Origins of Australian Rules football (part one)


- - The Australian Rules football season kicks off this week. Despite its geographical isolation the sport has a fascinating history, both in itself and as it relates to the other codes of football. To mark the new season, I'm posting the first of three parts of an article - 'The invention of sporting tradition: national myths, imperial pasts and the origins of Australian Rules Football' - that originally appeared in Myths and Milestones in the History of Sport, edited by Stephen Wagg and published in 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan.


The history of sport is a palimpsest. Meanings, interpretations and purposes are written and rewritten over that history as people seek to give a broader significance to the act of play. Details and fragments are reassembled and rearranged to create a story that meets the desires and demands of different generations, social groups and ideologies.

These stories have been fashioned around incidents, such as Babe Ruth’s 1932 supposedly ‘called’ home run; artefacts, like W.B. Wollen’s 1895 ‘Roses Match’ painting of a northern English rugby match; or philosophies, for example de Coubertin’s reinvention of the Greek Olympics as a beacon of amateur sport.

But the most powerful re-imagined narratives have been those that have invented creation stories for their chosen sport. William Webb Ellis’ picking up that ball and running with it for the first time at Rugby School in 1823 and Abner Doubleday’s invention of baseball at Cooperstown in 1839 have little to commend them as examples of historical accuracy.(1)

Yet their resonance lives on, not least in the name of rugby union’s world cup and at Doubleday Field, Cooperstown’s ball park. These invented traditions acquired their power and resilience because they articulated the desires of each sport’s leaders and supporters for special social significance. For rugby union, Webb Ellis demonstrated that this was a game created by and for the middle classes. For baseball, Doubleday confirmed that this was truly a uniquely American game.

In 2008 a ferocious debate broke out in Australia about the origins of Australian Rules football. Tracing its origins back to 1858, the code was founded and has it centre in Melbourne. Its national competition, the Australian Football League, was until 1990 named the Victorian Football League, and outside of New South Wales and Queensland it is Australia’s most popular code of football. The controversy was ignited by the publication of a lavishly-illustrated official history, ‘The Australian Game of Football: Since 1858’ that aimed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Australian football match.(2)

Two of the opening chapters in the book detailing the formative years of the code were written by the widely respected Melbourne historian Gillian Hibbins. The first, ‘Men of Purpose’ recapitulated much of her earlier detailed work on the men involved in drawing up the first rules of football in Melbourne in 1859. A second much shorter piece examined popular claims that the sport had its origins in Aboriginal ball games and dismissed such beliefs as a ‘seductive myth’.(3)

Nothing in these chapters was new or unknown to historians. Yet they attracted the wrath ofmany Australian Rules supporters and writers across the game’s heartlands. Accusations of inaccuracy, insensitivity, poor scholarship and even racism were raised. Throughout the middle of 2008 a battle raged across newspapers, radio, television, the internet and even literary magazines over what seemed to be the minutiae of football rules.

For historians, it was a rare moment. Like astronomers witnessing the birth of star, they were observing a new tradition in the process of being invented.

Inventing an Australian tradition

Hibbins’ critics major charge against her work was that she had written out of the sport’s early history the influence of Aboriginal ball games and especially one called Marn Grook. Her adveraries argued that Tom Wills, the man who had written to Bell’s Life in Victoria July 1858 suggesting the formation of a football club and who had been one of the four men who had drawn up the first set of football rules in Melbourne in 1859, was heavily influenced by Marn Grook when he drew up the rules of Australian football. The reason for this influence was, in the words of Martin Flanagan, author of The Call, a novel based on Wills’ life:

It's recorded that games of Aboriginal football, commonly called marn-grook, were played at the Victorian gatherings and that one of the groups that attended the meetings, or corroborees, were the Tjapwurrung. Wills grew up in Tjapwurrung country, his father being the first white settler in the Ararat area, arriving in 1838 when Tom was three.(3)

 According to nineteenth century descriptions of Marn Grook by white European colonists, the game featured high kicking and leaping for a ball. ‘The ball is kicked high in the air, not thrown up by hand as white boys do, nor kicked along the ground, there is general excitement who shall catch it, the tall fellow stands the best chance’, wrote James Dawson in 1881. ‘When the ball is caught it is kicked up in the air again by the one who caught it, it is sent with great force and ascends as straight up and as high as when thrown by hand’.(4) Descriptions such as this were combined with accounts of Wills’ boyhood activities with Aboriginal children to claim that the true origins of Australian football were to be found in Aboriginal ball games. 

Aboriginal people playing Marn Grook. It is an early form of Aussie Rules? Or a kind of soccer? Or a precursor of a rugby league kicking duel? Of course it is none of these - and why should it be? William Blandowski's  Australien in   142 Photographischen Abbildungen , 1857, (Haddon Library, Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)

Aboriginal people playing Marn Grook. It is an early form of Aussie Rules? Or a kind of soccer? Or a precursor of a rugby league kicking duel? Of course it is none of these - and why should it be? William Blandowski's Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, 1857, (Haddon Library, Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)

There are a number of significant problems with the idea that Wills developed Australian Rules from Aboriginal ball games. Firstly, there is no evidence to suggest he was the primary force behind the drawing up of the 1859 set of football rules. He was merely one of four men who met to draw up a code of rules for the Melbourne Football club on 17 May 1859.(5)

Secondly, even if he were, there is nothing in the historical record would suggest that Wills, who despite being born in New South Wales was educated at Rugby School in England, was in the least influenced by Aboriginal ball games. As Gregory de Moore has found during his exhaustive biographical research, there is not a single mention of the subject in any of Wills’ private or public writings. Quite the opposite in fact, as Wills favoured rules that bore a closer resemblence to those of Rugby School such as a cross bar on the goalposts and a designated kicker to take kicks at goal.(6)

All supporters of the ‘Wills/Marn Grook tradition’ shared a common misapprehension, best expressed by Ciannon Cazaly in the literary magazine Meanjin. She quoted James Dawson’s 1881 account of the ball being kicked high in an Aboriginal game and concluded by saying ‘to me, that sounds a lot like what happens at the MCGmost weekends’ [Melbourne Cricket Ground is the sport’s premier stadium].(7) The problem, of course, is that this an anachronism - the description may sound like what happens at the MCG today but it does not sound like an Australian Rules match during the formative decades of the sport.

Indeed, the sport’s now characteristic ‘high mark’, where a player leaps above an opponent to catch the ball in the air, seems only to begin to become a significant feature of the game in the mid-1870s, almost twenty years after the first rules were drawn up. In its 1876 edition the handbook of the game, The Footballer, advised players to avoid ‘jumping for marks’ because of its inherent dangers.(8) Loose scrummaging was a more important part of the game than the high mark in its early years.

Such was the importance of scrummaging that the 1874 Victorian rules of football laid down that ‘a scrummage commences when the ball is on the ground, and all who have closed round on their respective sides begin kicking it.’ Even as late as the 1890s complaints were heard in Melbourne that the game had become dominated by scrummaging in which sides would often each have ten players competing for ball. Australian Rules football in its formative years bore little resemblance not only to Aboriginal ball games but also to its modern self.(9)

This type of anachronistic misinterpretation is one of the typical features of all forms of invented tradition. As Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger noted in their introduction to their 1983 collection, The Invention of Tradition, 'the peculiarity of "invented" traditions is that the continuity with ['a historic past'] is largely factitious ... they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition’.(10)

Moreover, in addition to an anachronistic view of the past, the Tom Wills, Webb Ellis and Abner Doubleday myths highlight four other key characteristics shared by invented sporting traditions.

The first of these is the fact that the ‘founding father’ of the sport must have had minor rather than extensive involvement in it. Webb Ellis had no involvement in football after he left school. Doubleday built a career in the U.S. military apparently untroubled by any involvement with baseball. Similarly Wills’ major contribution to the development of football in Victoria occurred while he was secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club. The lack of substantive long-term engagement with the sport is an important factor in such invented traditions due to the narrative space it leaves open for speculation and supposition.

Secondly, the weight of evidence to support the invented tradition is based on largely on hearsay or personal affirmation, usually of one person. Thus Webb Ellis’s role was founded on nothing more than the testimony of Matthew Bloxam, an old boy Rugby School who based his case entirely on his ‘enquiries’. The Doubleday story was predicated on a letter by Abner Graves, had been a five-year old child in Cooperstown in 1839.

Wills’ famous claim that Australia now had ‘a game of our own’ is based on the recollections of his cousin H.C.A. Harrison written some sixty years later. Claims that his boyhood interaction with Aboriginal youths provided the inspiration for his innovations in football rules lacks any supporting evidence. (11) Again, the plasticity of the evidence allows the story to be fashioned according to the needs of the advocate.

The third common feature is that these traditions emerge at pivotal moments in the history of the sport. Thus the Webb Ellis myth came to prominence at the time that rugby union felt itself to be in mortal danger from the threat of working-class influence in the sport, which resulted in the split in the rugby code of 1895, the year that the Old Rugbeian Society’s inquiry into the origins of the game decided that Webb Ellis was its inventor.

Similarly the Doubleday myth emerged in the mid-1900s due to the 1905 Mills Commission report on the origins of the game, published in 1908, at precisely the point that baseball was emerging from turmoil in labour relations and intra-league disputes, leading to the National League’s acceptance of the American League as partner major league and the first World Series in 1903. In Australian Rules, the emergence of the Wills/Marn Grook tradition has emerged as the sport is seeking to position itself as the national football code of all Australia, highlighted by the transformation of the Victorian Football League into the Australian Football League in 1990 and the subsequent expansion of the game.

Fourthly, supporters of the invented tradition ultimately base their position on an unverifiable act of faith rather than on the historical record. Thus the official 1970 history of the Rugby Football Union wrote of those who wanted proof of the Webb Ellis story, ‘what these materialists are unable to understand is that not only are we unable to prove it, but also that this fact does not bother us at all’.(12) In a similar vein, the exhibit on Doubleday at baseball’s Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown reads: ‘In the hearts of those who love baseball, he is remembered as the lad in the pasture where the game was invented. Only cynics would need to know more.’ (13)

Writing in defence of the idea that Australian Rules derived from an Aboriginal game, Jim Poulter wrote that ‘we should reverse the onus and accept the indigenous origins to our game, unless somebody can clearly prove otherwise’, putting those who disagree in the position of having to prove a negative.(14) All three statements serve to seal off their arguments from critical enquiry, elevating the invented tradition to an article of faith for followers of each particular sport. Once more, the history of sport becomes the tablet on which to write about society using the metaphors of play.

And finally, the invented tradition projects back into the past a picture of how the inventors see the modern world. For rugby union followers, Webb Ellis confirmed their belief that theirs was a game for the middle classes. For baseball, Doubleday supported their ideas of American exceptionalism. And for Australian Rules, the Wills/Marn Grook story of cultural exchange between European colonists and Aboriginal peoples offers a sanitised version of the bloody genocidal reality of race relations in nineteenth century Australia.

Like all Australian sports, Australian football was no less racist than the society which nurtured it. One of its most famous clubs, Essendon, was for the early decades of its history known as ‘the blood stained n-----s’. Aboriginal football clubs were often excluded from local competitions and even the greatest of aboriginal footballers faced racist taunts and humiliations.(15) Doug Nicholls, who was to become governor of South Australia, transferred from the leading Carlton club in the late 1920s because the other players claimed that he smelled. The Marn Grook story views Aboriginal involvement in Australian Rules football through the rose-tinted spectacles of the late twentieth century.

The AFL’s record of racial equality and integration is no better than that of its major rival, the National Rugby League. The percentage of Aboriginal footballers in the National Rugby League (NRL) in 2009 stood at eleven per cent, the same as in the Australian Football League, although a further twenty-nine per cent of NRL players were of Polynesian heritage, a group with little representation in the AFL. Since the 1960s, Aboriginal players such as Arthur Beetson and Mal Meninga have captained the national side and coached at the highest levels of rugby league.

Moreover, some of the arguments used in support of the Wills/Marn Grook are based on racially-stereotyped conceptions of the ‘natural affinity’ of aboriginal players for Australian Rules. ‘They express themselves both on and off the field, to watch them play is exhilarating at times’, claimed Essendon coach Matthew Knights, a racially-encompassing view that is unlikely to be expressed about ‘European’ players.(16)

Since the 1950s the debate on the historical roots of Australian Rules football has been a barometer of changing ideas about Australian national identity. In 1958 the journalist C.C. Mullen published a history of the game which speculated, on the flimsiest of evidence, that the sport had been popular in Scotland in the years before World War One, reflecting the prevailing sense of ‘different but equal’ Britishness then prevalent in Australia.(17)

In the 1960s and 1970s, after Harold MacMillan’s government had effectively broken the imperial link by ending free entry into Britain for all Commonwealth citizens and by applying to join the European Common Market without consulting Australia, a more radical nationalist outlook became fashionable, bringing comparisons with Ireland to the fore. In 1967 an Australian Rules side undertook a short tour of Ireland, where‘Waltzing Matilda’ was played before matches instead of ‘God Save The Queen’ (still the Australian national anthem at the time). They returned the following year. The idea that Australian Rules was derived from Gaelic football also became fashionable, despite the fact that Melbourne rules were codified twenty-five years before those of the Gaelic game.(18)

Today, the dominant liberal (and largely official) view of Australian national identity is based on diversity and reconciliation between European and Aboriginal Australians, as highlighted by prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the country’s Aboriginal population for what he described in a mild euphemism as past ‘mistreatment’. Thus it has now become popular to imagine that the sport has its roots not in Australia’s imperial past but within its native Aboriginal culture.

The invention of an Aboriginal pre-history for Australian Rules football therefore plays the role of, as Hobsbawm and Ranger point out in different contexts, ‘establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities’ and ‘legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority’.(19) For the sport, it plays a crucial role in authenticating its claim to be Australia’s true nation football code.


1 - For Doubleday, see Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, Oxford 1960, pp. 8-12 and James A. Vlasich, A legend for the legendary: the origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Wisconsin, 1990. pp. 162-8. For Webb Ellis, see Tony Collins, Rugby’s Great Split, London, 1998, pp. 5-8 and William Baker, William Webb Ellis and the Origins of Rugby footballAlbion, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 117-30. Douglas Booth his The Field, Abingdon, 2006, ch. 6, pp.111-26, discusses sporting myths but in typical post-modern fashion draws no distinction between actuality and invention.

2 - Geoff Slattery (ed.) The Australian Game of Football, Melbourne, 2008. Controversially, the book was published to mark the match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College on 7 August 1858, which, as Gillian Hibbins pointed out, was definitely not played under any type of Australianrules. See Hibbins, Are We Celebrating a Year Too Early?, The Age (Melbourne), 2 Aug. 2008 and Martin Flanagans defence, Football ebbs and flow with tide of society’, The Age (Melbourne), 9 Aug. 2008.

3 - Hibbins, pp. 31-45 in The Australian Game of Football. Her views had already been widely disseminated in The Cambridge Connection: The English Origins of Australian Rules Football’ in J.A. Mangan (ed.) The Cultural Bond, London, 1993, pp. 108-27, and (with Anne Mancini) in Running With the Ball: Footballs Foster Father, Melbourne, 1987.

4 - Martin Flanagan, A Battle of Wills, The Age, 10 May 2008. The general outline is also suggested in David Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round: A global history of football, London, 2006, p. 93.

5 - James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: the language and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 1881, p. 85.

6 - See Hibbins and Mancini, p. 23-4.

7 - Greg de Moore, Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall, Sydney 2008, pp. 161,  (for his support for a rugby-style cross bar and designated kicker), and pp. 283-6 for lack of mention of Aboriginal ball games. As Rob Hess has pointed out, Wills involvement in the 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour of the UK make it unlikely he would seek to disguise any aboriginal influence.

8 - Ciannon Cazaly, Off The Ball’, Meanjin, vol 67, no. 4 (2008) [ accessed 11.23, 28.5.09]. The quote is from James Dawson, Australian Aborigines: the language and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Melbourne, 1881, p. 85.

9 - Blainey, pp. 118-22.

10 - Blainey, pp. 64-5 and 227. For a discussion on scrummaging, See Robin Grow From Hess, pp. 15, 30 and 78.

11 - Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition Cambridge 1983, p. 2.

12 - It was J.B. Thompson, one of the four Melbourne rule-framers who used the phrase in the Victorian CricketersGuide for 1859-60. See Hibbins and Mancini, p. 18.

13 - U.A. Titley and R. McWhirter, Centenary History of the Rugby Football Union, London, 1970, p. 9.

14 - Quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Creation Myths of Cooperstown’ in his Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, New York, 2003, p. 199.

15 - Jim Poulter, From Where Football Came... (September 2007) at accessed 13.05, 25 May 2009.

16 - For example, see the accounts of Aboriginal footballers in the 1920s and 1950s in Richard Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: a history since 1800, Sydney 2005, pp. 224-5. For a post-war example, see Peter Read, Charles Perkins, A Biography, Penguin revised edition, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 51-2.

16 - For participation rates, see Roy Masters, Leagues Polynesian powerplay muscles in on indigenous numbers’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April, 2009, and Antonia MacGee, Sports stars embrace Rudd apology’, Herald Sun (Melbourne),13 Feb. 2008, which also includes the Knightsquote.

17 - C.C. Mullen, History of Australian Rules Football from 1858 to 1958, Carlton, 1958. The Scottish link is examined in John Williamson’s Footballs Forgotten Tour, Applecross, 2003.

18 - For the tours to Ireland, see Peter Burke, Harry and the GalahsASSH Bulletin, no. 29, Dec. 1998, pp. 9-17. Barry ODwyer, The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football’, Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1, pp. 27-41, argues the case for the Irish origins of the game, but see Blainey, A Game of Our Own, pp. 187-96. for a debunking of this myth.

19 - Hobsbawm and Ranger, p. 9.


England versus Wales in the shadow of 1895...

- - England play Wales tomorrow at Twickenham in rugby union's Six Nations tournament. This extract from A Social History of English Rugby Union describes the last time that England played a home game against Wales before rugby split apart in 1895.

For almost a decade the Welsh had dazzled and defeated their opponents through the brilliance of their backs and the innovation of their four three-quarters system. While England and the other nations still played with nine forwards and three three-quarters, the Welsh had moved a man out of the pack and into the three-quarter line, opening up play to create sweeping back line moves across the width of the pitch.

But now in January 1894, after years of debate and hesitation, England had decided to use the four three-quarters system. And the team they would use it against for the first time was none other than Wales. 

This was no ordinary Welsh side. Captained by Arthur Gould, arguably the greatest Welsh centre of his or any other age, the side featured seven players from the Newport club, four of whom made up a mighty pack. Wales had carried off the Triple Crown in 1893 and were tipped to do the same this year. Even English reporters described them as ‘a side whose combination was never more perfect’.

The match was the first and only international ever to be played on Merseyside, at the ground of Birkenhead Park. It had snowed on the Thursday before the match, necessitating straw being spread over the pitch to protect it from the elements. The temperature was approaching freezing when Bradford’s Jack Toothill kicked off at half past two, but the weather was quickly forgotten. 

Despite intense forward pressure from the Welsh, it was England who scored first. Fly-half Cyril Wells made a break from his own quarter, got the ball to Geordie scrum-half Billy Taylor who passed back inside to West Hartlepool centre Sammy Morfitt to score between the posts on his debut. Captain Dicky Lockwood converted and England had the initiative. Just before half-time Charles Hooper caught a Welsh clearing kick on the full and made a mark, allowing Taylor to successfully kick for goal and record a rare four point ‘goal from a mark’. When the whistle blew for half-time England were surprisingly 9-0 ahead.

If the Welsh supporters who had travelled up for the match expected their side to turn the tables, they were to be disappointed. After the break, Taylor and Wells combined again to put Halifax’s Fred Firth in the clear. As he approached Wales full-back Billy Bancroft, he deftly chipped the ball over the Welshman, where it was regathered by Lockwood to score England’s second try. Lockwood again converted to make 14-0. 

A few minutes later, Bramley forward Harry Bradshaw picked a loose ball from a scrum and barrelled his way over the line for another Lockwood-converted try. Then from a scrum Wells slipped the ball to Lockwood who broke through tired defenders before being brought down on the Welsh twenty-five, where Billy Taylor picked up the ball and scored in the corner, converting his own try from the touchline. Complete embarrassment was partially avoided when Newport scrum-half Fred Parfitt scored a consolation try just before the final whistle but at 24-3 the match, in the words of the Liverpool Mercury, ‘was not a beating, it was an annihilation’. It was England’s biggest win against the Welsh since their first meeting in 1881, when they had run in thirteen tries against a neophyte Welsh team.

More importantly, this was a very different sort of England team from that of 1881. Nine of the side came from clubs in the north of England. At least eight were manual workers. Only four players came from the traditional public-school based sides in the south. The captain, Dicky Lockwood, was an unskilled manual labourer from Heckmondwike. In this, the team was a vivid illustration of the way in which rugby had become a sport of the masses. No longer the preserve of the upper-middle classes, it was vigorously played and keenly watched by all sections of society, from the doctor at Harlequins to the docker at Hull Kingston Rovers.

But it was not to last.

Who will be the 2016 Super League Champions?

Of course, I've got no more idea than anyone else. But the question of how, rather than who, the rugby league champions will be decided has not always been as obvious as it appears. In fact the Grand Final at the end of the season is only the latest of half a dozen different ways of deciding the champion team. 

Manningham - the first-ever champions in the first-ever league campaign in the 1895-96 Northern Union season.

Manningham - the first-ever champions in the first-ever league campaign in the 1895-96 Northern Union season.

Over the 121 years of its existence, rugby league has continually honed and fine-tuned the structure of its competitions in a search for the optimum relationship between competitive balance, spectator interest and financial well-being. And that has led to significant changes in how the champion club has been decided.

One of the Northern Union’s fundamental aims when it was founded in 1895 was to establish a league system similar to that of the Football League, which had been formed seven years earlier. The huge popularity and commercial success of the Football League was the model the NU wanted for rugby.

So in the first season, the Northern Rugby Football League was created, comprising all 22 teams that had formed the NU, playing each other home and away. It produced an exhausting 42 league matches for each club and by the end of that first season many sides were complaining about the costs of travel and the length of the season.

The situation was also made worse at the end of the first season by large numbers of clubs leaving rugby union and wanting to join the NU. So it was decided to replace the Northern League with separate Lancashire and Yorkshire Leagues. 

Yet bizarrely there was no final between the winners of the two leagues, so effectively there was no champion club from 1897 to 1901.

The first Super League

This anomaly had not escaped the attention of the game’s leading clubs and in April 1901 Halifax proposed starting an elite Northern Rugby League of the top 14 teams. 

The new ‘super league’ makes strange reading today. Only, Hull, Huddersfield, Salford and Warrington of today’s Super League were present, with many more familiar names, such as Leeds, Wigan and St Helens playing in the Lancashire and Yorkshire leagues, seen as the second tier of professional sides.

The following year the system was changed yet again, this time to two divisions with 18 teams. The new set-up led indirectly to the formation of Leeds United soccer club. At the end of the season St Helens and Holbeck tied for the second promotion place in the second division. 

A play-off match was arranged which Saints won and Holbeck - who played at Elland Road - resigned from the NU in a fit of pique. Weeks later the club reformed as Leeds City AFC, the forerunner of Leeds United.

One division to rule them all

The early 1900s were a time of economic depression and most clubs experienced financial problems. In a bid to generate more interest in the game, in 1905 a one division league was introduced consisting of all 31 professional NU clubs. But there was no central organisation of fixtures and clubs played different numbers of matches. League positions were decided on winning percentage.

This system inevitably threw up anomalies. In 1906 Leigh were declared champions because their winning percentage was highest, despite the fact that Leeds, Hunslet and Oldham all had won more matches.

This was so ridiculous that the 1907 season saw the introduction of a top four play-off system to decide the champions, culminating in a Championship Final, the forerunner of the modern Grand Final, that was won by Halifax.

This system lasted, with minor adjustments, over fifty years. Championship finals provided many of the most dramatic moments in the history of the game and attracted monster crowds, culminating in the record 83,190 who crammed into Odsal to watch the Wigan dismantle Wakefield in 1960.

One goes into two... or not

But as early as the 1920s a number of people were arguing for two divisions because of the huge number of meaningless games in the latter half of the season. For most clubs, there was nothing to play for by the time the season reached half-way.

It was until 1962 that the RFL, faced with rapidly declining attendances, bit the bullet and introduced a two division system. But crowds continued to plummet and after just two seasons, the one division system was back.

This time the top four play-offs were replaced by a top sixteen play-off to give more clubs something to fight for towards the end of the season. 

But the problem with such a large play-off system was highlighted in the first season when seventh-placed Halifax were crowned champions after defeating league leaders St Helens in the championship final. 

The system produced its most sensational result in the 1973 play-offs, when a Mick ‘Stevo’ Stephenson-marshalled Dewsbury side that finished eighth in the league defeated league leaders Warrington and then outplayed third-placed Leeds in the final to be crowned champions for their first and only time. 

Champions or Premiers?

This was to be the last season of one division football. Two divisions were introduced in the 1973-74 season and the team that finished top of Division One was crowned champions, as in soccer. But a new end-of-season tournament was also introduced in 1975, confusingly called the Premiership. 

This baffled many Australians, for whom the words premiership and and championship are synonymous, yet the tournament was completely separate from the championship. Yet in Britain, a team could be champions and not premiers, and vice versa.

The principle that the First Division leaders were  champions lasted over twenty years. Even after the turmoil of the introduction of Super League, the principle remained in place for the first two seasons of summer rugby. 

Super League: back to basics

It wasn’t until 1998 that the Grand Final was introduced, based on the Australian model where the grand final had been part of the game since its earliest days.

But although the Grand Final was portrayed by its critics as an alien import, in reality it was a return to that older tradition of the Championship Final. It’s this link that has made the Grand Final so popular in British rugby league. 

The concept was introduced to English rugby union and is still not widely understood and embraced even less. There is no chance that soccer would abandon its first-past-the-post system. Yet the final showdown for the championship, where the season’s struggle is decided by death or glory, has become central to the culture of rugby league.

That’s because the Grand Final is the ultimate test of stamina, nerve and daring. And that’s precisely what rugby league is all about.

The Oval World - the impact of the RFU

This is the third part of the October 2015 talk I gave to the Institute of Historical Research about the themes of The Oval World, which has just been published in paperback.

The Oval World looks at the history of rugby in a comparative, international way. Perhaps the most striking thing about this approachis that it clearly shows that, despite being the dominant force in international rugby, the RFU was also the aberrant organisation in the game’s development around the world. 

What do I mean by this? In all countries that adopted the sport in the nineteenth century, rugby was initially the property of those schooled at elite educational institutions. This is obviously the case in England, but it is also true throughout the the British Isles (including Wales), the white dominions of the British Empire (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), the Pacific Islands and France. 

But as rugby expanded and became an adult game, it saw the introduction of local cup competitions as a focus for growing local and civic rivalries and rugby rapidly became a mass spectator sport that was played and watched by all social classes. In the British Isles we can see this process in the north, south west and the east midlands of England, in South Wales (superbly described in Gwyn Prescott’s This Rugby Spellbound People), in the Borders region of Scotland, and in southern Ireland around Cork and Limerick, where the game becomes the dominant popular sport..

In Australia, the expansion of the game to the inner city districts of Sydney and Brisbane consolidated rugby, rather than Australian Rules football, as the game of masses of New South Wales and Queensland, and after inter-provincial competition began in New Zealand in the 1880s rugby quickly became the dominant popular code there too. In France, the introduction of the Championship competition in 1892 was the catalyst that cemented rugby as the game of the South West. Only in South Africa was the development of the game more restricted, because of the deep racial divisions in English- and Afrikaans-speaking regions.

So rugby around the world started to develop as a mass spectator sport in largely the same way as soccer in England and Scotland, and as baseball in the United States. Indeed, in England, Wales, France, Australia and New Zealand the game shared exactly the same social and commercial characteristics as soccer. So naturally the game in these countries began to move towards commercialism and professionalism.

But RFU truncated this development with its adoption of amateurism in 1886 and its zealous imposition of the amateur regulations wherever the game was played. In fact, amateurism was an explicit attempt to control the popularity of rugby. ’The loss of followers to the grand old game is regrettable,’ wrote an RFU supporter in the 1889 Football Annual, ‘yet looking at the present state of all professional sports we cannot but think that this possible loss is far preferable to legalising professionalism’. 

These artificial restrictions on the popularity of rugby caused significant conflict in those areas where it was the dominant winter sport. In England it was driven by the RFU’s fear that its authority would be destroyed by the growing dominance of predominantly working-class teams in the industrial north, and led to the 1895 split that resulted in the creation of rugby league.

Although the 1895 split took place entirely within England, the broader debate about payments to players quickly spilled over into Wales. A split with Wales was only avoided 1897 when the RFU decided to compromise with the Welsh rugby union over the payment of an illegal testimonial to the great Welsh three-quarter Arthur Gould - a decision that led to Welsh rugby union pretended to be amateur for the next century and the RFU pretending to believe them.

This deep fracture over the way that rugby should be organised spread across the global stage. Newspapers in Australia and New Zealand carried significant coverage of the split in English rugby, and the growing divergence between the huge commercial popularity of the sport Down Under and the sacrifices made by players to play the game in those countries became an increasingly controversial issue. The fact that 1905 All Blacks’ tour made over £10,000 profit yet left many players personally in debt brought matters to a head and became the catalyst for the establishment of rugby league in New Zealand and Australia in 1907.

But even by this time, it was clear that a compromise could have been reached over payments in rugby, has had happened in soccer when the Football Association legalised professionalism in 1885. What prevented a solution being found was the RFU’s utter intransigence - and the fear of rugby’s other national governing bodies that to disagree with the RFU would lead to their expulsion from international rugby union. The driving out of the northern clubs in 1895 served as a warning about what would happen to those who challenged the RFU’s authority.

But why were Australian and New Zealand rugby union officials so deferential to the RFU, often to the detriment of the game in their own countries? Their mild attempts to relax the rules on amateurism or suggest amendments to the rules of the sport in the 1920s were turned down flat by the RFU. Their requests to be represented on the International Rugby Board were repeatedly refused. Even the arbitrary outlawing of the distinctive New Zealand 2-3-2 scrum formation in 1931 was meekly accepted by the NZRU.

The answer lies in the fact that all rugby union governing bodies (with the exception of the French, who also strongly valued the British link but for somewhat different reasons) shared the same imperial ideological framework as the RFU. Their wish to be represented on rugby union’s International Board came from a desire to develop the sport’s imperial character, not to challenge the British. 

The fear of offending the British, and particularly the RFU, ran very deep within the psyche of Australasian rugby union officials, especially given the difficulties of the All Blacks and Wallabies’ pre-1914 tours and the disaster of the 1908 rugby league split. This attitude was summed up by Sydney’s Rugby News in May 1928 when it wrote: 

In all and to the furthermost ends of the British Empire the great rugby game is played and all owe allegiance to the great controller of the game, the English Rugby Union. It is the tradition of the rugby union game that makes us stand behind that great body to which the game owes its origin. 
They gave us the game and we believe that its destinies can safely be left in their hands… At all times then the rugby union stands behind its Alma Mater, not only because it believes and trusts in it, but also because it feels that by so doing the bonds of Empire are through the brotherhood of sport more closely knit.

Thanks to such deference, the RFU was able to impose its own singular view of amateurism and the way that rugby should be be played globally. This blocked the way that rugby had been developing in the late nineteenth century as a mass spectator sport in most of the rugby-playing regions of the world - and ended the possibility of rugby developing along the same commercial and professional lines as soccer. 

The RFU's conception of rugby as a strictly amateur and largely non-commercial sport was initially a minority view within the game. But the RFU's institutional power over the sport and its position as the embodiment of the British Imperial 'motherland' meant that it could impose its vision on the rest of the sport - and ultimately that meant that it was soccer that would fully embrace the commercial and professional appeal of spectator sport and become the global game.

The Oval World - Anglo-Saxon Rugby and Global Soccer

To mark the paperback publication of The Oval World, this is the second part of my October 2015 talk about the book's themes at the Institute of Historical Research.

What can rugby’s international dimension tell us about the failure of soccer to become the dominant winter sport in the USA, Australia and other Anglophone countries, or, conversely, the failure of rugby to become the world's leading football code?

In the case of the USA, Markovits and Hellerman in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism argue that soccer was ‘crowded out’ of the American sport space. Elite American universities preferred a rugby-style game because of the social prestige rugby commanded, in contrast to soccer’s plebian image. Ultimately, they attributes the failure of soccer to become the dominant form of football in the U.S. to a form of American exceptionalism.

But this analysis is based on a misunderstanding of the respective weights of the football codes in the last third of the nineteenth century. The relationship between the rugby and soccer codes until the mid- to late-1880s, in England and internationally, was the opposite of what it would later become. Rugby was the more popular of the two variants of football, both in terms of the number of clubs and the size of crowds.

This trend can be seen by looking at the dates when the governing bodies for the football codes were formed. Outside of the British Isles, only Denmark and the Netherlands had governing bodies for soccer before 1890. In the same period, governing bodies for rugby had been established in the British ‘Home’ nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as for the rugby-derived codes in Australia and the United States. And, unlike soccer, international rugby matches were also being played across the hemispheres.

Soccer found it difficult to establish itself on a permanent basis in the nineteenth century Anglophone world beyond Britain. This was not because it was viewed as suspiciously proletarian, as is often claimed by historians, but because the Rugby School-based version of football carried far greater cultural weight for the British upper middle-classes who administered the empire - and also for those who wished to emulate them in the United States and France.

Thanks in large part to the huge international popularity of Tom Brown's Schooldays, rugby embodied Muscular Christianity and so for the middle classes of the English-speaking world, it was not only fun to play and watch - although whether it provided greater fun than other codes can only ever be in the eye of the beholder - but it also had a much more explicit ideological and cultural meaning. 

Although the original rules of the Rugby Football Union were quickly modified and in many cases abandoned by American football’s leaders, the cultural significance of rugby remained as part of the gridiron game. Soccer’s lack of a direct link with that ideology gave it much less resonance in the Anglophone world. And, paradoxically, it was that lack of an overt British nationalism that allowed the round-ball game to grow rapidly in the non-Anglophone world in the first decades of the twentieth century. 

So, in the period that American football established itself as the dominant winter sport in the United States, soccer had a considerably weaker international profile and cultural network. It was incapable of offering the strong and self-evident ideological framework desired by the rising middle classes of the Anglophone world who promoted the rugby codes as an educational and moral force. By the time that soccer had developed a strong international network and ideological profile in the early twentieth century, American football already dominated U.S. winter sport. 

A similar point could be made about soccer’s lack of prominence in the Australian sporting firmament. Echoing Markovits and Hellerman, Roy Hay and others have argued that it was the perception that soccer was a proletarian sport that caused Australian middle class sporting circles to embrace the more respectable Rugby School-derived codes of rugby union and Australian rules. But, as in the case of America, the popularity of Australian rules and rugby had been established in Australia in the 1860s and 1870s, well before soccer came to be associated with the British working classes. Even more so than in America, rugby and its variations offered a much more compelling narrative of British nationalism for the colonial middle classes who saw themselves as part of a ‘Greater Britain’.

Soccer’s inability to gain a foothold in the Anglophone world beyond Britain can therefore be traced to rugby’s deological and cultural prominence in the English-speaking sporting in the latter third of the nineteenth century, most prominently embodied in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. To put it simply, rugby ‘globalised’ across the British Empire before soccer.

Paradoxically, it was the very insularity of the British soccer authorities that would eventually allow the true globalization of their sport. Unlike the leaders of the rugby-derived codes who tightly controlled their sport’s international relationships, the intense parochialism, and huge domestic popularity, of British soccer meant that its leaders were largely uninterested in the spread of the game to Europe and therefore unconcerned by the formation of FIFA in 1904. This allowed soccer internationally to escape the control of its British founders and develop independently, based on a meritocratic ideology of a game open to all.

The legalisation of professionalism by the English FA in 1885 allowed soccer to be unshackled from the restrictive ideology of amateurism by offering an alternative ideology of meritocracy. The informal yet rigid social and cultural controls that prevailed in amateur sport were gradually dissolved by professionalism and English administrative dominance was undermined by the formal equality of professionalism, giving soccer an ‘open’ and meritocratic framework.

Put bluntly, soccer allowed anyone to play, whereas rugby union tightly controlled who was allowed to play thanks to its amateur regulations. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Argentina, where, despite being the leading sport of the 1890s, rugby union remained the sport of the Anglophile middle classes while soccer became the sport of the great mass of the Spanish- and Italian-speaking working classes.

Soccer’s global rise was therefore based on the eclipse of its British leaders by European and South American administrators - in short, soccer’s globalization required the defeat of Anglo-Saxon attitudes. And it was the reluctance of rugby’s British leadership to allow its game to spread beyond the narrow confines of the English-speaking middle-classes of the British Empire that enabled the round-ball game to overcome the early global advantages of its oval cousin.

The Oval World - rugby and 'globalisation' in the Nineteenth Century

The Oval World will be published in paperback this Friday. By way of an introduction to the book, below is the first part of an edited version of a talk I gave at the Institute of Historical Research on 5 October 2015 at the excellent Sport and Leisure History seminar series. I'll post the other two parts later this week.

Why would I want to write another book about rugby?

The most obvious answer is that being published by a major trade publisher allowed me to write for a wider audience than is usual for an academic historian, so it also gave me the opportunity to write in a different way to how I had written my previous books.

But the most important answer is that writing a global history of rugby gave me the opportunity to explore and develop themes and interconnections that are usually not possible in nationally-based histories of sport or other forms of cultural activity.

I wrote Sport in Capitalist Society partly to explore similar international themes at a much broader level across all sports, and it occurred to me that this would be an interesting thing to do with rugby. This is partly because I have obviously acquired a substantial degree of detailed knowledge of the game during the course of my previous research, but also because there is now a small but growing body of very interesting and original research on rugby around the world that is being published. 

I’m thinking of Huw Richards’ work, Gwyn Prescott’s fascinating research on rugby in nineteenth century Cardiff, Geoff Levett’s work on rugby, race and empire, Liam O’Callaghan’s work on Irish rugby, particularly his 2011 book Rugby in Munster, and of course Greg Ryan’s groundbreaking work on New Zealand rugby. And there is also the emergence of some very interesting research on women in rugby.

The other thing I wanted to do was to look at the intertwined history of the two rugby codes - and also the rugby roots of American football and Aussie Rules. For a long time I’ve felt that not only have histories of sport been written from the restrictions of nationally-limited perspectives, but also that they have been considered in isolation from other sports, especially those with whom they share a common origin. 

This tunnel vision is a serious weakness in the writing of the history of sport because it elevates the differences in rule books over broader social developments. This particularly applies to historians of soccer (and The Oval World does deal with the roots of both soccer and rugby), who - to give just one example - discuss the emergence of professionalism in soccer in the 1870s without making any reference to exactly the same phenomenon in rugby at exactly the same time. So the book is deliberately ecumenical in approach.

I would also add that it concerns me that there is a growing tendency for some of the most interesting history books to be published outside of academic history, which I feel is in danger of becoming overly technical and constrictively specialised. This is true for history as a whole, but especially for the history of sport. Two of the most important books on the history of soccer, David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round and Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, are examples of this trend.

So writing The Oval World  was an opportunity to explore new perspectives, develop existing material and respond to the latest research in the field in a popular, but hopefully no less scholarly, format.

I would note that this is a ‘Global History’ rather than a global game. One of the problems in the use of the term globalisation is its vagueness (or perhaps that is probably one of its appeals!). We can accept that soccer is a truly global game, but rugby is not. 

It is played professionally only in around a dozen countries; its global footprint has barely changed since the First World War (of the current world cup sides, only Samoa and Georgia did not play rugby before 1914), and it remains predominantly the sport of the former British and French formal and informal empires. Rugby as a global sport exists only at the level of media consumption, as a media product, rather than in its playing. And this is the case with so much sporting globalisation, an exemplar of this phenomenon being American football as played at Wembley yesterday.

So by using ‘global history’ I’ve tried to put rugby in its global political, social and cultural context - this primarily and rather obviously means looking at the game within the context of the rise and decline of the British Empire (and to a lesser extent the French Empire), two world wars, the Cold War, the international campaign against apartheid South Africa, and the rise of what is commonly called ‘neo-liberalism’ over the past thirty years. 

I’ve also sought to look at the themes that historians working within global history have commonly examined, such as connections, networks and interactions across national borders (albeit in rather less academic language given the nature of the book). Incidentally, as a good starting point I’d recommend Matt Taylor’s introduction to the 2013 special issue of the Journal of Global History, for an overview of relationship between the history of sport and global history.

Rugby and Empire

The first point to make is that the emergence of rugby around the world is essentially a product of the expansion of British imperialism from the mid-nineteenth century. In one sense this is fairly obvious when we compare the world map of rugby with that of the British Empire, but there are a number of different components to it and implications that flow from that.

It is easy to forget how young the English-speaking colonies were. In Australia, the ‘First Fleet’ arrived as recently as 1788, Sydney was only incorporated as a city in 1842 and Melbourne first settled in 1835. The Cape Colony in South Africa was only settled by the British following its 1814 acquisition. In New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi was only signed in 1840. In Canada, the Act of Union that essentially created it as a unified political entity was signed in the same year, 1840. 

Rugby’s arrival in these countries in the 1860s (although Melbourne quickly deviated from strict rugby rules) was co-terminous with the felt need to establish local cultural and political identities. For example, the Southern Rugby Union was formed in Australia in 1874. The Canadian Rugby Football Union was founded in 1882. Matches between Australia and New Zealand sides began in 1884 and tours to and from the British Isles started in 1888. The first British tour to South Africa took place in 1891.

This was also true in those countries with a longer national history in which the game or a version of it was imported. The end of the Civil War in the United States in 1865 led to a period of nation-building based on the victorious north (which saw the establishment of baseball as the national mass spectator sport, as well as the growth of rugby-derived American football as the national winter sport). In France the latter decades of the nineteenth century were a period in which the old regional divisions of rural France were being dismantled in favour of a unified national polity, which aimed, in Eugen Weber’s memorable phrase, to ‘turn Peasants into Frenchmen’. 

Thanks to the cultural importance of Muscular Christianity to the British Empire, rugby quickly become the dominant code of football in the ‘White Dominions’. Even the distinctive form of football played in the Australian colony of Victoria, which would become known as Australian rules football, was derived from Rugby School football rules.

Rugby therefore provided a unifying cultural practice to which its adherents added a sense of moral righteousness. The most obvious expression of this was the popularity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1857, across the English-speaking world (and in France, where it became the bible of Anglophone educationalists, such as Baron de Coubertin). Tom Brown became a handbook for private and grammar schools around the empire, and those schools that followed its lead invariably adopted rugby as their winter sport. 

And despite their deviation from rugby rules, Aussie Rules and American football also sought legitimacy from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the Muscular Christian traditions of Rugby School - for example the New York Times published the book’s description of Tom’s first football match as part of the preview of the 1872 Yale-Columbia gridiron game.

Tom Brown itself was an example of transnational print networks across the British Empire, something which can also be seen in the increasing newspaper coverage of sport around the world. This coverage, especially in the colonies, was transnational from the start - anyone who has used the fantastic ‘Past Papers’ digital archive of Nineteenth Century NZ newspapers can see that the column inches devoted by the NZ press to sport in Britain and the Empire were extraordinarily extensive. 

It is also the case that Rugby School itself had an extensive imperial network of old boys of Rugby School who actively proselytised for rugby wherever they found themselves - far more than any other public school, the disciples of Thomas Arnold saw themselves as moral and cultural missionaries for the values of Muscular Christianity. I gave a talk in Rugby last week at the town’s rugby union world cup festival with Rusty Maclean, Rugby School’s Archivist and Librarian, and as the audiences asked questions about the origins of rugby in this and that country, Rusty recounted the name of at least one old boy who had been instrumental in the establishment of the game in that country. This was the imperial network connection at its most personal.

As it became established across the Anglophone world, rugby also provided a direct link back to the imperial centre for the white British colonies, as demonstrated by tours to and from the colonies, beginning with the unofficial British tour organised in 1888 by Arthur Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw. But as well as such practical links, the game quickly became part of the cultural glue that connected the colonies to the Mother Country. This can be seen in South Africa, which had originally played a form of football based on the rules of Winchester College, but in 1879 switched to rugby and thus deepened its direct links to ‘Home’ and the rest of the empire.

It’s important to remember that there was a great deal of agency about rugby’s imperial role - this was not an unconscious process and individual proselytism contributed to enhancing this role. The sport’s advocates were enthusiastic promoters of its imperialmission. Rowland Hill, the RFU secretary from 1881-1904, declared that international tours were ‘of great Imperial importance in binding together the Mother Country with the Overseas Dominions’.

Welcoming the 1904 British rugby team to Australia, J.C. Davis, Sydney’s leading sports journalist of the time, echoed this when he wrote that sporting tours created ‘an extended feeling of appreciation and racial sympathy. They have incidentally shown to the muscular Britisher at home that the Britisher abroad and his sinewy colonial descendants are not aliens because thousands of miles of sea intervene.’

There is one other point that should be made about transnational networks. Player mobility between Britain and the white dominions was extensive from the 1880s. The imperial educational and professional business networks meant that considerable numbers of players from Australia, NZ and SA came to study or work in England and Scotland. In 1883 the Australian Charles Wade appeared on the wing for England against Scotland before returning to Sydney and playing for New South Wales against the visiting unofficial British side in 1888.

Wade, like many subsequent non-native internationals, was a student at Oxford. In 1903 Scots had a three-quarter line of two Australians, a Kiwi and a South African, and more famously the great Scots sides of the 1920s boasted Johnnie Wallace, who would return to Australia to captain the 1927 Waratahs, Ian Smith of Melbourne and former All Black George Aitkin. Blair Swannell played for the Lions in 1899 and 1904 and then for Australia against the All Blacks in 1905.

This transnational mobility was replicated in rugby league, although whereas as rugby union’s migratory pattern was based on middle-class occupational and educational links, rugby league’s comprised working-class professional players. Thus, after the foundation of the game in Australia and NZ in 1907, dozens of players moved from down under to play in England - a pattern that continued unabated up to the present. Australians like Albert Rosenfeld and New Zealanders like Lance Todd became household names in British rugby league, decades before soccer started importing players from outside of Britain.

So rugby of both codes in many ways represented a classic example of the process that global historians have identified in politics, business and many other cultural activities. Rugby’s development involved transnational links, connections and networks, none of which were independent of each other - and its development as an international sport was dependent on the emergence not only of a new stage in the development of British and French imperialism, but on the ease of communication, travel and media.

- - part two will look at how soccer came to eclipse rugby as the world sport

120 Years of Rugby League


On 16 November I gave the after-dinner speech to the annual dinner of the UK’s Parliamentary Rugby League Group to mark the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Union. This is a transcript of my remarks:
"A Northern Union man all the way through."

"A Northern Union man all the way through."

We’re here to celebrate 120 years of rugby league, so I thought I’d start with a few quotations from what some people have said about the sport over the past century or so: 

‘Rugby league is heading down the path to extinction.’ Sydney Daily Telegraph journalist, Rebecca Wilson in 2010.

‘Great game, rugby league, such a shame it has to die.’ - Frank Keating in the Guardian in 2001.

‘The game of rugby league itself will die.’ - John Reason and Carwyn James in The World of Rugby in 1979.

‘Rugby League is dying.’ - Former All Black captain and NZ MP Chris Laidlaw in 1973.

‘it is still dying.’ Daily Telegraph [London] in 1954 after the first rugby league world cup.

‘Rugby à Treize est mort.’ L’Auto in 1940.

‘Is rugby league doomed?’ Sydney Daily Telegraph (again!) in 1934.

‘Rugby League will be a nine day wonder.’ Sydney's The Arrow, 3 August 1907, when AH Baskerville's All Golds arrived in Sydney.

‘In a year or two, the Northern Union will almost be forgotten.’ Pall Mall Gazette, 30 September 1895, less than five weeks after the meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield that formed the Northern Union!

Well, rugby league is still here - and in extremely rude health. Today the game has 36 nations affiliated to the Rugby League International Federation; domestically it is played in every county in England. Even these barest of statistics would be beyond the comprehension of the men who formed the Northern Union at the George Hotel in August 1895. 

The game they created has survived despite facing a level of hostility unique in world sport.

For a hundred years the rugby union authorities banned union players from playing rugby league - those that did were banned for life. The game wasn’t played in universities until 1968 and was not recognised by the armed forces until 1994. It was banned in France by Marshall Petain’s collaborationist Vichy government during World War Two. 

Even today, as the arrest of rugby league organised Sol Mokdad in the United Arab Emirates demonstrates, rugby league pioneers sometimes face obstacles undreamt of by other sports.

Yet despite such obstacles the game goes on and is stronger than ever.


Most importantly, it’s a thrilling and spectacular athletic contest. Even before the split in 1895, the northern clubs placed a premium on handling, passing and running with the ball. The scoring of tries - rather than goals - became the object of the rugby league. And it has never been afraid to innovate to ensure that the sport remains ‘a game without monotony’, as Hull official C.E. Simpson put it when teams became 13-a-side and the play the ball the ball was introduced in 1906.

And rugby league has led the way for other sports too, introducing floodlighting, substitutes and Sunday matches before soccer or rugby union. The game was importing stars from around the world in the 1900s - stars like Albert Rosenfeld at Huddersfield, Lance Todd at Wigan and Jimmy Devereux at Hull were adding cosmopolitan glamour to rugby league decades before Premier League became a destination for soccer’s global stars.

The sin bin and video ref - staples of many sports today - were pioneered in rugby league. And it was the second major sport after soccer to organise a world cup tournament when the first-ever Rugby League World Cup was held in France in 1954.

But I think that the game has survived and expanded around the world for more than just what happens on the pitch. 

Because what makes rugby league so unique is that it is a sport founded on a principle. The Football Association was created to draw up a common set of rules for all football clubs. The RFU was founded to standardise rugby rules and organise international matches. The MCC was founded to play cricket, and to regulate gambling on the game. 

But the Northern Union was founded on the principle of equal opportunity for all - that everyone should be allowed to play rugby to the highest level of their ability, regardless of their school, their status or their social background. 

The clubs that met at the George Hotel in August 1895 legalised broken-time payments because they felt that it was the only way that players who spent their working week in a factory, on the docks or down a mine would be able to play on equal terms with the doctors, lawyers and accountants who played for socially elite clubs. No-one, felt the Northern Union pioneers, should lose wages in order to play the game they loved.

This principle of equality of opportunity has been at the heart of rugby league ever since 1895. It was what drew the rugby players of Australia and New Zealand to start rugby league down under in 1907 and 1908. It was the principle that Jean Galia and his fellow pioneers followed when they established rugby league in France in the 1930s.

And it has meant that rugby league welcomed black players into the game at a time when other sports had turned their backs on them. George Bennet was capped for Wales in 1935, fifty years before Glen Webbe became the first Welsh black union international. Jimmy Cumberbatch was capped for England in 1936, forty years before Viv Anderson became England’s first black soccer international. And when Clive Sullivan lifted the RLWC trophy for GB in 1972, he did so as the first black captain of a British national team in any sport.

And while no-one would claim that the sport is free of prejudice or chauvinism, it has also a notable record of women’s involvement, from supporters’ club officials in the 1930s, to the women’s teams that played in Workington in 1954 to Julia Lee becoming the first senior match official in any football code in the 1980s.

But this principle of equality of opportunity has also allowed working-class people could play a leadership role in society. So in 1910, the first Northern Union touring side to Australia and NZ was led by Jim Lomas, a docker. The 1914 tourists were led by Harold Wagstaff, a delivery driver. 

Until relatively recently, outside of the trade unions, working people did not hold leadership positions in society. Nor until the 1960s did they usually travel abroad, unless in the armed forces or as emigrants. 

For a docker and a driver to lead a group of men to a country 14,000 miles away was therefore unprecedented. Until the 1950s cricket sides were always captained by privately-educated amateurs, and the England soccer side didn’t even play in the world cup until 1950, let alone tour other countries.

This, I suspect, goes some way to explaining the popularity of rugby league in Australia and the industrial regions of New Zealand - they could identify with British teams because the tourists were people just like the mass of ordinary Australians and Kiwis.

So rugby league’s strength has always been about more than the thrilling spectacle on the pitch. At its heart was the principle that ordinary people should have the opportunity to develop their talents to their fullest extent.

When Harold Wagstaff wrote his autobiography in the mid-1930s he began with the words: ‘I am a Northern Union man all the way through’.

This was more than a declaration of mere sporting affiliation. It was a acknowledgement of pride in the achievements of not just himself, but of a sport that allowed working-class men like him to develop their talents to the full and to take their place at the head of their communities. 

And to that extent, 120 years after the historic decision to breakaway from the RFU was made, we should all be Northern Union men and women today.

Conversion rates...

The greatest league to union convert? The young Jo Maso, who played for XIII Catalan before becoming a France union international, national team manager and IRB Hall of Famer. (credit:

The greatest league to union convert? The young Jo Maso, who played for XIII Catalan before becoming a France union international, national team manager and IRB Hall of Famer. (credit:

In the wake of Sam Burgess returning home, there’s a lot of talk about the ‘failure’ of rugby league players to convert to rugby union. To some extent this is a back-handed compliment to league - after all, it assumes that league players are so skilled that they should be equally successful at union - but it also implies that union players find it easier to convert to league.

But that’s simply not the case. A quick look at the historical statistics for union players converting to league tells a much more complex story.

Of the 35 England rugby union internationals who switched to league between 1900 and 1995, just eight went on to play international rugby league for Great Britain, and five of those had played league as youths. That's 23%, or slightly less than one in four.

For a bigger sample, Robert Gate's wonderful Gone North lists all 148 Welsh union internationals who switched to league between 1895 and the book's publication in 1986. Of those 148 internationals, only 28 went on to play for the Great Britain rugby league team. That's just 19%, or slightly less than one in five. Sure, everyone's heard of Lewis Jones and Jonathan Davies, but who remembers Stuart Evans or Dai Young, two Welsh union greats who were utterly out of their depths in league?

To put it bluntly, less than one in four rugby union players who switched codes reached the same heights in league as they did in union.

The moral of the story is simple. League and union are separate and distinct sports. You might be good at one, you might be good at the other - but you’re very lucky if you are good at both.

'Whinging Poms and Arrogant Aussies?' The roots of the rugby rivalry

-- This is an extract from 'The Tyranny of Deference: Anglo-􏰀Australian Relations and Rugby Union before World War II' published in Sport in History in 2009. It deals with the origins of the rugby union rivalry between England and Australia.

 Although in the 1850s the founders of Victorian (later Australian) rules football took their inspiration from the football that was played at Rugby School in England, it wasn’t until 1863 that a club which actually played the Rugby School code of football was founded in Australia, Sydney University Football Club. Over the next three decades New South Wales and eventually Queensland adopted Rugby football as their primary football code. In 1874 the Southern Rugby Union (SRU) was formed in Sydney as the governing body of the game in Australia. From its inception, the sport was closely associated with the universities and the Great Public [i.e. private] Schools. By the late 1890s, however, rugby had become a mass spectator sport in the eastern states, attracting considerable crowds, press coverage and public interest.

Part of its appeal among all classes was the opportunities it offered for competition between different countries of the Empire. As with cricket, the growth of rugby brought with it regular tours from teams representing New Zealand and, most importantly, Britain. In 1888 an unofficial British rugby tour organised by the sporting entrepeneurs Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury had given added impetus to the popularity of the game. Rugby also presented an important an important form of cultural exchange, as young middle-class Australian males took up studentships at Oxford, Cambridge or the London and Edinburgh medical schools. Indeed, a number, such as C.G. Wade and S.M.J. Woods , even represented England or Scotland at international level.

Rugby thus became an important part of the imperial sporting network that included cricket, rowing and athletics. As with these other sports, the goal of rugby tours was to use sport to generate a sense of imperial unity. Welcoming the 1904 British rugby team to Australia, J.C. Davis, Sydney’s leading sports journalist of the time, encapsulated this when he wrote that sporting tours created ‘an extended feeling of appreciation and racial sympathy. They have incidentally shown to the muscular Britisher at home that the Britisher abroad and his sinewy colonial descendents are not aliens because thousands of miles of sea intervene.’

It was in this spirit that the governing body of English rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), organised the first official rugby tour to Australia by a British representative side in 1899. Captained and managed by the Reverend Matthew Mullineux, the tour proved to be unexpectedly controversial. Mullineux was disappointed with the spirit in which the Australians played the game. Most of all, he was horrified by the widespread, and well-founded, rumours that players received money for playing, contrary to the amateur regulations of the sport.

For their part, the Australians felt let down because, contrary to expectations, the British team was not truly representative; only seven of the twenty-one players in the side had ever appeared in an international before. Most importantly, they were somewhat shocked at the highly competitive manner in which the British played the game. Much to their hosts’ surprise, the British tourists appeared to go all out to win, rather then to play the game for its own enjoyment, as would be expected by representatives of the home of ‘fair play’. The contrast between the rhetoric and the reality of British play was highlighted in a newspaper cartoon published during the tour, in which a British lion confronted a kangaroo:

Lion: ‘Look here, you don’t play fair!’ 
Kangaroo: ‘What do you call fair?’ 
Lion: ‘Well-er-you see, I didn’t come out here to get licked.’

Far from being temporary hiccough in international rugby relations, these problems were exacerbated during the next British tour of Australia in 1904. Captained by Scottish forward David Bedell-Sivright, the side departed Australia unbeaten before going on to face sterner opposition in New Zealand, but left a trail of controversy behind them. Foreshadowing Douglas Jardine, the captain of the 1932-33 English cricket tourists, much of the ill-feeling of the tour was generated by the behaviour of Bedell-Sivright, about whom it was said ‘his conception of football was one of trained violence.’

Two of the three test matches were punctuated by brawling between the British captain and his Australian adversaries and a match in Newcastle against Northern Districts was interrupted when he led his men off the field in protest against the dismissal of British forward Denys Dobson. The referee alleged that Dobson had sworn at him after being penalised at a scrum. Bedell-Sivright denied that one of his men would do anything so low and promptly marched his side off the pitch. Eventually they were persuaded to return, but the incident became notorious as another example of the ease with which the British dispensed with their principles of fair play when it suited them. 

The relationship deteriorated further during the first Australian rugby union tour of Britain in 1908.  Following in the wake of successful tours ‘Home’ by the New Zealand and South African national sides, the tourists - known as the Wallabies - were dogged by controversy and deteriorating relations with their British hosts. The Scottish and Irish rugby unions refused to play them because of suspicions that the Australians were professionals. On the pitch, the tourists were accused of being overly-violent and playing solely for the purpose of winning. Unprecedentedly, three players were sent off during the tour, including one, Syd Middleton, against Oxford University, the very embodiment of the amateur ‘rugger’ tradition.

For many in Britain, the tour demonstrated the moral deficiencies of the typical Australian. Scottish rugby writer Hamish Stuart claimed that ‘custom and the national idea have so blunted their moral sense that they are sublimely unconscious of their delinquency and are sincerely surprised when accused of unfair practice’. The Australians were reciprocally less than enamoured by their treatment in Britain. Returning home, James McMahon, the tour manager, complained that

as visitors to the Mother Country, as representatives of part of the British nation, [the players] could not understand and were certainly not prepared for such hostility as was shown them by a section of the press. 

In many ways these rugby disputes anticipated the 1932-33 Bodyline cricket controversy. Like the Bodyline events, the disputes were not caused by any Australian proto-nationalism but by the injustice felt by Australians when British sides did not abide by the supposedly British sporting values of ‘fair play’ or refused to accept their opponents asequally as British as they. This was precisely the basis of much of the anger of Australians during Bodyline. It was not so much that the English cricket captain Douglas Jardine was engaging in intimidatory tactics but that he appeared to have departed from the ethical code of the British gentleman and was using such tactics against fellow Britons. This feeling of betrayed loyalty was captured by an anonymous ‘Man in the Street’ who published a pamphlet in Sydney titled The Sporting English, a scathing attack on the English in response to the 1932-33 cricket tour and its aftermath:

We Australians are at a loss to understand why we, alone of all the Empire, are singled out for these continual attacks. We claim to be loyal to the throne, and to uphold the traditions of the British race. Also we pay our debts and are England’s very best customer within the Empire. When danger threatened, we were of the first to respond to the call to arms by the Motherland.

The underlying imperial loyalty of such complaints was made explicit by Wallaby captain H.M. Moran who, despite noting that his fellow tourists had ‘developed a dislike for everything English’, also pointed out that ‘there is one symbol of [Australian] unity with the nation of nations. It is the monarchy.’

An Australian will often express himself rudely about a visiting Englishman who behaves superciliously. That is common. He will frequently hurl angry criticisms at a British government. That, he considers his right. He will even in a pet be disrespectful to a British government, though this is rare. But to the King, no man with impunity may offer insult.

Thus what was being expressed by Australians in these sporting disputes was not an embryonic form of nationalism but a thwarted Imperial loyalty. And in attempting to deal with this frustration over the next three decades, far from being driven to greater hostility towards Britain, the Australian rugby union authorities sought to bend over backwards in an attempt to appease their tormentors.


Was rugby more dangerous than soccer in Victorian times?

Rugby or Soccer in 1888? Image from Mike Huggins'  Victorians and Sport.

Rugby or Soccer in 1888? Image from Mike Huggins' Victorians and Sport.

It’s often thought that one of the reasons that soccer became more popular than rugby in the nineteenth century was that it was less dangerous than the oval ball game. Indeed, the sociologists Eric Dunning and Ken Sheard made much of this argument in Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players (1979) their sociological investigation of the history of rugby (you can find my critique of the book here).

This may have been the belief of some people, but it wasn’t shared by the medical profession at the time. The Lancet - then as now the leading medical journal in Britain - argued that it was soccer which was the most dangerous of the football codes. Its 24 March 1894 issue it devoted a major article to the dangers of football, examining both soccer and rugby in detail, and came to the conclusion that: 

it is our opinion that Association, at first sight a tame game compared with the other, is possibly more perilous than Rugby Union; and that its modern developments, though in many ways so similar, are more certainly towards danger than are the developments in the tactics of the older branch.

It returned to the subject over a decade later on 16 November 1907, following the split in rugby and the massive expansion in the popularity of soccer across Britain. It saw no reason to change its opinion:

Everything seems to show that the degree of danger incurred by players is greater in the dribbling than in the carrying game.

Of course, this does not decisively prove that rugby was less dangerous than soccer - just that many doctors thought it was. But, perhaps more importantly, it does demonstrate how easy - and mistakenly - it is to assume that today's preconceptions about the modern football codes were also shared earlier generations.

The Roots of Rugby League - a four week course

I'm really pleased to announce that I've teamed up with Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield to teach a free four-week course on 'The Roots of Rugby League' starting on Wednesday 14 October.

Over four Wednesday evenings - starting at 6pm and ending at 8pm - we'll be looking at the development of rugby from its origins in the folk football games of pre-industrial times all the way up to the outbreak of World War One.

Along the way we'll look at the emergence of rugby in the north of England, how it eclipsed soccer in popularity in the north, the 1895 split, the rule changes, and the emergence of the rugby league as we know it today.

The course is free and open to everyone. You don't need to do anything - just come along, listen and, if you want, ask questions and take part in the discussion. I'll be looking at historic documents, showing some rare films from the past and getting to the bottom of what makes rugby league tick. 

You can find the details of how to book your free place at the Heritage Quay website here.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Here We Go Again: 'English Rugby Union is not a middle-class sport'

Every time there's a major rugby union event in England, the press roll out the old cliche about 'rugby union no longer being the preserve of the middle-class'. There was a laughably fact-free discussion along these lines on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight (starts 30 minutes in) on the eve of the world cup kick-off.

More interesting was Bed Dirs' article on the BBC Sport website, Is English Rugby Union Just For Posh Kids? which makes the point that 61 per cent of top-level English rugby union players went to private schools (67 per cent of the current England world cup squad are privately educated), as opposed to just 6 per cent of elite English soccer players. The figure for rugby league would be even lower. The percentage of the general population who go to private school is 7 per cent.

'Rugby Football at the Big Schools'. In 2015 as in 1918?

'Rugby Football at the Big Schools'. In 2015 as in 1918?

Defenders of the idea that rugby union is classless often argue that some of these players - it is never stated how many - originally went to state schools but were later given scholarships by private schools to play rugby there. This is undoubtedly true.

But this merely shows just how deeply rugby union is part of the middle-class world of private education. A cohort representing 7 per cent of the population occupy over 60 per cent of the places in the England squad - this makes the England more 'middle-class' than Oxford or Cambridge universities

More to the point, when was the last time a teenage soccer player was sent to a private school to improve his football skills and enhance his chances of playing for England? My guess would be never. 

But this should come as no surprise. Historically speaking, the social composition of rugby union has barely changed, as you can see in the following analysis of the social and educational backgrounds of England internationals between 1871 and 1895 that appeared in chapter five of A Social History of English Rugby Union (needless to say, the chapter goes into much more detail than this blogpost allows):

"Between the first international in 1871 and the advent of professionalism in 1995, 1,143 players were selected to play for England. We know the schools attended by 876 of them. The number of internationals who attended elementary, board, secondary modern or comprehensive state schools was just 66, not a significantly larger number than the 47 who were educated at Rugby School itself.

This leaves 810 who were educated at grammar or fee-paying schools. Of these, 155 went to schools identifying themselves as grammar schools, although this self-definition includes both independent fee-paying schools and state-funded secondary schools, leaving 655  who were unambiguously privately educated. In other words, 92.4% of all England internationals for whom we have school details went to fee-paying or grammar schools.

Of course, there were also players who had originally attended non-fee paying schools but won academic or athletic scholarships to private or grammar schools. Working-class scholarship boys such as Ray French and Fran Cotton featured especially in England sides of the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. But unfortunately there is no data available that would help us quantify their number. It is also the case that the social mobility of this period that was opened up in large part by educational opportunity proved short-lived and was certainly in decline by the mid-1990s.

We could therefore assume that this group would not significantly alter the overall picture. Moreover, the phenomenon of the rugby-playing ‘working-class scholarship boy’ highlights the fact that rugby union was part of the acculturisation process through which talented young students were assimilated into the middle class, rather than rugby union becoming ‘classless’ and moving down the social ladder in its appeal, as was the case with soccer.

What about the players whose schools we do not know? Of these 267 players, 25 attended university, medical school, naval academy or the Royal Indian Engineering College. We know that 68 of those for whom we have no educational data had what can be termed ‘middle-class’ jobs, ranging from sales managers and accountants to company directors and, in the case of John Matters who played for England in 1899, a rear admiral in the Royal Navy. And of those for whom we have neither educational nor occupational data, 15 played for socially-prestigious elite clubs such as Blackheath, Manchester or Richmond. This would indicate another 108 players that could be categorised as being clearly from the middle classes.

What of the remaining 159 players? There are 55 for whom we know only the name of the club for which they played. They played for clubs in the midlands, south-west or pre-1895 north that traditionally had a socially-mixed, cross-class playing personnel, making it impossible to draw any inference about their social background from their club. This leaves us with 104 players whose schools we do not know but who are recorded as having manual occupations, beginning in 1882 when storeman Harry Wigglesworth of the Yorkshire club Thornes made his debut.

The most common employment was that of publican, which provided gainful employment for 22 England internationals. Becoming a pub landlord was invariably an inducement to a player to stay with a club or to join a new one, offering an attractive way out of direct manual labour. Thirteen of these publicans became rugby league players. Indeed, 38 of the 104 manual workers went on to play league. The only other significant manual occupational groups were thirteen police constables and eight ship and dockyard workers who played for clubs on the south-west coast and were employed mainly in naval dockyards. 

We can therefore say that of the 1,088 England players for whom we have verifiable educational or occupational information, only 170 (or 15.6%) were unambiguously not part of the middle classes, either because they attended non-private or grammar schools or were employed in manual labour."

William Webb Ellis - back from the dead

I wrote the following short piece as the prologue to A Social History of English Rugby Union in 2009. At that time, the William Webb Ellis myth seemed to be fading away. But as anyone who saw Friday's opening of rugby union's world cup [which you can see below], it's back with a vengeance, And once again, expediency, this time commercial, has outweighed evidence...

Of the little that is known about William Webb Ellis, we can be certain of one thing. He did not invent the game of rugby football.

An unremarkable schoolboy, he lived his life in dutiful obscurity as an Anglican clergyman until his death in 1872. Four years later, however, a second life began for him when Rugby School old boy and benefactor Matthew Bloxam suddenly named Ellis as the boy who in 1823 first picked up the ball and ran with it. Bloxam offered no evidence for his claim. Nor did he provide any in 1880 when he reiterated his view. 

At the height of the war that split rugby apart in 1895, the Old Rugbeian Society set up a committee to investigate the true origins of the Rugby football. Despite considerable efforts, not one person came forward to support Bloxam. The committee found not a single eye-witness, not a solitary written word, not even a syllable of hearsay evidence to support the William Webb Ellis story. 

Nevertheless, the committee decided ‘in all probability’ that Ellis was the ‘innovator’ of running with the ball. In 1900 a plaque was erected at the school that proclaimed unhesitatingly that Ellis ‘with a fine disregard of the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it’ in 1823. 

Not for the first time in the history of rugby, evidence had been outweighed by exigency.

Empire of the Scrum: the history of rugby in Shanghai

In 1839 Britain declared war on Imperial China to defend its right to sell opium to the Chinese. The British occupied Shanghai and, at the war’s conclusion in 1842, the city became what was known as a ‘Treaty Port’ with a permanent British garrison and diplomatic and business settlement. As in the rest of their imperial world, the British colonialists established a local network of social and sporting clubs.

As Simon Drakeford explains in his exhaustively researched book on the history of Shanghai RFC, It’s Rough Game but Good Sportthe settlers set up the city’s first football club in 1867. As with their other cultural activities, the expatriate British mirrored the concerns of what they called ‘home’ and at that time played a football game that was neither modern soccer or rugby. The club did not last long and in 1881 a new Shanghai club was formed, this time committed to playing according to the rules of the Rugby Football Union. This too was short-lived. Other clubs were formed but died away. It wasn’t until 1904 that the recognisable Shanghai RFC came into existence. 

Rugby union became a significant force on the Shanghai sporting and social scene and remained so until the liberation of China by Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949. The club, like the rest of Britain’s imperial legacy on the Chinese mainland, was wound up in 1950 and the balance of its assets donated to the RFU. It wasn’t until the 1990s that rugby union was once again played in Shanghai.

It’s Rough Game but Good Sport describes in forensic detail not only the story of the club and rugby in Shanghai but also the social history of the city’s British expatriate community. Spurred on both by enthusiastic players and the Muscular Christian imperatives of the educational system, rugby had become the most popular football code in the port by the outbreak of World War One. Its influence spread and during the inter-war years the game was not merely the preserve of the British in the city but encompassed the French, American and Japanese occupying garrisons, and enjoyed regular tours from visiting European army regiments and Japanese university sides.

By 1939 the city boasted not only an English-speaking league but also a six-team Japanese league, the standard of which was equal to that of the Europeans. Indeed, on 8 December 1941 Shanghai RFC was itself defeated by the local Japanese students of Tung Wen College, a portent of what was to immediately follow. The day after, the Japanese army invaded and occupied the British settlement.

The community in which Shanghai RFC blossomed will be familiar to readers of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Drakeford does not shy away from describing the racism of the British or the club. Horrendous descriptions of the way in which Chinese ‘coolies’ were treated, accounts of the arrogance of the colonialists, and of discrimination by the club itself - against both Chinese and British of the lower classes - recur throughout the text. No Chinese player took part the game until 1932, and he had been educated in England. It would be almost seventy years before significant numbers of Chinese players began to take part in the sport. 

Histories of sports' clubs are notoriously difficult to write successfully. Even the most accomplished, such as Chuck Korr’s West Ham United (1987), Richard Stremski’s Kill for Collingwood (1986) and Andrew Moore’s The Mighty Bears (1996), struggle to maintain a balance between administrative minutiae, repetitive seasons and narrative flow. Yet despite the fact that the book is almost 700 pages long, the tight integration between the sporting and social history of Shanghai means that It’s a Rough Game is never less than interesting. In terms of its command of detail, personalities and sporting history the book is comparable to Tom Hickie’s outstanding 1998 history of Sydney University FC, A Sense of Union.

Most importantly, the book provides historians with a new window into the social world of the British imperial expatriate community. Rugby was a not insignificant part of the recreational life of most British colonialist communities across the imperial world yet remains woefully unexplored beyond the usual Australia/New Zealand/South Africa axis. Yet as Ng Peng Kong’s 2003 history/memoir Rugby: A Malaysian Chapter described, rugby union played an important role both in maintaining the ‘Britishness’ of the expatriate community and in allowing them to resist or regulate the participation of the indigenous population. 

As a history of rugby and of the British community in Shanghai, Simon Drakeford’s book is an important contribution to the historiography of sport and of the British empire.

- - Simon Drakeford, It’s Rough Game but Good Sport: The Life, Times and Personalities of the Shanghai Rugby Football Club (Hong Kong: Earnshaw Press, 2014), Pp. xviii + 696. £47.20 (hb) ISBN 978-9-881-60900-7.

'A Social History of English Rugby Union' wins best book award

I'm deeply honoured that A Social History of English Rugby Union was voted joint 'Best Academic Monograph on Rugby Union' by delegates to the 2015 'World in Union: Rugby, Past Present & Future' conference.

Held at the University of Brighton on 10-12 September and an official part of the 'Festival of Rugby' celebrations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the conference attracted over sixty of the world's leading scholars of sport in general and rugby in particular.

Alongside A Social History of the Rugby Union my co-winners were David R Black and John Nauright for their 1998 book Rugby and the South African Nation. The award for the best edited book of essays went to Greg Ryan for his Tackling Rugby Myths: Rugby and New Zealand Society, 1854-2004 and Tim Chandler and John Nauright's Making Men: Rugby and Masculine Identity. The prize for best popular history to Huw Richards' 2007 A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union

If you haven't read any of these books yet, you now have no excuse.

Miners and rugby league at the National Coal Mining Museum

The National Coal Mining Museum of England is currently hosting the Rugby League Cares 'Rugby League Heritage on Tour' exhibition. It opened on Saturday 1 August and the audience of almost 100 people heard David Hinchliffe, Mike Stephenson, Neil Fox and myself. If you haven't seen the exhibition, there couldn't be a better place to visit. My short address is below:

No sport has such a deep, rich and organic connection with miners and the mining industry than rugby league. Although people in the North East talked about Newcastle Utd calling down a pit for a new centre-forward or in the East Midlands Notts County Cricket Club shouting down a mine shaft for a new fast bowler, neither soccer nor cricket are as intwined with mining as rugby league.

Indeed, the reason why rugby league is this year celebrating its 120th anniversary, the reason why it split from the rugby union in 1895, can in part be blamed on the prominence of miners in rugby!

Rugby was brought to the north by public-school eduucated young men of the upper classes, but within a generation it was been enthusiastically taken up by miners. In 1883, a team from Thornes in Wakefield won the Yorkshire Cup, the biggest upset so far in rugby’s short life. They brought new tactics to the way the game was played and showed that rugby was a game for people of all classes, from all walks of life.

But this was not welcomed by those who ran the game. In 1886 the Yorkshire Post published a letter from ‘a former public schoolboy’ who complained about a recent match:

A great many of the Horbury team were artisans and colliers. Now, I don't object to any working man - collier or whatever he may be - as long as he understands the game he is playing, but when in ignorance he puts on his working boots, which, combined with betting on the event [and] brute force ignorance of the game of Rugby Union ... it is a disgrace to the prestige of “Dear Old England” for time-honoured fair play.

Many of the leaders of the RFU did not like playing teams of working-class players - and even less liked being beaten by them!

And it was this antagonism to the rise of working-class players like miners and other manual workers and the refusal to allow them to receive broken time payments to compensate them for taking time off work that led to rugby splitting in two in 1895. 

When the Northern Union kicked off in 1895 it was common for teams from Wigan, St Helens, Castleford, Wakefield and even Hunslet to have teams composed almost entirely of miners.

Rugby was now also an integral part of the everyday life of miners. If you go to the Railway Hotel pub in Featherstone, you will see a plaque that not only says that the pub was the birthplace of Featherstone Rovers but also that the pub was the site of the inquiry was conducted into the shooting dead of two striking miners in Featherstone during the great strike of 1893. 

Harry Speed, England international in the 1890s and the captain of the original Castleford team, was a surface worker at Glasshoughton Colliery who also organised fund-raising matches for striking miners. Billy Batten, one of three mineworkers in the first ten members of the Rugby League Hall of Fame, donated £350 of his testimonial fund to mining families in his home town of Kinsley during the 1921 miners’ strike.

When Castleford applied to join the rugby league in 1924, the first line of their application stated: ‘Our claim for inclusion as a first-class league club is based upon the fact that Castleford is the centre of a mining district’. In 1926 Featherstone Miners’ Welfare bought Post Office Road ground from the landlord on behalf of the rugby club.

In June 1934 over 1,000 miners at Featherstone’s two pits voted for a weekly wage deduction of threepence to be given to the club. And when Whitehaven joined the rugby league in 1948 their two leading officials worked at Haig Pit and their ground, the Recre, was the Miners’ Welfare ground. 

We can even trace back Wigan’s nickname of ‘The Pie-Eaters’ back to the 1926 Miners’ Lockout, when miners in Wigan were accused by their more militant rivals in St Helens of going back to work early and therefore eating humble pie from the mine owners. 

Internationally, the unforgettable 1946 Great Britain touring side, the only British team never to lose a test match in Australia, was built around a front row of three miners. Five of the 1950 British touring side Down Under were miners, and miners continued to play for great Britain until the late 1980s.

Nor is it just in the north of England where mining is synonymous with rugby league. League is the game of the coalfields of Queensland and NSW in Australia - Andrew Johns himself comes from a mining family. And in New Zealand, the West Coast mining region is a heartland of league in a sea of rugby union.

But the link between mining and rugby league goes deeper. The values that defined the mining communities are also those of rugby league. 

Mining is physical and brutal, it requires great resilience and teamwork - just like rugby league. 

Mining communities gave rise to fantastic expressions of creative talent of ordinary people - like the Pitmen Painters - thanks to Miners’ Welfare Institutes, and rugby league was part of that.

But most of all, mining communities fostered a spirit of fairness, of resistence to injustice and of equality for all. And those are exactly the principles rugby league was founded upon 120 years ago.

So there could be no more fitting place to host this rugby league exhibition than here in this museum, an institution that honours the millions of men and women who built the mining industry.

Maori, Kiwis and the Haka

There's an interesting video on the website that traces the evolution of the All Blacks' haka, demonstrating that the haka as we know it today has undergone some very significant changes over the past century.

However, the brief clip it shows of the 1922 haka is neither the All Blacks nor rugby union. It's actually the 1922 Maori rugby league tourists playing New South Wales Seconds at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a game the Maori lost 31-14. As well as a long take of the haka, the footage is notable for showing an early version of the play-the-ball, which looks like a mini-scrum (as its originators intended). 

YouTube also has footage of the haka being performed in 1926 by the New Zealand rugby league tourists to Britain, known at the time as the Professional All Blacks, at the first test match of the tour at Wigan. Oddly enough, it seems that Pathe News could not distinguish between league and union, so the clip is labelled as a rugby union match! The haka is led by Phonse Carroll, the NZ hooker who was a relative of Brisbane Bronco and Leeds Rhino Tonie Carroll and, more importantly, a conscientious objector in World War One.

To say the least, the tour was not a success - you can read the full story in John Coffey's excellent book The Tour That Died of Shame - but the British Pathe clip shows the two sides running out, the haka and some of the play. The first two players out for the British side are captain Jonty Parkin followed by Jim Sullivan. The Kiwis are led out by Mildred Mair (the wife of the tour manager), carrying a NZ flag and a stuffed kiwi, followed by captain Bert Avery.

At the time the match took place, hundreds of thousands of miners were locked out by the pit-owners - 40,000 in the Wigan area alone - and five months previously Britain had been gripped by the General Strike. Despite the hardships that were been inflicted on the local miners, fifteen thousand people turned out to watch an exciting 28-20 win for Britain. 

The Walter Camp myth and the origins of American football

Walter Camp in 1878

Walter Camp in 1878

This is the third article in a short series on the history of the rugby codes in North America. It looks at the origins of American football and its ‘creation myth’ of Walter Camp’s invention of a uniquely American game. The idea that American football was invented by Walter Camp is still widely believed by fans and academics alike, but is based on a misunderstanding of how rugby developed. For a more detailed discussion of the birth of American football, see my ‘Unexceptional Exceptionalism: the origins of American football in a transnational context’ published in the Journal of Global History in 2013.

Just like the William Webb Ellis legend, American football developed its own ‘creation myth’. In the same way that the Webb Ellis story painted a picture of a sport that owed everything to the public schools that supplied the the RFU with its leaders, American football’s tale emphasised how uniquely American its game was.

The story revolves around Walter Camp. He went to Yale University in 1875 and became the starting half-back for the university rugby team. But, so the story goes, he was dissatisfied with the rules of the game. He thought they were too vague and based on British traditions that were inappropriate for the ‘New World’.  In particular he thought the scrum was distinctly un-American, writing in 1886 that: 

English players form solid masses of men in a scrummage and engage in a desperate kicking and pushing match until the ball  pops out unexpectedly somewhere, leaving the struggling mass ignorant of its whereabouts, still kicking blindly where they think the ball may be.

To get rid of this problem, in 1880 he proposed that the scrum should be abolished and in its place the two sets of forwards lined up opposite each other. He invented the ‘snap’ when the ball is handed back to the quarterback to make the game less chaotic. Eventually the forward pass was introduced. 

But this tale of how Camp invented American football is its own scrummage of fact, fiction and supposition. The historical record is not that quite straight forward. 

The first and most glaring problem is that, when it came to playing rugby without a scrum, the Canadians got there first. 

In October 1875, a full five years before Walter Camp proposed abolishing the scrum in America, the first Canadian rugby enthusiasts had proposed precisely the same thing at a ‘Football Convention’. Nine clubs met to discuss the rules of the game in Toronto and decided to adopt the rules of the RFU. But three clubs voted against. These clubs essentially wanted to play rugby without the scrum. Eventually the reformers, led by McGill and Toronto universities, won the argument, and rugby in Canada began its evolution towards gridiron-style Canadian football.

Back in the USA, when Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale students met in November 1876 to found the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) and agree a common set of rules, they adopted the RFU rule book including the scrum rules.

But arguments still raged between the elite football-playing universities of the U.S. east coast. The big debate was about the number of players in a team. The first IFA meeting voted for 15-a-side but Walter Camp’s Yale wanted 11-a-side. They had played 11-a-side teams ever since 1873 when a team of footballers from Eton College visited from England. Yale unexpectedly won the match, which was played under a hybrid set of rules. 

The Yale men’s surprising success convinced them that eleven men were all that were needed to play the game. Eventually in October 1880 the other universities agreed to Camp and Yale’s proposal. Rugby in America became an 11-a-side game. 

This move to eleven players fundamentally changed rugby. With just six or seven forwards, instead of the normal nine or ten found in a fifteen-a-side team, a traditional rugby scrum was impossible. In rugby at this time, the aim of the forwards was not to heel the ball backwards but to dribble it forward through the opposing pack. Opponents could line-up several columns deep, preventing headway from being made for considerable periods. 

However, with fewer opposing forwards, dribbling the ball forward resulted in it quickly emerging out on the opponents’ side, giving them use of the ball to set up their own attack. Conventional scrummaging was completely counter-productive. Yale and the other teams playing eleven-a-side rugby therefore began to line their forwards up in a single line, which became known as the ‘open formation’, so that they could heel the ball behind them to their backs as quickly as possible. 

At the same time that teams were reduced to eleven, the ‘snapback’ - where the ball was passed backwards to the quarterback (itself the Scottish rugby term for the scrum-half) - was introduced. Two years later in 1882, the ‘downs’ rule was introduced, which gave a team three ‘downs’ to get the ball five yards upfield or hand it over to the other team (later increased to four downs and ten yards). 

True believers of the Walter Camp myth believe these changes were uniquely American. But similar changes would take place in Canadian rugby and in rugby league. Even blocking, which allowed players without the ball to be tackled, was not unknown in the early days of rugby and was used by Blackheath and at Rugby School itself. There was nothing specifically American about the way Walter Camp changed rugby. Even as late as December 1893 the New York Times could still call the American game ‘rugby’.

What did make the game uniquely American was not one of Walter Camp’s innovations at all. It was the legalisation in 1906 of the forward pass. Introduced to open the sport up and reduce its defensive brutality, more than any other change it was this that gave American football its distinctive character. Camp, by this time dubbed ‘the father of American football’, remained agnostic on this fundamental change that marked the definitive passage of rugby into American football. The gridiron game was now truly an American game, yet its origins lay not in the head of Walter Camp but in the debates about how to play rugby football that took place throughout the English-speaking world in the second half of the nineteenth century.

- - The full story of the fate of the rugby codes in North America is covered in my forthcoming book The Oval World.

Rugby League in North America in the 1950s

Match-day programme for Newcastle v American All Stars (1953)

Match-day programme for Newcastle v American All Stars (1953)

Rugby league's North American odyssey  began in September 1928 when, on the way back from their Australasian tour, the British tourists played two exhibition games in Canada. Two sides representing England and Wales played matches in Vancouver and Montreal, with England winning 30-17 and 21-18 respectively, the latter being one of the first league games ever to be played on a Sunday. The fact that touring sides from both hemispheres tended to sail via north or central America at the time meant that it didn’t require much imagination to see the possibilities which could open up for the game on the American continent.

Nor had not escaped the attention of those few rugby league supporters and officials who had been able to visit North America that their game bore more than a passing resemblance to American football, especially at the then more popular college level, where forward passing was relatively uncommon and the main difference between the two games was the blocking of opponents without the ball. Philosophically, the two games shared a focus on tackling, running with the ball and retaining possession, together with a common rejection of such rugby union shibboleths as the ruck, maul and line-out. As Jack Gibson somewhat mischievously pointed out in the 1980s, the two sports were basically the same game but with different rules. 

During the 1932 Lions' tour to Australasia the Australian Board of Control discussed the prospects for expansion into North America and recommended that two representatives from England and Australia go to the U.S. to organise a series of exhibition matches. The Board’s idea was to organise matches in conjunction with college football games, with the league teams playing their first half, followed by the first half of the gridiron game, then for the league match to be completed, followed by the second half of gridiron.

Despite this slightly odd proposal, the two tour managers, Oldham’s  G.F. Hutchins and Warrington’s Bob Anderton, enthusiastically backed Miller’s suggestion and proposed that the  R.F.L. should explore the possibility of establishing the game in the U.S. by organising a series of matches between England and Australia in 'the principal cities from New York to San Francisco' but the Council, probably because the game in England was being battered by the slump of the early 1930s, unanimously turned down the idea. 

These hopes for expansion were more than wishful thinking. Professional American football was something of a sickly adolescent in the 1930s, the N.F.L. only having been established very shakily in 1920, and was geographically confined to a handful of industrial cities in the East and Mid-West. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that either the N.F.L. became established on the West Coast. Isolated in sporting terms from the rest of the country, the establishment of sporting links with Australia was a logical move, especially considering that in terms of distance, Sydney was almost as close to California as New York was. 

Despite the Council’s initial opposition, the fascination with America would not go away. At an R.F.L. meeting in June 1934 Brigadier-General A.C. Critchley, who the previous year had set up London Highfield, suggested that he should bring over a team of American footballers to learn the game: 'while these had never played rugby, he thought they could soon be trained and coached into the game and he would like to see them in action against our teams. He said there was a revulsion against the large number of casualties in the American game and that there might be possibilities for the Rugby League game in America.'

Nothing came of the suggestion, probably because the R.F.L. Council were none too impressed with Critchley’s record with London, which had made a huge loss of £8,000 in their first season and were about to moved North to play in Liverpool. Interest continued however. In 1936, the New South Wales R.L. discussed introducing the game to California with a representative of an American millionaire. The following year the R.F.L. Council agreed to send two teams to the U.S. to play a series of exhibition matches, following an offer from a Mr Ormsby of New York to organise and underwrite a tour, but the promises of finance never materialised.

However, the possibility of a very major breakthrough came in June 1939, when, apparently out of the blue, the R.F.L. received a letter from the secretary of the Californian Rugby Union. In it, he explained that California was considering abandoning union for league and asked 'for the Council’s views on the possibility of terms being arranged'. This was potentially the biggest development in the game since the announcement of the 1907 New Zealand tour to Britain.

Sensing that history could be made, the Council decided to pursue discussions, 'even to the extent of visiting California' noted the minutes of the meeting. The following month another letter arrived from California, this time from an exiled Rochdale Hornets fan, explaining the opportunities which were opening up for rugby league. That year’s annual R.F.L. conference met in a state of confident anticipation, with G.F. Hutchins, now the R.F.L. chairman declaring that he was 'happy at the prospect of America coming into the Rugby League'.

Sadly, it was not to be. Less than two months after the annual conference, World War Two broke out and, as with the 1940 tour of Australasia, which the Council had sanctioned at the same meeting, the Californian adventure was postponed indefinitely. It remains one of rugby league’s great 'what ifs'.

Although the war meant an end to any plans for expansion and even, to a large extent, contact with the rest of the league-playing world, it did not curtail North American interest in the game. In late 1943, and yet again apparently out of the blue, the RFL received a letter from the secretary of the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Rugby Union, announcing that they had “changed over from rugby union to rugby league” and asking for rule books to be sent over. Largely in response to the growing war-time popularity of Canadian football - which having started as rugby union had gradually adopted most of the features of American football - the rugby authorities in Nova Scotia had decided to ditch union and take up the more attractive game.

However, the difficulties of communicating regularly across the North Atlantic in the middle of a submarine war meant that the R.F.L. couldn’t provide any practical assistance and it wasn’t until 1946 that the rugby stronghold of the Maritime Provinces - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island -  could make the switch as a whole. Nevertheless, the new game was quickly hailed as a success, having, in the word of the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Herald: “speeded up play and eliminated much that was deadly dull under the old Rugby Union code”. 

Despite this positive start, rugby league began to struggle in the 1950s as Canadian football made rapid strides in popularity throughout the country. It was not helped by identifying itself as “English Rugby”: the Canadians had simply changed the rules from union to league and didn’t call the sport rugby league. Indeed, the 1954 Canadian Rugger annual didn’t even mention that the Maritime Provinces played rugby league despite an article declaring 'English Rugby strong in the Maritimes'.

The reality was discovered by R.F.L. secretary Bill Fallowfield when he visited in 1954. He found the game in very poor health and proposed that the Canadians should stop calling the game English Rugby, suggested that there could be touring teams sent over from England and France, and recommended that they should approach the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook to become patron. None of these ideas were taken up and, despite rumours of tours to and from Canada in the 1950s, Canadian rugby league withered on the vine, finally dying out in the early 1960s.

However, the dream continued to flicker in the U.S. in the early 1950s. After an exploratory visit to the U.S.A. by New Zealand’s J.E. Knowling in 1952, the French Rugby League invited an American team to take part in the inaugural World Cup competition due to take place in 1954. A team was assembled by American wrestling promoter Mike Dimitro, who had seen rugby league in Australia during his time in the U.S. Navy in World War Two, and arrangements were made with the Australian Board of Control to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1953 in preparation for the tournament. Named the “American All Stars” the 22-strong team of gridiron converts consisted of enthusiastic college footballers plus the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback Gary Kerkorian playing at stand-off.

Despite never having played the game before, the All Stars performed reasonably well, winning 6 and drawing 2 of their 26 games down under. Al Kirkland, their star player, adapted so well that he was signed by Parramatta and became a first grade regular for them in 1956 before moving to England and playing briefly for Leeds. Vince Jones, the tourists’ vice-captain, later played for Oxford University in the rugby union Varsity match. The Americans, helped by Harry Sunderland, went on to play a five match tour of France at the end of 1953, winning one game but going down to the French national side 31-0 in front of 20,000 spectators at the Parc des Princes in Paris in January 1954.

But not everyone in the game was happy with these developments. The French invitation to the U.S. team had incurred the ire of the curmudgeonly Fallowfield who complained in a letter to France’s Antoine Blain in January 1953 that the Americans’ 'standard may in no way compare with that of our own, in which case it would not be practicable proposition to include the US team. If the team from the US is to be included then there appears to be no reason why a team from Canada should not also be invited.' 

Despite there being 'no reason' not to, he did not invite the Canadians, whose presence at the World Cup may have given the ailing game there a lifeline. Nor did he seek to invite Yugoslavia and Italy who were also playing rugby league at the time. And although it had been proposed that the 1954 Lions play in the U.S. on their return journey, the idea was never followed up.

In January 1954, the Americans were again “slapped in the face”, in Harry Sunderland’s words, by the R.F.L. Council when Sunderland tried to organise a floodlit game for the All Stars at Leigh on their way back home from France, causing Fallowfield to write to Mike Dimitro “pointing out the impracticability of arranging a game at short notice under favourable conditions”. With that, Fallowfield snubbed out the life of the only American team ever to play rugby league up to that time.

In fact, the probable reason for Fallowfield’s hostility to Dimitro’s team was because he was pursuing negotiations with a rival set of Americans, led by Californian gridiron writer B. Ward Nash. Nash wanted to use rugby league primarily as a game which could give America international sporting links by using American footballers to play international rugby league matches in their off-season.

In the absence of any serious soccer, rugby union or cricket in the U.S., and given the obvious parallels between league and gridiron, Nash believed that rugby league was the only team sport which could offer the U.S. serious international competition. Boasting of his strong links with N.F.L. club owners, he told the R.F.L. in 1954: 'large numbers of Americans are sincerely interested in furthering better relations with other countries and they have an idea that more international sports competition can be of great help. … If you are successful the interest could be tremendous, equaling our interest in the Olympic Games, international tennis and golf.' He also dangled the carrot of connections in high places; the vice-president of the U.S.A., a former college football player, was a personal friend who would be pleased to meet with rugby league representatives. His name was Richard M. Nixon.

Although Tricky Dicky fortunately never became involved, Nash set up an organising committee in California in May 1954 to plan for two Australia versus New Zealand games to be played on the way back from the World Cup in November. Despite widespread publicity in the gridiron press, only 1,500 spectators turned out for the match in Long Beach and 4,500 for the Los Angeles Coliseum match.

Hampered by some of the worst fog southern California had seen, Australia won both games easily but the losses amounted to over 6,000 U.S. dollars. Fallowfield returned from the games denouncing Nash as being a useless organiser and suggesting, with considerable chutzpah given his attitude towards Dimitro’s team, that an American side be invited over to tour.

At the August 1955 International Board meeting, it was reported that there were 21 American footballers interested in playing the game (one less than had actually toured with the All Stars, who also had over 40 players at the initial try-outs for their tour), a number of colleges interested in playing the game and possible financial backing from an athletics foundation. But the Board also argued about who should develop the game in America, with the southern hemisphere countries arguing bizarrely that England should take responsibility for the game on the Pacific Coast. 

Despite this failure to follow up the work already done, the rugby league flame continued to flicker on the West Coast throughout the 1950s. By 1957 it appears that many California club and university rugby union teams played 13 a side and had outlawed kicking directly into touch, almost spontaneously developing league rules to counter the stagnation rugby union rules brought into the game. Plans were also developed to send schoolboy teams over from Australia and the indefatigable Nash, obviously not a man to let Bill Fallowfield to deter him, sought the help of young former Qantas employee named Pete Rozelle. Two decades later Rozelle was famous as the N.F.L. Commissioner who turned the gridiron game into the most popular sporting phenomenon in America.

In 1960 Nash’s “North American Rugby Football League”, wrote to the R.F.L. asking to be considered for inclusion in that year’s World Cup. They had arranged for the great Australian forward Ray Stehr to coach them and organised finance through one of President Eisenhower’s cold war international relations funds. Despite this forethought, they received a blank refusal from Fallowfield.

At that, American rugby league slipped into a coma until the late 1970s when Mike Mayer, followed by a further trail of U.S. and Canadian pioneers in the 1980s and 1990s, once again brought rugby league’s North American dream closer to reality.

- - This article was originally written in 2000 for Our Game magazine. For the definite account of American rugby league be sure to read Gavin Willacy's outstanding 2013 book No Helmets Required.

The Rise and Fall of American Rugby 1906-15

Stanford v Cal in 1914: when the Big Game was played under rugby union rules

Stanford v Cal in 1914: when the Big Game was played under rugby union rules

In 1905 American football sailed into the greatest storm it had ever encountered. Since the 1890s there had been growing concerns about violence and brutality in the game. These worries came to a head in the 1905 season, when eighteen deaths and 150 serious injuries were sustained in matches. The outcry was so severe that Teddy Roosevelt - who had once said that Tom Brown’s Schooldays was one of two books everyone should read - met with representatives of Harvard, Yale and Columbia university football teams to encourage them to change the rules of the game to reduce its dangers. As a consequence, the following year the forward pass was introduced into the game.

But on the West Coast of America, disillusionment with the violence and commercialism of the American game was not so easily dislodged. Rugby had first been played at the University of California in 1882 but had been replaced by American football in 1886 as that code swept through US colleges. Now, two decades on in January 1906, the universities of California and Stanford announced that they were abandoning football altogether and taking up rugby union.

The decision to switch back could not have been taken at a better time. The triumphant All Black tourists were on their way back home from Britain and France, returning across North America - and they were keen to fly the flag in the USA for rugby and for New Zealand in particular.

Arrangements were hastily made and in early February 1906 the All Blacks arrived in northern California to play two exhibition matches against a British Columbia side from Canada. Despite being on tour for over six months, the tourists unsurprisingly romped home in both games, at Berkeley by 43-6 and then in San Francisco by 65-6. Despite the one-sided nature of the games, the press were effusive in their praise: ‘the superiority of rugby to our own amended game was demonstrated even more forcibly than at the very interesting contest of last Saturday,’ declared the San Francisco Chronicle.

The experiment was interrupted two months later when the San Francisco earthquake reduced much of the city to rubble. But support for rugby grew and California and Stanford were joined by the universities of Nevada, Santa Clara, the Pacific numerous northern Californian high schools and San Francisco’s elite Olympic athletic club. There was even talk of an American universities' rugby tour of New Zealand. 

And on the East Coast, where the All Blacks had played an unofficial match against a pick-up New York team when they arrived in the US, an Eastern Rugby Union had been founded in April by three clubs. Rugby was back.

The game’s international significance was enhanced by a changing world situation. Japan’s stunning victory over Russia in their 1904-05 war meant that the Pacific Ocean had suddenly become a region of intense diplomatic interest. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in 1902, causing consternation to the newly federated Australian government, whose ‘White Australia’ policy was based on racist fears of Asian domination. The Australians sought to counter fears that the British might abandon them to the Japanese by developing links with the United States. 

For its part, Teddy Roosevelt’s government wanted to demonstrate that despite Japanese success America was the dominant naval power in the Pacific. So in late 1907 it despatched a fleet of sixteen battleships on a goodwill tour of the region, calling at major ports on both sides of the ocean. In August 1908 it visited Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne. It did not go unnoticed in these cities that their guests had chosen to call this mighty display of sea power the ‘Great White Fleet’.

As part of this Australian-American courtship the 1908-09 Wallabies played three games in California on their way back from their tour of  Britain in February 1909. The Australians won all three matches, but the margins were sufficiently narrow to suggest that West Coast rugby was improving rapidly. 

And, despite the switch from gridiron to rugby, the ‘Big Game,’ the annual showdown between Stanford and California, showed no signs of diminishing in importance as northern California’s most important sporting event. In 1910 it staged the first example of what would become a staple of American college football, the ‘Card Stunt’, where members of the crowd held cards above their heads to form a word or symbol. 

Filled with hope for rugby, that summer an American Universities team of students from California, Stanford and Nevada made a sixteen game tour of Australia and New Zealand, the first overseas visit by a US representative rugby team. Despite only winning three and drawing two matches the students were never out-classed, and the tour was considered a success by all concerned. When they returned home in August the San Francisco Sunday Call was sufficiently impressed to ask in a headline ‘Will California Produce Rugby’s World Champs?’ 

Further evidence for this optimism was seen in 1912. The West Coast hosted an Australian touring side. They were known as the Waratahs, rather than the Wallabies, despite the fact that six of the tourists came from Queensland rather than New South Wales, the state that  had traditionally borne the Waratah nickname. They played eleven matches and lost by a point to both California and Stanford, although they played the former three times and the latter twice. Most significantly, they narrowly defeated the USA national side in its first-ever international by a mere 12-8.

But under the surface, all was not well. The Australians disliked the American approach to the game, feeling that the Californian tackling was too physical and that US players were apt to take advantage of the rules. Coming just four years after the split with rugby league in Australia, the tourists were determined to uphold the amateur ethos - and the American approach smacked too much of the professional attitudes that the gentlemen from down under had so recently rejected. 

For their part, the Americans were becoming frustrated with what they saw as the domination of rugby by forward play. In 1913 California suggested that teams should be reduced to 14-a-side by the abolition of one of the forwards. From his vantage point as the ‘Father of American football’, Walter Camp mischievously informed the sporting public that the Californians weren’t even playing the best type of rugby. ‘The Northern Union game, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, would be a revelation to many of those who have merely seen the more mediocre play,’ he argued. ‘The men who form these teams are of excellent physique, strong and powerful, putting up a hard, vigorous game with tackling that is earnest enough to be severe’.

Matters come to a head with the 1913 All Blacks tour of California. Any hopes that American rugby ascendency would continue its upwards trajectory were brutally extinguished by the New Zealanders. In thirteen unbeaten games they scored 508 points while conceding just two penalty goals, including a 51-3 demolition of the US national team at Berkeley. 

Only two sides kept the tourists below the thirty-point mark. American rugby was humiliated. Instead of promoting the game, the tour demonstrated that far from being potential ‘World Champs’ America was no more than a second-rate rugby nation. It was not a message she wanted to hear.

To make things worse, the University of California fell out with Stanford over the selection of the national team. In the midst of this confusion and demoralisation, voices began to be heard calling for a return to American football. As college football continued to grow in importance in the US, many in California felt isolated from the intense intercollegiate and increasingly nationwide rivalries of the sport. 

Played by a handful of local universities and now offering no prospect of international prestige, rugby’s appeal ebbed away. In 1915 California pulled the plug and declared that henceforth it would play football: ‘from now on it will be the American game for Americans. and, best of all, for California,’ declared the Daily Californian. Stanford carried on until 1919 before accepting the inevitable. Rugby’s second chance in America was all but gone.

- - For more on the history of rugby in America, pre-order my The Oval World (published in August) and read Gavin Willacy's wonderful No Helmets Required.