RFU’s utter intransigence - and the fear of rugby’s other national governing bodies that to disagree with the RFU would lead to their expulsion from international rugby union. The driving out of the northern clubs in 1895 served as a warning about what would happen to those who challenged the RFU’s authority.
But why were Australian and New Zealand rugby union officials so deferential to the RFU, often to the detriment of the game in their own countries? Their mild attempts to relax the rules on amateurism or suggest amendments to the rules of the sport in the 1920s were turned down flat by the RFU. Their requests to be represented on the International Rugby Board were repeatedly refused. Even the arbitrary outlawing of the distinctive New Zealand 2-3-2 scrum formation in 1931 was meekly accepted by the NZRU.
The answer lies in the fact that all rugby union governing bodies (with the exception of the French, who also strongly valued the British link but for somewhat different reasons) shared the same imperial ideological framework as the RFU. Their wish to be represented on rugby union’s International Board came from a desire to develop the sport’s imperial character, not to challenge the British.
The fear of offending the British, and particularly the RFU, ran very deep within the psyche of Australasian rugby union officials, especially given the difficulties of the All Blacks and Wallabies’ pre-1914 tours and the disaster of the 1908 rugby league split. This attitude was summed up by Sydney’s Rugby News in May 1928 when it wrote:
In all and to the furthermost ends of the British Empire the great rugby game is played and all owe allegiance to the great controller of the game, the English Rugby Union. It is the tradition of the rugby union game that makes us stand behind that great body to which the game owes its origin.
They gave us the game and we believe that its destinies can safely be left in their hands… At all times then the rugby union stands behind its Alma Mater, not only because it believes and trusts in it, but also because it feels that by so doing the bonds of Empire are through the brotherhood of sport more closely knit.
Thanks to such deference, the RFU was able to impose its own singular view of amateurism and the way that rugby should be be played globally. This blocked the way that rugby had been developing in the late nineteenth century as a mass spectator sport in most of the rugby-playing regions of the world - and ended the possibility of rugby developing along the same commercial and professional lines as soccer.
The RFU's conception of rugby as a strictly amateur and largely non-commercial sport was initially a minority view within the game. But the RFU's institutional power over the sport and its position as the embodiment of the British Imperial 'motherland' meant that it could impose its vision on the rest of the sport - and ultimately that meant that it was soccer that would fully embrace the commercial and professional appeal of spectator sport and become the global game.
To mark the paperback publication of The Oval World, this is the second part of my October 2015 talk about the book's themes at the Institute of Historical Research.
What can rugby’s international dimension tell us about the failure of soccer to become the dominant winter sport in the USA, Australia and other Anglophone countries, or, conversely, the failure of rugby to become the world's leading football code?
In the case of the USA, Markovits and Hellerman in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism argue that soccer was ‘crowded out’ of the American sport space. Elite American universities preferred a rugby-style game because of the social prestige rugby commanded, in contrast to soccer’s plebian image. Ultimately, they attributes the failure of soccer to become the dominant form of football in the U.S. to a form of American exceptionalism.
But this analysis is based on a misunderstanding of the respective weights of the football codes in the last third of the nineteenth century. The relationship between the rugby and soccer codes until the mid- to late-1880s, in England and internationally, was the opposite of what it would later become. Rugby was the more popular of the two variants of football, both in terms of the number of clubs and the size of crowds.
This trend can be seen by looking at the dates when the governing bodies for the football codes were formed. Outside of the British Isles, only Denmark and the Netherlands had governing bodies for soccer before 1890. In the same period, governing bodies for rugby had been established in the British ‘Home’ nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as for the rugby-derived codes in Australia and the United States. And, unlike soccer, international rugby matches were also being played across the hemispheres.
Soccer found it difficult to establish itself on a permanent basis in the nineteenth century Anglophone world beyond Britain. This was not because it was viewed as suspiciously proletarian, as is often claimed by historians, but because the Rugby School-based version of football carried far greater cultural weight for the British upper middle-classes who administered the empire - and also for those who wished to emulate them in the United States and France.
Thanks in large part to the huge international popularity of Tom Brown's Schooldays, rugby embodied Muscular Christianity and so for the middle classes of the English-speaking world, it was not only fun to play and watch - although whether it provided greater fun than other codes can only ever be in the eye of the beholder - but it also had a much more explicit ideological and cultural meaning.
Although the original rules of the Rugby Football Union were quickly modified and in many cases abandoned by American football’s leaders, the cultural significance of rugby remained as part of the gridiron game. Soccer’s lack of a direct link with that ideology gave it much less resonance in the Anglophone world. And, paradoxically, it was that lack of an overt British nationalism that allowed the round-ball game to grow rapidly in the non-Anglophone world in the first decades of the twentieth century.
So, in the period that American football established itself as the dominant winter sport in the United States, soccer had a considerably weaker international profile and cultural network. It was incapable of offering the strong and self-evident ideological framework desired by the rising middle classes of the Anglophone world who promoted the rugby codes as an educational and moral force. By the time that soccer had developed a strong international network and ideological profile in the early twentieth century, American football already dominated U.S. winter sport.
A similar point could be made about soccer’s lack of prominence in the Australian sporting firmament. Echoing Markovits and Hellerman, Roy Hay and others have argued that it was the perception that soccer was a proletarian sport that caused Australian middle class sporting circles to embrace the more respectable Rugby School-derived codes of rugby union and Australian rules. But, as in the case of America, the popularity of Australian rules and rugby had been established in Australia in the 1860s and 1870s, well before soccer came to be associated with the British working classes. Even more so than in America, rugby and its variations offered a much more compelling narrative of British nationalism for the colonial middle classes who saw themselves as part of a ‘Greater Britain’.
Soccer’s inability to gain a foothold in the Anglophone world beyond Britain can therefore be traced to rugby’s deological and cultural prominence in the English-speaking sporting in the latter third of the nineteenth century, most prominently embodied in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. To put it simply, rugby ‘globalised’ across the British Empire before soccer.
Paradoxically, it was the very insularity of the British soccer authorities that would eventually allow the true globalization of their sport. Unlike the leaders of the rugby-derived codes who tightly controlled their sport’s international relationships, the intense parochialism, and huge domestic popularity, of British soccer meant that its leaders were largely uninterested in the spread of the game to Europe and therefore unconcerned by the formation of FIFA in 1904. This allowed soccer internationally to escape the control of its British founders and develop independently, based on a meritocratic ideology of a game open to all.
The legalisation of professionalism by the English FA in 1885 allowed soccer to be unshackled from the restrictive ideology of amateurism by offering an alternative ideology of meritocracy. The informal yet rigid social and cultural controls that prevailed in amateur sport were gradually dissolved by professionalism and English administrative dominance was undermined by the formal equality of professionalism, giving soccer an ‘open’ and meritocratic framework.
Put bluntly, soccer allowed anyone to play, whereas rugby union tightly controlled who was allowed to play thanks to its amateur regulations. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Argentina, where, despite being the leading sport of the 1890s, rugby union remained the sport of the Anglophile middle classes while soccer became the sport of the great mass of the Spanish- and Italian-speaking working classes.
Soccer’s global rise was therefore based on the eclipse of its British leaders by European and South American administrators - in short, soccer’s globalization required the defeat of Anglo-Saxon attitudes. And it was the reluctance of rugby’s British leadership to allow its game to spread beyond the narrow confines of the English-speaking middle-classes of the British Empire that enabled the round-ball game to overcome the early global advantages of its oval cousin.
The Oval World will be published in paperback this Friday. By way of an introduction to the book, below is the first part of an edited version of a talk I gave at the Institute of Historical Research on 5 October 2015 at the excellent Sport and Leisure History seminar series. I'll post the other two parts later this week.
Why would I want to write another book about rugby?
The most obvious answer is that being published by a major trade publisher allowed me to write for a wider audience than is usual for an academic historian, so it also gave me the opportunity to write in a different way to how I had written my previous books.
But the most important answer is that writing a global history of rugby gave me the opportunity to explore and develop themes and interconnections that are usually not possible in nationally-based histories of sport or other forms of cultural activity.
I wrote Sport in Capitalist Society partly to explore similar international themes at a much broader level across all sports, and it occurred to me that this would be an interesting thing to do with rugby. This is partly because I have obviously acquired a substantial degree of detailed knowledge of the game during the course of my previous research, but also because there is now a small but growing body of very interesting and original research on rugby around the world that is being published.
I’m thinking of Huw Richards’ work, Gwyn Prescott’s fascinating research on rugby in nineteenth century Cardiff, Geoff Levett’s work on rugby, race and empire, Liam O’Callaghan’s work on Irish rugby, particularly his 2011 book Rugby in Munster, and of course Greg Ryan’s groundbreaking work on New Zealand rugby. And there is also the emergence of some very interesting research on women in rugby.
The other thing I wanted to do was to look at the intertwined history of the two rugby codes - and also the rugby roots of American football and Aussie Rules. For a long time I’ve felt that not only have histories of sport been written from the restrictions of nationally-limited perspectives, but also that they have been considered in isolation from other sports, especially those with whom they share a common origin.
This tunnel vision is a serious weakness in the writing of the history of sport because it elevates the differences in rule books over broader social developments. This particularly applies to historians of soccer (and The Oval World does deal with the roots of both soccer and rugby), who - to give just one example - discuss the emergence of professionalism in soccer in the 1870s without making any reference to exactly the same phenomenon in rugby at exactly the same time. So the book is deliberately ecumenical in approach.
I would also add that it concerns me that there is a growing tendency for some of the most interesting history books to be published outside of academic history, which I feel is in danger of becoming overly technical and constrictively specialised. This is true for history as a whole, but especially for the history of sport. Two of the most important books on the history of soccer, David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round and Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, are examples of this trend.
So writing The Oval World was an opportunity to explore new perspectives, develop existing material and respond to the latest research in the field in a popular, but hopefully no less scholarly, format.
I would note that this is a ‘Global History’ rather than a global game. One of the problems in the use of the term globalisation is its vagueness (or perhaps that is probably one of its appeals!). We can accept that soccer is a truly global game, but rugby is not.
It is played professionally only in around a dozen countries; its global footprint has barely changed since the First World War (of the current world cup sides, only Samoa and Georgia did not play rugby before 1914), and it remains predominantly the sport of the former British and French formal and informal empires. Rugby as a global sport exists only at the level of media consumption, as a media product, rather than in its playing. And this is the case with so much sporting globalisation, an exemplar of this phenomenon being American football as played at Wembley yesterday.
So by using ‘global history’ I’ve tried to put rugby in its global political, social and cultural context - this primarily and rather obviously means looking at the game within the context of the rise and decline of the British Empire (and to a lesser extent the French Empire), two world wars, the Cold War, the international campaign against apartheid South Africa, and the rise of what is commonly called ‘neo-liberalism’ over the past thirty years.
I’ve also sought to look at the themes that historians working within global history have commonly examined, such as connections, networks and interactions across national borders (albeit in rather less academic language given the nature of the book). Incidentally, as a good starting point I’d recommend Matt Taylor’s introduction to the 2013 special issue of the Journal of Global History, for an overview of relationship between the history of sport and global history.
Rugby and Empire
The first point to make is that the emergence of rugby around the world is essentially a product of the expansion of British imperialism from the mid-nineteenth century. In one sense this is fairly obvious when we compare the world map of rugby with that of the British Empire, but there are a number of different components to it and implications that flow from that.
It is easy to forget how young the English-speaking colonies were. In Australia, the ‘First Fleet’ arrived as recently as 1788, Sydney was only incorporated as a city in 1842 and Melbourne first settled in 1835. The Cape Colony in South Africa was only settled by the British following its 1814 acquisition. In New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi was only signed in 1840. In Canada, the Act of Union that essentially created it as a unified political entity was signed in the same year, 1840.
Rugby’s arrival in these countries in the 1860s (although Melbourne quickly deviated from strict rugby rules) was co-terminous with the felt need to establish local cultural and political identities. For example, the Southern Rugby Union was formed in Australia in 1874. The Canadian Rugby Football Union was founded in 1882. Matches between Australia and New Zealand sides began in 1884 and tours to and from the British Isles started in 1888. The first British tour to South Africa took place in 1891.
This was also true in those countries with a longer national history in which the game or a version of it was imported. The end of the Civil War in the United States in 1865 led to a period of nation-building based on the victorious north (which saw the establishment of baseball as the national mass spectator sport, as well as the growth of rugby-derived American football as the national winter sport). In France the latter decades of the nineteenth century were a period in which the old regional divisions of rural France were being dismantled in favour of a unified national polity, which aimed, in Eugen Weber’s memorable phrase, to ‘turn Peasants into Frenchmen’.
Thanks to the cultural importance of Muscular Christianity to the British Empire, rugby quickly become the dominant code of football in the ‘White Dominions’. Even the distinctive form of football played in the Australian colony of Victoria, which would become known as Australian rules football, was derived from Rugby School football rules.
Rugby therefore provided a unifying cultural practice to which its adherents added a sense of moral righteousness. The most obvious expression of this was the popularity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1857, across the English-speaking world (and in France, where it became the bible of Anglophone educationalists, such as Baron de Coubertin). Tom Brown became a handbook for private and grammar schools around the empire, and those schools that followed its lead invariably adopted rugby as their winter sport.
And despite their deviation from rugby rules, Aussie Rules and American football also sought legitimacy from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the Muscular Christian traditions of Rugby School - for example the New York Times published the book’s description of Tom’s first football match as part of the preview of the 1872 Yale-Columbia gridiron game.
Tom Brown itself was an example of transnational print networks across the British Empire, something which can also be seen in the increasing newspaper coverage of sport around the world. This coverage, especially in the colonies, was transnational from the start - anyone who has used the fantastic ‘Past Papers’ digital archive of Nineteenth Century NZ newspapers can see that the column inches devoted by the NZ press to sport in Britain and the Empire were extraordinarily extensive.
It is also the case that Rugby School itself had an extensive imperial network of old boys of Rugby School who actively proselytised for rugby wherever they found themselves - far more than any other public school, the disciples of Thomas Arnold saw themselves as moral and cultural missionaries for the values of Muscular Christianity. I gave a talk in Rugby last week at the town’s rugby union world cup festival with Rusty Maclean, Rugby School’s Archivist and Librarian, and as the audiences asked questions about the origins of rugby in this and that country, Rusty recounted the name of at least one old boy who had been instrumental in the establishment of the game in that country. This was the imperial network connection at its most personal.
As it became established across the Anglophone world, rugby also provided a direct link back to the imperial centre for the white British colonies, as demonstrated by tours to and from the colonies, beginning with the unofficial British tour organised in 1888 by Arthur Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw. But as well as such practical links, the game quickly became part of the cultural glue that connected the colonies to the Mother Country. This can be seen in South Africa, which had originally played a form of football based on the rules of Winchester College, but in 1879 switched to rugby and thus deepened its direct links to ‘Home’ and the rest of the empire.
It’s important to remember that there was a great deal of agency about rugby’s imperial role - this was not an unconscious process and individual proselytism contributed to enhancing this role. The sport’s advocates were enthusiastic promoters of its imperialmission. Rowland Hill, the RFU secretary from 1881-1904, declared that international tours were ‘of great Imperial importance in binding together the Mother Country with the Overseas Dominions’.
Welcoming the 1904 British rugby team to Australia, J.C. Davis, Sydney’s leading sports journalist of the time, echoed this when he wrote that sporting tours created ‘an extended feeling of appreciation and racial sympathy. They have incidentally shown to the muscular Britisher at home that the Britisher abroad and his sinewy colonial descendants are not aliens because thousands of miles of sea intervene.’
There is one other point that should be made about transnational networks. Player mobility between Britain and the white dominions was extensive from the 1880s. The imperial educational and professional business networks meant that considerable numbers of players from Australia, NZ and SA came to study or work in England and Scotland. In 1883 the Australian Charles Wade appeared on the wing for England against Scotland before returning to Sydney and playing for New South Wales against the visiting unofficial British side in 1888.
Wade, like many subsequent non-native internationals, was a student at Oxford. In 1903 Scots had a three-quarter line of two Australians, a Kiwi and a South African, and more famously the great Scots sides of the 1920s boasted Johnnie Wallace, who would return to Australia to captain the 1927 Waratahs, Ian Smith of Melbourne and former All Black George Aitkin. Blair Swannell played for the Lions in 1899 and 1904 and then for Australia against the All Blacks in 1905.
This transnational mobility was replicated in rugby league, although whereas as rugby union’s migratory pattern was based on middle-class occupational and educational links, rugby league’s comprised working-class professional players. Thus, after the foundation of the game in Australia and NZ in 1907, dozens of players moved from down under to play in England - a pattern that continued unabated up to the present. Australians like Albert Rosenfeld and New Zealanders like Lance Todd became household names in British rugby league, decades before soccer started importing players from outside of Britain.
So rugby of both codes in many ways represented a classic example of the process that global historians have identified in politics, business and many other cultural activities. Rugby’s development involved transnational links, connections and networks, none of which were independent of each other - and its development as an international sport was dependent on the emergence not only of a new stage in the development of British and French imperialism, but on the ease of communication, travel and media.
- - part two will look at how soccer came to eclipse rugby as the world sport