Why six tackles in league?

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 ‘mini-scrum’

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.’

Bill’s Kill?

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.

The evolution of the scrum

There has never been a more controversial aspect of rugby than the scrum.

For many, the modern rugby league scrum is just a way of restarting play. Nostalgics yearn for a return to ‘proper scrums’. Rugby union fans believe that the scrum is very essence of their game.

Yet a look at history shows how much the scrum has changed in all types of rugby since the emergence of the sport in the early 1800s.

Much of what we think we know about it is part-myth, part-wishful thinking. In fact, league’s play-the-ball is based on rugby’s original method of scrummaging.

And union’s ‘traditional’ scrums today are the complete opposite of what the scrum was originally intended to do.

Tom Brown’s Scrum Days

As anyone who has struggled their way through Tom Brown’s Schooldays will know, the game of rugby football that emerged at Rugby School in mid-1800s was dominated by continual scrummaging.

Play revolved around scrummaging and kicking to set up scrums. Forwards - who could number fifty or sixty in school matches - stood upright in the scrum and pushed, kicking either the ball or their opponents’ shins.

This tradition was carried on by the adult clubs that created the Rugby Football Union in 1871. A scrum was the main way of propelling the ball forward. On the rare occasions that the ball emerged to one of the backs, a tackle was immediately followed by a scrum.

Ironically, it is this rule that contains the roots of today’s rugby league play-the-ball rule.

Until the late 1870s, a tackled player had to place the ball on the ground and shout ‘down’, which was the signal for the forwards who had formed a scrum around him to start pushing. This is also the origin of American football’s ‘downs’.

What’s more, the aim of the original rugby scrum was not to heel the ball back, but to push the ball forward through the opposing pack. Called ‘straight ahead propulsion’, this was seen by many in the RFU as the only real way of advancing the ball up the pitch. Heeling out was frowned upon.

It was not unusual for scrums to last ten minutes or more. England and Richmond forward Charles Gurdon described how a scrum would ‘sometimes sway this way, sometimes that; this rotund mass would gravitate safely and unbroken, some thirty or forty yards towards the goal line of the weaker side, leaving a dark muddy track to mark its course’.

The forwards dominated the team. Whether playing fifteen or twenty-a-side, there would be two full-backs, two half-backs and no more than two three-quarters until around 1880. The rest would be forwards.

Passing between players was almost non-existent. If the ball did happen to come out of the scrum, it would be promptly kicked down field for the forwards to chase or to set up another scrum.

Even in the late 1890s, there were many in the RFU who believed that heeling the ball out of the scrum was a betrayal of the principles of the game. In 1896, former RFU president Arthur Budd proposed that ‘heeling out’ should be made illegal.

New thinking in the North

But for most clubs in the north of England, such thinking was anathema. For them, the essence of rugby was running, passing and tackling, with the aim of scoring tries.

‘The public don’t want to witness only scrimmages nowadays but fast, open play... the public want a game where they can see plenty of the ball,’ declared one player in 1891.

In that same year, Leeds’ James Miller proposed reducing the number of forwards to six. Of course, this was not to happen until 1906, when the Northern Union finally grasped the nettle and reduced teams to thirteen-a-side.

But this did little to resolve the problem of the scrum. There were too many ways in which it would slow down play.

Scrum-halves never seemed capable - or willing - to put the ball into the scrum in a straight line between the two front rows. Props could not resist putting their legs across the tunnel of the scrum. Hookers could not wait for the ball to go in the scrum before striking for it. The ball rarely came out cleanly.

And what was worse, there was just too damn many of them. Even in the 1920s an average match would have fifty or sixty scrums. Despite the RFL offering regular ‘guidelines’ to referees, little changed.

It wasn’t until 1930 that forwards instructed to pack down with three in the front row, two in the second row and a loose forward binding the second row, a rule designed to prevent teams having four in the front row and constantly unbalancing the scrum.

In 1932 the hooker - a term that had only recently emerged - was banned from having a loose arm in the scrum. This new rule led to six hookers being sent off on one Saturday in a clampdown. But, in a pattern that was repeated again and again, enthusiasm for the new rule waned and the same issues re-emerged.

Fair cheating all round?

Part of the problem was that teams were prepared to go to any lengths to win the ball from the scrum. Observance of the rules was not a virtue for a forward.

When Australian hooker Ken Kearney arrived to play for Leeds in 1948 he asked a referee what were the best tactics to use in English scrums. ‘Cheat’ was the one-word reply he allegedly received.

The were many radical solutions proposed - such as replacing the scrum with a punt-out or soccer-style throw in - all to no avail.

It wasn’t until the introduction of the turnover after a set of six tackles in 1983 that the importance of the scrum began to wane.

When league was played with unlimited tackles, the scrum was the main way in which the defending side could get hold of the ball. When the four tackle rule was introduced in 1966 (which became six tackles in 1972) a scrum was formed after a completed set of tackles.

This on its own did little to alleviate the scrum problem. But the turnover rule dramatically reduced the number of scrums and their importance for possession of the ball.

By the mid-1990s, the ‘struggle for possession’ at set-pieces had almost disappeared from the game. At the play-the-ball, the marker could no longer strike for the ball with his foot. And, in a classic compromise, a gentleman’s agreement allowed the scrum-half to feed the ball to his own forwards.

The rugby league scrum had finally abandoned its last links with the mass scrummaging of Rugby School.

‘Proper’ scrums?

Will the game ever return to ‘proper’ scrums, in which the ball is put into the middle of the two front rows and each hooker tries to hook the ball out with his feet?

I doubt it. Not least because the ‘proper’ scrum never really existed. ‘Show me a scrum-half who puts the ball in the middle of every scrum and I’ll show you a scrum-half with a very short career,’ as someone once said.

But there’s more to it than crooked player. As rugby became more sophisticated and as winning became more and more important, the impulse to bend or break the rules to win the ball became overwhelming.

Because it involves to so many variables, the scrum is impossible to regulate consistently. It is inevitable that it becomes a tangle of broken rules and roguish players.

It’s not just rugby league that recognises this. American (and Canadian) football’s scrimmage is girdiron’s way of overcoming the problems of the scrum.

Even in rugby union - the game that prides itself on its scrums and ‘struggle for possession’ - the result of a scrum is not very different to a scrum in league.

The International Rugby Board’s 2005 study, Changes in the Playing of International Rugby over a Twenty Year Period, discovered that the side feeding the scrum retained possession ninety per cent of the time.

Alongside a ninety-three per cent retention rate after a tackle and eighty per cent at the line-out, the IRB concluded that in rugby union 'the contest for possession is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed’.

Charles Darwin’s scrum

The rugby league scrum will never completely die. It’s a remnant of the past, rather like the human coccyx used to be the tail of our ape-like ancestors.

It is a victim of one of rugby’s laws of evolution, that the ‘struggle for possession’ of the ball eventually dies out. Players and coaches are simply too committed to winning to allow it to survive. American football discovered this first, and rugby union is discovering it today.

But rather than mourning the death of the ‘proper’ scrum, rugby league should view it as a new opportunity. The surface has barely been scratched when it comes to tactical ploys and set plays around the scrum.

As the clubs that founded the Northern Union knew, the public want fast open and skilful play. And with players such as Benji Marshall and Sam Tomkins around today, maybe the scrum can provide them with the opportunities to prove how right the game’s founders were.

-- A version of this article appeared in Rugby League World, February 2011.

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