1895: the aftermath

Most people know what happened at the George Hotel in Huddersfield on 29 August 1895. Twenty-one of Britain’s leading rugby clubs met to resign from the RFU and form the Northern Rugby Football Union, legalising ‘broken time’ payments to players and marking the start of what we know today as rugby league.

But what is not so well-known is how popular the split was among players and fans or how deeply the split affected rugby across the north of England. The split opened up a period of turmoil that caused passionate debate and enmities that would last a century and more.

No-one can doubt that the formation of the Northern Union had overwhelming support from players and supporters alike. Bradford’s players threatened to strike if the club did not support the new NU and supporters raised petitions in the pubs of Bradford calling for the club to back the split.

The club’s international three-quarter Tommy Dobson said that ‘all Yorkshire owes a debt of gratitude to the senior clubs for speaking out so plainly in favour of what should be the leading element in sport - truth’. Just six members resigned in protest.

At Leeds a special general meeting was held which voted decisively to support the splitters, resulting in two resignations from the club. Newspapers reported that the players in Huddersfield ‘naturally champion the Northern Union and a very large section of spectators of matches take the same side’. At Broughton Rangers, the motion to join the NU was moved by the club captain and carried unanimously. Hunslet, St Helens, Manningham, Hull and Leigh were similarly united.

Although they had attended the meeting at the George Hotel, Dewsbury did not join the NU and stayed loyal to the RFU. It was not a popular decision. A local journalist reported that ‘there wasn’t a single supporter who wouldn’t say “Let us have the Northern Union and the sooner the better”.’

The popularity of the NU was demonstrated at a special meeting in September of the Hull and District RFU (the forerunner of today’s Hull & District RL) which voted 33-24 to resign from the RFU and join the NU, even though the NU had no mechanism for district bodies or junior clubs to affiliate.

After the Aftermath

The summer of 1896 saw Lancashire’s two remaining big clubs join the NU. Both Salford and Swinton had balked at splitting from the RFU due to personal antagonism and organisational jealousy, but in April 1896 Salford held a special meeting to discuss joining the NU; only three people opposed the switch. Rochdale St Clements, Radcliffe, Werneth, Morecambe and many others followed suit that summer. Most of Warrington’s local clubs went at the same time, as did around fifty clubs which formed the Oldham Junior Rugby League.

At the same time in Yorkshire most of the clubs who had played in the first division of Yorkshire rugby union’s leagues decamped to the NU. Leeds Parish Church, that season’s champions, had only five votes against their switch of allegiance. In June 1897 Hull KR, that year’s Yorkshire cup and league champions, went over and the following summer most of what remained of the first and second divisions resigned en bloc to form the second division of the Yorkshire NU.

By June 1897 there were no rugby union clubs in the Halifax district, which was described by a Sowerby Bridge rugby union supporter as being ‘a hot bed of Northern Unionism bigotry’. At the start of the following season the Yorkshire Post reported that ‘in Leeds, rugby union football is practically non-existent’.

The Bradford and Huddersfield district rugby unions voted to disaffiliate from the YRU and affiliate to the NU. In 1899 Hebden Bridge, Ossett, Kirkstall and Alverthorpe flew the nest and in the summer of 1900 Keighley, Otley and Bingley decided that ‘the interest has gone out of rugby union’ and joined the NU.

NU triumphant

At its opening round in 1901, rugby union’s Yorkshire Cup, once one of the biggest sporting contests in Britain, which once attracted bigger crowds than the FA Cup final, and which at its height had 132 clubs, could only muster 11 clubs.

It is also worth noting that two of Yorkshire’s current leading rugby union clubs - Morley and Otley - owe their origins to the aftermath of 1895. The original Morley club joined the NU in May 1897 when a majority voted to leave the RFU. Two months later supporters of the RFU founded a new club, ‘Morley English Rugby Football Club’, to which the present union club owes its origins.

And the original Otley rugby club left the RFU in 1900 and played rugby league for six seasons before disbanding due to financial problems. The current Otley club was founded as a rugby union club only in 1907.

In the North West, Barrow - the region’s leading club - voted unanimously to join the NU in April 1897. Ulverston (who faced a petition raised by fans), Millom and the rest of the followed them in July. By the summer of 1897 the Lancashire Rugby Union had only thirteen clubs, focused on the traditional ex-public schoolboy sides.

The loss of the north-west Lancashire clubs had a knock-on effect on Cumberland and Westmoreland clubs, and at the start of the 1898-99 season Athletic News commented that rugby union in Cumberland had been reduced ‘to an almost vanishing quality’. By January 1899 there was not a single rugby union club left in west Cumberland.

RFU cuts off own nose

The near-death experience of rugby union in the North was not simply due to the Northern Union. It also owed something to the behaviour of the RFU. Immediately after the split the RFU declared that playing for or against an NU team was an act of professionalism, punishable by a life ban from rugby union. This immediately posed problems at a local level.

For example, Beverley FC were left with virtually no fixtures after clubs in the Hull and District Rugby Union voted to support the NU. When they played matches with NU supporting clubs the Yorkshire Rugby Union expelled them.

But it wasn’t just clubs that were threatened. Any player who had any contact with the NU was thrown out of the Rugby Union. In February 1896, a Wyke player was banned for life for travelling with Brighouse Rangers to a match at Leigh, despite not even playing in the match! Elland had two players banned because one of their players had earlier played for a rugby union side against a team which contained a NU player.

Most bizarrely of all, in January 1898 Goole RUFC were ordered not to play a charity rugby match against a touring Little Red Riding Hood pantomime troupe; this was deemed to be an act of professionalism because earlier on its tour the troupe had played in a charity match with Batley!

The old returns as the new

It was only after 1900 that rugby union in the North of England slowly began to rebuild itself. The Yorkshire Rugby Union led the way, encouraging new clubs to be formed by ‘the class of players who hitherto have been elbowed out in the evolution of professionalism’.

Clubs began to be formed by ex-public and grammar schoolboys. Old Dewsburians was formed ‘by some of the better class Dewsbury and Batley residents’. Hull and East Riding club was set up ‘by the sons of Hull and district’s leading citizens’ and Wakefield RFC was founded by ‘Grammar School old boys and others’.

In Lancashire, the Furness, Oldham, Leigh and Vale of Lune rugby union clubs were formed in a similar fashion. By 1907, it was estimated that over 180 of those currently playing rugby union in Yorkshire were former public schoolboys, which, considering that the YRU had barely twenty clubs, accounted for at least half the players in the county.

Heart and Soul

The traditional idea that the split in 1895 was a ‘breakaway’ from rugby union underestimates the sheer scale of what happened in 1895. The entire heart and soul of rugby in the north went over to the Northern Union. Its senior clubs were the strongest in England and its local junior sides (known today as community clubs) were at the core of rugby’s local appeal across the north.

The rugby tradition that had been created in the north since the Yorkshire Cup was first played for in 1877 and which had seen rugby become the dominant sport in Yorkshire, Cumbria and large parts of Lancashire was continued by the Northern Union. It was rugby union that had to recreate a new tradition of its own.

If the meeting at the George in 1895 signaled the start of rugby league as we know it today, the aftermath of the split showed that it was the Northern Union that carried on the historic traditions of rugby in the north.

What was rugby called before 1895?

This post was first published on rugby reloaded.com on 12 September 2010.

I've just noticed a discussion on the Total RL Fans Forum about what rugby was called before 1895. Was it simply called rugby, with the implication that the name ‘rugby union’ emerged later to reflect the split?

The simple answer, as someone on the forum pointed out, is that before 1895 most people would have referred to the game as football. That's because the Rugby and Association codes were seen as variants of a generic game called ‘football’.

It’s probably the case that ‘football’ did not become the exclusive property of the dribbling code until the inter-war years (for example, my grandfather, born in 1907, always referred to rugby league simply as ‘football’). What's more, even today Rugby School refers to the game it originated as football.

But using 'football' in such a broad way could obviously be confusing. So journalists would often identify a code by referring to the name of its governing body - the Association game (after the Football Association) and the Rugby Union game, often shortened to Rugby football. (And after the split, what we know as rugby league was referred to as Northern Union football, hence Bradford Northern’s name).

This can be seen in the title of the Rugby Union Football Handbook, first published in 1889 and, more famously, in Frank Marshall’s 1892 history of rugby Football: The Rugby Union Game.

The hidden history of Sevens and 'short-form' rugby

This post was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com on 21 August 2010.

Although Wednesday’s Carnegie 9s is one of rugby league’s newest competitions, it builds on a tradition of ‘limited player’ or 'short form' rugby that dates back over 130 years.

Today, the seven-a-side rugby union circuit is a never-ending smorgasbord of corporate hospitality junkets and, of course, the 'short form' game will be played at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Open any match programme or web page about sevens and you'll be told that the limited player version of rugby was invented in Melrose in Scotland in April 1883.

But that’s not quite true.

Although the idea to have seven players per side may have started in Melrose, that was certainly neither the first nor even the only version of limited player rugby.

Huddersfield again

If anything, Melrose was behind the times. In fact, it appears that the first type of 'short form' rugby began with a six-a-side tournament in Huddersfield in 1879.

This first six-a-side tournament took place on 13 September 1879 and was organised by Huddersfield Cricket & Athletic Club (the foreunner of today’s Huddersfield Giants).

Leeds, Dewsbury, Bradford (today’s Bulls), Leeds St Johns (today’s Rhinos), Huddersfield themselves, Bradford Juniors and Kirkstall entered for the chance to win six silver cups, with six leather bags for the runners-up. Playing regular rugby rules in ten-minute halves, Huddersfield's six over-ran Leeds 23-0 in the final.

Other six-a-side tournaments were played over the next three or four years, with Dewsbury, Bramley, Cleckheaton, Wakefield and Leeds Parish Church all hosting contests. Six-a-sides were played during the summer, usually at athletic carnivals, with the aim of raising money for the club or, more often, for local hospital charities.

When Six became Nine

But by the mid-1880s the popularity of six-a-sides appears to have been eclipsed by the nine-a-side form of the game.

In August 1881 Batley staged the first nine-a-side tournament. Seven clubs entered, competing for a first prize of nine Vienna Regulators (a type of pendulum wall clock), valued at £2 10s each, and nine gentleman's travelling bags for the runners-up.

Dewsbury defeated Batley in the final, but the match ended in uproar, as Batley historian C.F. Shaw described in his 1899 book The Gallant Youths:

The Batley men declared that three points had to be obtained before a win could be claimed. This view was stoutly opposed by Dewsbury, and when the referee, a Mr Bentley of Heckmondwike, was appealed to, he waived his decision which so exasperated a certain section f the crowd that a free fight ensued. The referee was expected to attend a meeting of the Batley committee, but failed to make his appearance, as he had received several threatening letters in regard to the contest; and the committee decided to submit the matter to the editor of the Athletic News, and abide by his decision, which was given in favour of Dewsbury

Batley became the centre of summer 9s competitions. In 1885 two to three thousand people gathered at Batley Town Hall to see them receive the silver trophy from the mayor. The fact they had defeated Barrow in the final showed the appeal of the limited player game to fans and clubs alike.

Nine-a-side tournaments were staged throughout the 1880s in Leeds, Castleford, Dewsbury, Huddersfield and also in Lancashire, attracting large crowds and raising thousands of pounds for local charities.

Union authorities cut nines down to size

So why did nines die out? As you might guess, the leadership of rugby union were not keen on limited player contests.

This was due to two reasons. Most tournaments were played outside of the regular season using modified rules, thus undermining the official leadership of the game. For example, the 1881 Batley tournament was played under a point-scoring system. A converted try was worth eight points, a goal was six and an unconverted try four. But at this time, official rugby union rules only counted goals as a method of scoring.

The second problem for the authorities was that the limited player contests were suspected of professionalism. The prizes were often valuable and it was well-known that players would often simply sell-on the clocks and medals for their cash value.

And some tournaments even offered cash prizes, strictly against RFU rules. Wakefield's 1882 six-a-side contest saw the winning Thornes' players pick up two pounds each.

In August 1890, the Yorkshire Rugby Union suspended eight teams for playing in a summer six-a-side tournament. The following month the Lancashire Rugby Union outlawed limited player contests. Feelings ran 'very strongly against the nine-a-side game during the closed season and it was decided that in future no more contests be allowed during the summer,' stated a Lancashire spokesman.

This marked the end of the line for sixes and nines, early victims of the convulsions in rugby that would be caused by the RFU's campaign for pure amateurism.

Innovation and Tradition

The limited player version of rugby continued only in the Border region of Scotland, where it spread to other towns in the area after emerging in Melrose.

Isolated from the rugby union mainstream, the Borders seven-a-side version of the game continued largely unnoticed until 1926, when, freed of its previous associations with rule-changes and professionalism, limited player rugby was allowed back into English rugby union with the start of the Middlesex Sevens.

But, as with so many innovations in rugby, the initial impulse for limited player rugby came from those clubs in the north of England who were to revolutionise the sport and found the Northern Union.

Rugby union may have forgotten its own history but, when you go down to Headingley to watch this year's Carnegie 9s on Wednesday, take a few seconds to remember that you're watching one of rugby's oldest innovations and longest lasting traditions.

'Invictus': whitewash meets fairytale

This post was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com on 8 March 2010.

There's been an ocean of ink written about Clint Eastwood's latest movie Invictus. But perhaps the verdict on the 1995 Springboks should be delivered by Chester Williams, the side's only black player.

Interviewed in the Guardian in 2002 he recalled that in 1995:

"The marketing men branded me a product of development and a sign of change," he says. "Nothing could have been more of a lie. I wasn't a pioneer. Other black players had been Springboks before me, one of them in my own family [his uncle Avril was capped in 1984]. More have followed me. They know the vibe. They have felt it and been demoralised by it."

The mood in the [Springboks' world cup] camp, he says, was, give or take the odd James Small barb, "nothing malicious". There was rather an overwhelming sense that he did not deserve his place in the team and a low-level resentment that his very presence for political reasons meant a white player was being deprived of his opportunity.

"It could never occur to them that a black player could be better than a white," he says. "They only tolerated us in the team because it made them look as though they had embraced change. You know, much of it was born of the belief that being white in South Africa somehow made you superior to anyone born black."

The proof of his position dawned on him when he was dropped from the 1999 World Cup squad. The then coach, Nick Mallett, told him the team had enough black players to fulfil the terms of a newly imposed government quota and frankly the only way a black player was ever going to get into his side was through a quota.

"All I ever wanted was to be accepted as a rugby player," says Williams. "I hated being called a 'quota player'. That suggested I didn't deserve my place in the team. Until then I really believed my performances in 1995 and after that had broken down prejudices and changed mind-sets. That hurt."

So much for bringing 'people together through the universal language of sport' as the movie claims.

A game for all shapes and sizes?

This was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com, 21 February 2010

One of the hallowed shibboleths of rugby union is that it is 'a game for all shapes and sizes'. Indeed, this is often held up as a positive distinguishing feature from league.

In reality, this was usually a euphemism for justifying the inclusion of unfit fat blokes in the scrum and failed basketball players in the line-out. But, as soccer writer Harry Pearson pointed out recently in the Guardian, the view that union today is a game for all shapes and sizes bears no relation to reality.

To demonstrate that it is indeed a myth, let’s compare the heights and weights of the England league and union teams that played against the Kangaroos and the Wallabies in November 2009, in the Four Nations final and at Twickenham respectively.

Both were fairly typical of the type of sides which the RFL and RFU have fielded in modern times and so offer good examples to test the idea that union is ‘a game for shapes and sizes’ when compared to league.

When we look at the England league side, the heights of players rise from five feet, six inches (Kyle Eastmond) to six feet, five inches (Jamie Peacock and Sam Burgess), a range of eleven inches.

In contrast, the heights of the England union side start at five feet, eight inches (Danny Care) and go to six feet, seven inches (Matt Banahan), exactly the same range of eleven inches. There was precisely no difference in the range of heights between the two squads.

Six of the 17 England RL players measured exactly six feet tall or less, whereas seven out of the twenty-two England RU squad were six feet or less, a statistically insignificant difference.

The average height of the league backs was five feet, eleven inches, whereas the average height of their union counterparts was six feet exactly, although one could argue that winger Matt Banahan’s six feet, seven inches exaggerated the union average.

The league forwards averaged six feet, two and a half inches, whereas the union forwards measured six feet, three and a third inches.

In terms of height, there is practically no difference between league players and union players, and certainly no evidence to support the ‘all shapes’ mythology.

But what about size and weight?

In terms of weight, the league backs range from eleven stones, eleven pounds (Eastmond again) to fourteen stones, ten pounds (Shaun Briscoe), a range of two stones, eleven pounds. Their average weight was thirteen stones, two and a half pounds.

The union backs ranged from twelve stones, two pounds (Paul Hodgson) to Banahan’s eighteen stones and one pound, a range of five stones, thirteen pounds. Even if we leave Banahan out, the range would be five stones and two pounds, thanks to Ayoola Erinle’s seventeen stone, four pounds frame. Their average weight was fourteen stones and ten pounds.

The league forwards started at thirteen stones and seven pounds (James Roby) and rose to nineteen stones and one pound (Eorl Crabtree), a range of five stones and eight pounds.

In contrast, the weights of the union forwards went from sixteen stones and three pounds (Lewis Moody) to nineteen stones and ten pounds (Duncan Bell), a range of three stones and seven pounds. In this case the range of weight was greater in the league pack.

However, they were considerably lighter. The league pack averaged fifteen stones and eight pounds, while the union forwards weighed in at seventeen stones and ten pounds. In short, there’s a greater range of weights among the league forwards but the union forwards are considerably heavier.

On the basis of this evidence, there is absolutely no truth in the idea that rugby union is ‘a game for all shapes and sizes’.

In fact, there’s marginally more variation in the England league team, but this could easily disappear depending on selections, for example if Leon Pryce was selected at stand-off or Eorl Crabtree was replaced by Gareth Carvell.

On the whole, the union players are slightly taller and somewhat heavier, but it is historically the case that privately-educated youths are physically bigger than their working-class counterparts (thirteen of the twenty-two union players went to private schools, none of the league players did).

Of course, the extra weight of the union forwards is essential for all the scrummaging work they put in, whereas the league forwards cannot afford to carry such bulk because of their involvement in running the ball.

It may be the case that the beanpole second-rower has died out in union since the legalisation of lifting in the line-out, reducing the variation within union sides, but I suspect that any variation has always been exaggerated, mainly by proselytising school teachers who tried to promote union ahead of soccer and league.

Like so many other myths about the game, the idea that rugby union is ‘a game for all shapes and sizes’ reflects not so much the reality of the game but they way its supporters wished it was. And like all of those fantasies, it collapses as soon as it comes out contact with reality.