Why is rugby league 13-a-side?

For a rugby league fan, there’s something magical about the number thirteen. It’s unique in the world of sport - no-one else has thirteen-a-side teams.

But it could have been very different. The move to thirteen-a-side was part of rugby’s evolutionary path that had begun in the 1870s.

And that evolution could have so easily led to rugby league being a twelve-a-side game.

In the beginning...

From the 1860s, adult rugby was played by twenty players on each side. Most of them were forwards. When England played Scotland in the first-ever rugby international in 1871 England played thirteen forwards. Scotland went one better and played fourteen.

This did not make for much of a spectacle. ‘How much longer are we to be wearied by monotonous shoving matches instead of spirited scrummages?’ asked the London weekly Bell’s Life in 1875. It was not alone.

Many in the RFU also thought that rugby had become boring and dominated by scrummaging. So in 1875 the Oxford versus Cambridge university match was played fifteen-a-side and the following season international matches became fifteen-a-side.

The move to fifteen-a-side led to a number of key changes to the way rugby was played.

It made it easier for the ball to come out of the scrum. The danger of a forward breaking away with the ball also meant that a third three-quarter had to be added to defend against the quick breakaway. And passing the ball between backs became more common.

The game was beginning to change. But not as quickly as many hoped.

The rugby reformers

As rugby spread beyond its original confines of the public and grammar schools, new players and spectators came into the game with different conceptions of how the game should be played.

In Wales in the 1880s, the dynamic unleashed by the move to fifteen-a-side led to the number of threequarters being increased from three to four, to encourage the scoring of tries and fast, open play. Yet, some traditional sides in England and Scotland were still playing with two threequarters and ten forwards.

In the north of England, the Welsh reforms were taken up by some clubs. The all-conquering Yorkshire side moved to the four threequarter system under the leadership of star centre and captain Dicky Lockwood.

Even so, many still felt that rugby was in need of more radical change. In 1892, leading Yorkshire official James Miller suggested that, just as rugby had moved from twenty to fifteen-a-side, it was now time to move to thirteen-a-side.

The ‘pushing age’ of the forward game was now over, he argued. Miller was supported by leading Huddersfield official William Hirst and by a growing body of opinion in Lancashire.

The change to thirteen-a-side was not merely seen as the next stage in the evolution of rugby. It was also seen as essential to counter the growing popularity of soccer. In Lancashire the round ball game was forcing rugby out of former strongholds in Manchester and Liverpool, and was also establishing beachheads in Yorkshire.

But the debate on the development of the game’s rules was engulfed by the civil war that broke out over broken-time in the 1890s.

The RFU’s increasing determination to drive out the northern clubs overshadowed meaningful debate and the RFU’s rules became frozen in time for the next century.

New horizons for the Northern Union

So not surprisingly, within weeks of the 1895 split the Northern Union re-started the discussion about the rules of rugby. Halifax and Leeds both proposed an immediate switch to thirteen-a-side.

Leeds official Harry Sewell said 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’.

In December 1895 Halifax’s Joe Nicholl called for Northern Union rugby to be played ‘by thirteen players on each side and to consist of six forwards, two half backs, four threequarters and one full back’.

Although the proposal was met initially with enthusiasm, not for the first time the game’s officials opted for a conservative approach and voted to keep teams at fifteen-a-side.

But the issue would not go away.

To make a more exciting brand of rugby, the NU was slowly moving the game away from rugby union rules. In 1897 the line-out had been abolished on the grounds that more often than not it led to a scrum.

And in the same year the value of all goals had been reduced to two points, making tries the main method of scoring. Tries were worth three points and all goals worth just two points, in contrast to union’s three-point penalty goals and four-point drop goals.

Twelve-a-side league?

Yet the game was still bogged down in scrummaging. In an attempt to end the log-jam, Halifax and Oldham played a friendly using teams of twelve-a-side in 1900.

The experiment was repeated in local factory and schools competitions during the season and the following year a twelve-a-side England versus Wales match was played as a testimonial for Broughton Rangers’ great Welsh half-back Evan James.

It was the 1903 Challenge Cup final, ironically won by Halifax over Salford, that almost made twelve-a-side the norm. The game was widely thought to be the dullest final since the Challenge Cup started in 1897.

So, just a few weeks after Halifax’s triumph, the Northern Union’s annual general meeting discussed a permanent move to twelve-a-side, with teams comprising six forwards, two half-backs, three three-quarters and one full-back.

But the proposal failed by just five votes. Even so, it was agreed that non-professional matches could be played as twelve-a-side and within a year almost all games outside of the elite ranks were twelve-a-side.

If just three officials had voted differently in 1903, rugby league would have become the twelve-a-side game.

Lucky 13

The failure to abandon fifteen-a-side left the game in limbo. So it was no surprise when in June 1906 the Northern Union’s annual general meeting once again discussed the number of players on a team. There were four different options.

Bradford, who would defect to soccer the following year leaving their loyalists to carry on as Bradford Northern, wanted the NU to revert back to rugby union rules. This had no chance of being approved.

Whitehaven Recs argued for the complete embrace of twelve-a-side, while St Helens, completely out of the blue, proposed fourteen-a-side.

But it was Warrington, seconded by Leigh, who moved that the NU should adopt thirteen-a-side. It was passed uncontroversially by 43 votes to 18. Warrington official Harry Ashton told the meeting that not only would the new rule produce a better game, it was also save many clubs around £100 a year in wages.

Combined the introduction of the play-the-ball rule in the same year - previously a scrum was formed after every completed tackle - the change to thirteen-a-side marked the birth of modern rugby league.

The new rules were an instant success. A record-breaking 800 points were scored in the first two weeks of the 1906-07 season. The leading sports weekly of the time, the Athletic News, summed up the changes with the headline, ‘The New Rules Completely Vindicated’.

Hunslet official T.V. Harrison captured the feelings of most rugby supporters in the North of England when he said, ‘The game as now played was the best that had ever been played by either the Northern Union or the Rugby Union’.

The magic number?

That judgment was shared by everyone in rugby league. Thirteen-a-side has never really been seriously questioned. Occasionally there have been calls for twelve and even eleven-a-side, but for all the changes that league has seen, the size of the team has been the least questioned.

But rugby union, slowly following the evolutionary path set by the Northern Union, has experimented with thirteen-a-side matches.

The increasing size of players and the influence of rugby league defensive coaches mean that there is far less room on the pitch in union than league.

Every sinew of tradition will strain against it but, just the Northern Union discovered, union will eventually be confronted with the necessity of change.

But whatever other sports do in the future, there is no league supporter who would do doubt the wisdom of the move to thirteen-a-side.

As Northern Union president J.B. Cooke wrote exactly one hundred years ago, ‘through many bitter criticisms, the men who led the game have brought forward the finest game of Rugby football that has ever been conceived’.

It is a view that has stood the test of time.

- This piece first appeared in Rugby League World, January 2011