Why does rugby league have a six-tackle rule? The short answer is that the rule was introduced in 1972 and has never seriously been questioned since.
But the roots of the rule go back to the very origins of rugby - and one fundamental question of the game: what happens when the ball carrier is tackled?
Unlike soccer, where the handball rule makes it impossible to use spoiling tactics by continually holding onto the ball, it is a problem affects all handling codes of football.
Rugby union’s solution, that a ruck, a maul or a scrum be formed so that forwards can push for the ball, came to be seen by founders of rugby league as unsatisfactory because it reduced the opportunities for open rugby.
They weren’t the only ones to think this way. Across the Atlantic, American and Canadian football abandoned union rules in the 1880s. They introduced their own type of play-the-ball, allowing the ball to be heeled, and eventually passed, back to the quarterback after a tackle.
In 1906 the Northern Union introduced the play-the-ball to overcome the problem of union rules, although there is no evidence that they were influenced by the North Americans. At the time, the play-the-ball was seen as a return to the original rugby union rule, where the tackled player put the ball on the ground for a scrum to be formed.
In fact it was a half-way house between the union scrum and the gridiron scrimmage. The Northern Union wanted to make the contest for the ball secondary to the running, handling and tackling features of rugby.
The play-the-ball was seen as a kind of two-man scrum, in which a tackled player had to get to his feet, put the ball on the ground and then try to heel it back to a team-mate, known as the acting half-back or dummy half.
It was seen by everyone in the game as a qualitative improvement over union’s method of restarting play, and the speed it allowed the ball to be passed to the backs was one of the reasons why French journalists in the 1930s nicknamed league ‘lightning rugby’.
But it was not without problems. Firstly, like the real scrum, it offered lots of scope for cheating and rule-bending. The team in possession would do anything to keep the ball, and the defending team would do anything to get it back. Penalties were common.
But the most obvious problem was that it gave the team in possession the option to completely monopolise possession, simply by the dummy half not passing or kicking.
One of the most infamous examples of the ‘creeping barrage,’ as it became known was at the 1951 Championship semi-final. A twelve-man Workington Town were defending an 8-5 lead against Wigan when Town’s captain-coach Gus Risman ordered his players not to pass or kick the ball for the last fifteen minutes of the match:
‘They would be tackled, play the ball to the acting half-back, who would move forward two yards and then go down in a tackle. He would then play the ball to the acting-half back, who would move forward two yards and then go down in a tackle. And so it went on ad infinitum.’
Clearly something had to be done and the RFL spent much of the 1950s and 1960s trying to find a solution.
One option was vigorously pursued by Bill Fallowfield. Within months of being appointed RFL secretary in 1946 he proposed a rugby union-style method of releasing the ball in the tackle.
Although opposed by most clubs and the rest of the league-playing world, Fallowfield tried a number of times to introduce a union-style rule to the game. Bizarrely, he was supported by the Duke of Edinburgh, who had presented the trophy at the 1955 Challenge Cup final and remarked that he didn’t like the play-the-ball.
Experimental matches using the rule were played in 1958 and 1961 (a match played in by Ray French who described it as ‘a disaster’), culminating in possibly the most unattractive tournament in the history of rugby league, 1964’s ‘Bottom 14 Play-Offs’.
The farcical nature of the Bottom 14 cup finally killed off any hope that Fallowfield had of bringing in the rugby union rule. But it didn’t mean an end to the problems of the play the ball.
Saints go marching on and on and on...
In the end, the solution was not Twickenham but Transatlantic. Having given up on the union rule, Fallowfield proposed to the 1966 RL International Board meeting that it should adopt American football’s four downs followed by a turnover. The New Zealand delegates amended this to have a scrum formed on the fourth tackle, and, out of the blue, the game had a new rule.
Traditionally, Australian and New Zealand delegates opposed changing the play-the-ball rule. But Australia now had its own problem. St George had won the Sydney premiership ten consecutive times and were about to make it eleven later that year.
Although there is no evidence for St George fans’ belief that the rule was deliberately changed to stop them winning, the Dragons’ total domination meant that the Australian representatives were more receptive to ideas to make the game more competitive.
Back in England, the rule was trialled in the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in October 1966. After a handful of matches it became obvious that it encouraged attacking play and speeded up the game considerably. From November 1966 four tackles became the rule for all matches.
It was a success throughout the league world. Australia’s Bill Buckley said the new rule had ‘revitalised’ the game. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the new rule also coincided with the end of St George’s amazing premiership run when Canterbury finally ended the Dragons’ streak with a 12-11 win in the 1967 preliminary final.
In 1972 four tackles were extended to six in the belief, which proved to be correct, that it would allow more structured attacking play to develop. 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 in the early 1990s when striking for the ball at the play-the-ball was outlawed, removing the last vestiges of the old ‘mini-scrum’ and making it simply a device for restarting play.
‘No Contest for Possession?’
Does this mean that there is no longer a ‘contest for possession’ in league, as rugby union critics claim?
Of course not. The controversy over stripping the ball in the tackle, the importance of ‘ball security,’ and coaches’ obsession with completing sets of six tackles shows that the struggle for the ball is as important to league as it is to union, but in a different way.
What’s more, there is far less of a contest for the ball in union than its supporters would like to believe. A 2005 report by union’s International Rugby Board admitted that 'the contest for possession [in rugby union] is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed', finding that for every fourteen completed tackles, the ball was retained by the attacking side.
In league terms would be considered a ninety-two per cent completion rate. In contrast, a league side which retains the ball for only eighty per cent of its tackles would be considered to be doing well. In short, it is far easier to monopolise possession in union than it is league
Ironically, the IRB report also found that in the 1980s union teams turned the ball over to their opponents on average once every six tackles - just as in league. But in the 2000s, the ball was turned over only once in twenty-three tackles.
Rugby Evolution... Again
So the evidence is that rugby union’s version of the ‘contest for the ball’ results in less variation in the game and allows one side to dominate possession.
But this should come as no surprise - because this is precisely why rugby league introduced the play-the-ball and limited tackles in the first place.
This is because there is an ‘iron law’ of evolution for all the handling codes of football: the team in possession of the ball will do everything to keep hold of it. Players will cheat, coaches will scheme and rule-makers will fight a losing battle.
Rugby league’s genius is that it has always been sensitive to the needs of the game to adapt its rules to emphasise its spirit - running fast, passing accurately, tackling hard and scoring tries.
And, almost forty years since it was introduced, the six tackle rule has been crucial not only to preserving the essence of rugby league but also to its expansion around the world.
For anyone who wants to pick up an oval ball and run with it, the six tackle rule lets them do it better than any other football code.