A Rugby Time-Tunnel

The British Film Institute has recently reposted some of its historic Northern Union films on its redesigned website

They are a treasure trove for anyone interested in the early history of rugby. The website has films of Dewsbury v Manningham, Halifax v Salford and Salford v Batley (all from 1901) Hull FC v Wigan, Hull KR v Wigan and a Hull derby (all from 1902). 

The films show us the evolution of rugby league mid-way between the split with rugby union in 1895, when union rules were still largely used, and 1906, when the game decisively left union behind with the introduction of thirteen-a-side and the play-the-ball.

As well as glimpses of great players like Dicky Lockwood (running out for Dewsbury against Manningham), Albert Goldthorpe (in the Hunslet v Leeds clip) and Jim Lomas (playing for Salford at Halifax and at home to Batley), and of grounds that are now long gone, the films show us the game as it was played, something which is impossible to visualise from newspaper reports.

Perhaps the biggest difference from today is the sheer number of scrums. As the films shows, a scrum took place after every tackle. This rule was introduced in 1899 to cut down on the monotonous rucking and mauling that took place after a tackle in rugby union. 

Although it seems illogical to our eyes, part of the logic behind this move was that, as play invariably broke down after a maul or ruck and resulted in a scrum, why not go straight to the scrum. 

The other point to remember is that these scrums were formed very quickly, as can be seen from the films. Even so, the number of scrums in a match would often exceed one hundred and the problem of what to do with the ball after a tackle was only solved with the introduction of the play-the-ball in 1906.

The scrums themselves are very different from both league and union scrums today. Up until the 1920s, most sides packed down according to the ‘first up, first down’ principle, whereby the first forwards to reach the scrum formed the front row. 

Consequently there were rarely any fixed positions for forwards, But, as quickly becomes apparent when watching the films, the way scrums formed varied from team to team. With eight forwards packing down, some teams - as can be seen by Hull KR in their match against Wigan in 1902 - occasionally have a front-row of two forwards, the aim being to push through their opponents’ front row.

Because there was no rule at the time to say how the scrum should be formed, we can also see front rows of four forwards.  The films also highlight how the struggle to get the loose-head in the scrum (in order to get a clear view of the ball going into the tunnel) often resulted in the prop-forward who lost the loose-head racing round to the other side of the scrum to re-join the front row.

The huge difference from today in the skills used by the forwards can also be seen in the way they regularly attempt to dribble the ball. With ball retention not being as important as in the modern game - after all, if you lost the ball, the constant scrums offered an immediate opportunity to get it back - forwards would try to develop a ‘forward rush’ in which they would dribble the ball soccer-style down the field.

Overall, the game was still dominated by forward play and backs have little chance to get their hands on the ball. There are very few passing movements at all in any of the matches on the video. In this sense, the game is obviously very much closer to its rugby union roots. 

Even so, we can still catch glimpses of rugby league DNA in the films. James Lomas - playing for Salford against Batley at the New Barnes ground - scores a great individual try that looks very modern. Ten yards from the Batley line, he bumps of one defender and steps inside of another to score under the posts.

The BFI DVD, Mitchell And Kenyon - Edwardian Sports, features nine Northern Union matches, together with soccer, cricket, athletics and other sports of the time. One of the highlights of the DVD is the 1903 Challenge Cup Final between Halifax and Salford, played in front of a record crowd at Headingley. It’s well worth a look.

A little over three years after that 1903 final, the Northern Union grasped the nettle and made the decisive break from the rugby union past, reducing teams to thirteen-a-side and bringing in the play-the-ball. 

The Mitchell and Kenyon films are the nearest we will ever get to a rugby league time tunnel.