Whatever it was, it wasn't a field goal...

There's been some dispute about whether Shaun Johnson's match-winning drop-goal for New Zealand against England at Huddersfield on Saturday was actually a goal. Whether it went between the posts or not, it certainly wasn't a 'field goal', as claimed in the Guardian.

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.