This Sporting Life


-- This a short introductory talk I gave before a special screening of This Sporting Life at the wonderful Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds on 4 September. The screening was sponsored by Rugby League Cares.

"I’ll start with the best line in the film. Frank Machin, played by Richard Harris, meets the wife of the club chairman after his first match. 

‘You’re the new star’ she says. He looks at her, ‘We don’t have stars in our game. That’s soccer.’ ‘So what do you have?’ she asks. ‘Just people like me’ he replies. 

Which pretty much sums up what rugby league is all about.

It’s 49 years since the film of This Sporting Life was released. The first words you hear are spoken by Great Britain loose-forward Ken Traill. You’ll see Belle Vue and the great Trinity players of the 1960s. You’ll see the Trinity beating Wigan 5-4 in the 1962 cup quarter-final. Thrum Hall is used for the scenes outside of the ground. And there’s another ground shown too - tell me at the end if you spot it. 

So there’s some great footage of rugby league history.

But the film is far from perfect. It hasn’t aged as well other kitchen sink dramas like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Listen to the accents - God knows where Richard Harris thinks he is from but it’s certainly not Wakefield. Rachel Roberts doesn’t even attempt to change her Welsh accent. And generally Harris spends too much time trying to out-do Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

It also presents a very one-dimensional view of rugby league. The game is portrayed as nothing but violent and aggressive - there’s no sign of the artistry, the skills, the athleticism, the or creativity that also make the game. But this is partly because Storey was still angry about the way he was treated as a young ‘A’ team player at Leeds. 

His dad was a miner and he’d been brought up with the game, but he won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar in Wakefield and then went to art school in London. You can imagine how he had his leg pulled in the dressing room. ‘I was permanently belligerent’ he later said. But his later play The Changing Room and his later novels presented the game in much more nuanced and rounded way.

But in reality this isn’t a film about rugby league. Lindsay Anderson, the director, uses the game to explain the doomed love story that is at the heart of the film and the book -  which is essentially about a relationship between an older woman and a younger man. 

Frank Machin isn’t a rebel like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Instead, he’s a man trapped in a world and a relationship that he cannot control - and he lashes out with violence. 

At its heart, This Sporting Life is a film about those two great English obsessions: Sex and  Class. Ultimately it is a story about class and what it means to be a man and how to behave as a man - and because of its unique history, no sport illustrates these artistic questions better than rugby league... as we are about to see."

All Aboard for Wembley!

It's the time of year when the Challenge Cup gets serious. And to celebrate, we're taking a look at the forgotten London Transport posters that advertised travel to the Cup Final from 1929, when it was moved to Wembley, to 1939.

From the early part of the 20th Century, London Transport and its forerunners encouraged creativity among its designers. During the inter-war years its design department and the artists it commissioned produced some of the most interesting commercially-based art in the UK. You can find the online exhibition of London Transport art here.

The posters for events at Wembley were one small part of this output, which also included many other sports such as soccer, rugby union, cricket and ice hockey. The first rugby league poster of 1929 (below) was designed by Dorothy Paton, a member of the Society of Women Artists who had exhibited three paintings at the Royal Academy. She clearly could not differentiate between rugby league and rugby union!


Charles Burton's 1930 design was his only league poster, but its use of lines, in this case from the two spotlights, were a common motif in his work.


Perhaps the most interesting posters were produced by Heather 'Herry' Perry, who produced the 1931 (above), 1933 and 1935 posters (there was no 1932 poster as that year's final was staged at Wigan). The first is a startling depiction of players as semi-naked Greek athletes, a bold move for a woman artist in the 1930s.


Perry's 1933 poster is much more conventional, yet it still conveys life and movement. Unlike some of the artists she also appears to be aware that league was not union (a confusion seen in the 1929 poster) and shows a league scrum.


The 1934 poster was designed by Scottish artist Anna Katrina Zinkeisen, who also painted murals on the Queen Mary. It is very similar in concept to the 1936 poster but uses one of her favourite devices of two players to emphasise action.


Herry Perry's final rugby league poster of 1935 was again very different from her previous two. It is less abstract and may well have been based on a photograph of a match - the players loitering in the background seem too natural to be invented.


The 1936 poster is rather derivative of that of 1934 and was the work of Eric Lombers, whose style was generally more abstract than most of the London Transport designers - his 1939 FA Cup Final poster is a classic. He also desigend the poster for the infamous 1934 England versus Germany match at White Hart Lane.


Gill Lancaster only designed four posters for London Transport but the above poster for the 1937 Cup Final is easily the best, highlighting both the stadium and the activity and movement of the players.


The lacklustre 1938 and 1939 posters (shown below) were both the work of Yorkshire artists - Brian Robb from Scarborough and Sheffield-born Charles Mozley respectively - and are by far the weakest of the series.


When the Cup Final resumed at Wembley after the end of World War Two, London Transport no longer felt the need to advertise, possibly because the match had come to be seen as almost an exclusively northern day-out in the capital.

But one of the less well-known  legacies of the 1929 decision to move the Cup Final to London was these wonderful posters - all of which are available to buy from the London Transport Museum Shop.

-- This was originally published at rugby on 6 May 2011.

Phil Melling, 1947-2011


Phil Melling, educator, writer and rugby league evangelist, died on 11 November 2011. He was a man of great principle, limitless energy and extraordinary creative talent. Rugby league is far poorer for his passing.

Over 150 people attended his funeral at the DW Stadium. They came not only from his twin homes of Wigan and Swansea, but also from London, Ireland and numerous other places where he had left an indelible impression.

Phil was born into a mining family in Wigan in 1947, appropriately on 14 July, Bastille Day. He was bright enough to pass the eleven plus and went to Wigan Grammar School where, to his amazement, the boys were encouraged to play all types of sport except one: rugby league. 

Like thousands of others in the town, Phil had been taken to Central Park while he was still in infant school. To him this ban on rugby league seemed nonsensical, but as he grew up, he came to understand that it was part of a wider pattern of discrimination that the sport, and working-class people in general faced.

From Wigan Grammar he went to Manchester University and from on to Indiana University to work on his PhD. He arrived at Swansea University in 1978, where he became a professor and the founding head of the American Studies department, the first in Wales. 

When he arrived in Swansea almost immediately began work on establishing rugby league. His experience at Wigan Grammar prepared him for what to expect, and he was not disappointed. The rugby union establishment tried to stop the league sides using pitches, warned union players against playing league and some members of the university staff had ‘a quiet words’ with him about what promoting league could do to his career prospects.

But he was never going to be deterred and his work paid off. He was the founding chairman of the Welsh Amateur Rugby League and coached the Swansea University team to successive UAU rugby league finals. He became manager of the Welsh Students national side in 1988 and recruited Clive Griffiths to coach them. 

During his five years in charge the side won the European Student Championship three times and finished fifth in the 1989 Student World Cup, despite only having two universities playing the game. In 1990 he managed the Great Britain student team. His proudest moment came in 1992. The student world cup was held in Australia and Wales made it to the semi-final, where they lost to the eventual champions Australia.

Phil’s contribution to rugby league extended far beyond coaching and managing. For him rugby league was part of an international culture of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. His brilliant essay, Surfing the Hurricane, written as the conclusion to his 1994 biography of Dai Davies, Man of Amman, weaves rugby league into the works of authors like Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and Chinua Achebe.

He wrote about the game from a unique perspective. His deep love for and knowledge of American literature allowed him to articulate the meaning of rugby league in a way that no other writer could. This was a man whose passion and intellect meant that he could talk about his beloved Billy Boston in the same terms as he would discuss the novels of William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway.

He was especially proud of rugby league’s historic ability to integrate black players. As a young boy he had been captivated by seeing Billy Boston. In 2003 we collaborated as editors of The Glory of Their Times, a book that celebrated the history of the game’s outstanding black stars. He also wrote a seminal article in Our Game in 2000 about rugby league players who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

His talents and interests knew no bounds. He wrote fiction, two performed plays, Hotel Vietnam and The Day of the African, and four academic studies of American politics and culture. 

Phil commitment to the poor and oppressed extended far beyond the written word. A regular visitor to Guatemala, in 2001 he set up an educational charity, Study Guatemala, that built a school in Guatemala City that provided free education for local children.

He was working on a book about Hemingway and imperialism when he died - I once suggested to him that when he finished that he should wrote the definitive biography of Billy Boston. 'Billy's too important for me to write his biography,' he replied, putting Hemingway firmly in his place. But despite his subordinate position to Billy, Hemingway remained Phil's favourite author and he spent considerable time in Cuba, working in the archive at Hemingway’s last home.

Hemingway himself once remarked that 'as you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary'. Phil was one of rugby league's necessary heroes.

Why six tackles in league?

Why does rugby league have a six-tackle rule? The short answer is that the rule was introduced in 1972 and has never seriously been questioned since.

But the roots of the rule go back to the very origins of rugby - and one fundamental question of the game: what happens when the ball carrier is tackled?

Unlike soccer, where the handball rule makes it impossible to use spoiling tactics by continually holding onto the ball, it is a problem affects all handling codes of football.

Rugby union’s solution, that a ruck, a maul or a scrum be formed so that forwards can push for the ball, came to be seen by founders of rugby league as unsatisfactory because it reduced the opportunities for open rugby.

They weren’t the only ones to think this way. Across the Atlantic, American and Canadian football abandoned union rules in the 1880s. They introduced their own type of play-the-ball, allowing the ball to be heeled, and eventually passed, back to the quarterback after a tackle.

In 1906 the Northern Union introduced the play-the-ball to overcome the problem of union rules, although there is no evidence that they were influenced by the North Americans. At the time, the play-the-ball was seen as a return to the original rugby union rule, where the tackled player put the ball on the ground for a scrum to be formed.

In fact it was a half-way house between the union scrum and the gridiron scrimmage. The Northern Union wanted to make the contest for the ball secondary to the running, handling and tackling features of rugby.

The ‘mini-scrum’

The play-the-ball was seen as a kind of two-man scrum, in which a tackled player had to get to his feet, put the ball on the ground and then try to heel it back to a team-mate, known as the acting half-back or dummy half.

It was seen by everyone in the game as a qualitative improvement over union’s method of restarting play, and the speed it allowed the ball to be passed to the backs was one of the reasons why French journalists in the 1930s nicknamed league ‘lightning rugby’.

But it was not without problems. Firstly, like the real scrum, it offered lots of scope for cheating and rule-bending. The team in possession would do anything to keep the ball, and the defending team would do anything to get it back. Penalties were common.

But the most obvious problem was that it gave the team in possession the option to completely monopolise possession, simply by the dummy half not passing or kicking.

One of the most infamous examples of the ‘creeping barrage,’ as it became known was at the 1951 Championship semi-final. A twelve-man Workington Town were defending an 8-5 lead against Wigan when Town’s captain-coach Gus Risman ordered his players not to pass or kick the ball for the last fifteen minutes of the match:

‘They would be tackled, play the ball to the acting half-back, who would move forward two yards and then go down in a tackle. He would then play the ball to the acting-half back, who would move forward two yards and then go down in a tackle. And so it went on ad infinitum.’

Bill’s Kill?

Clearly something had to be done and the RFL spent much of the 1950s and 1960s trying to find a solution.

One option was vigorously pursued by Bill Fallowfield. Within months of being appointed RFL secretary in 1946 he proposed a rugby union-style method of releasing the ball in the tackle.

Although opposed by most clubs and the rest of the league-playing world, Fallowfield tried a number of times to introduce a union-style rule to the game. Bizarrely, he was supported by the Duke of Edinburgh, who had presented the trophy at the 1955 Challenge Cup final and remarked that he didn’t like the play-the-ball. 

Experimental matches using the rule were played in 1958 and 1961 (a match played in by Ray French who described it as ‘a disaster’), culminating in possibly the most unattractive tournament in the history of rugby league, 1964’s ‘Bottom 14 Play-Offs’.

The farcical nature of the Bottom 14 cup finally killed off any hope that Fallowfield had of bringing in the rugby union rule. But it didn’t mean an end to the problems of the play the ball.

Saints go marching on and on and on...

In the end, the solution was not Twickenham but Transatlantic. Having given up on the union rule, Fallowfield proposed to the 1966 RL International Board meeting that it should adopt American football’s four downs followed by a turnover. The New Zealand delegates amended this to have a scrum formed on the fourth tackle, and, out of the blue, the game had a new rule.

Traditionally, Australian and New Zealand delegates opposed changing the play-the-ball rule. But Australia now had its own problem. St George had won the Sydney premiership ten consecutive times and were about to make it eleven later that year.

Although there is no evidence for St George fans’ belief that the rule was deliberately changed to stop them winning, the Dragons’ total domination meant that the Australian representatives were more receptive to ideas to make the game more competitive.

Back in England, the rule was trialled in the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in October 1966. After a handful of matches it became obvious that it encouraged attacking play and speeded up the game considerably. From November 1966 four tackles became the rule for all matches.

It was a success throughout the league world. Australia’s Bill Buckley said the new rule had ‘revitalised’ the game. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the new rule also coincided with the end of St George’s amazing premiership run when Canterbury finally ended the Dragons’ streak with a 12-11 win in the 1967 preliminary final.

In 1972 four tackles were extended to six in the belief, which proved to be correct, that it would allow more structured attacking play to develop. In 1983 a handover of the ball to the opposing side, rather than a scrum, was introduced when the attacking side was tackled in possession on the sixth tackle.

The final break with the past came in the early 1990s when striking for the ball at the play-the-ball was outlawed, removing the last vestiges of the old ‘mini-scrum’ and making it simply a device for restarting play.

‘No Contest for Possession?’

Does this mean that there is no longer a ‘contest for possession’ in league, as rugby union critics claim?

Of course not. The controversy over stripping the ball in the tackle, the importance of ‘ball security,’ and coaches’ obsession with completing sets of six tackles shows that the struggle for the ball is as important to league as it is to union, but in a different way.

What’s more, there is far less of a contest for the ball in union than its supporters would like to believe. A 2005 report by union’s International Rugby Board admitted that 'the contest for possession [in rugby union] is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed', finding that for every fourteen completed tackles, the ball was retained by the attacking side.

In league terms would be considered a ninety-two per cent completion rate. In contrast, a league side which retains the ball for only eighty per cent of its tackles would be considered to be doing well. In short, it is far easier to monopolise possession in union than it is league

Ironically, the IRB report also found that in the 1980s union teams turned the ball over to their opponents on average once every six tackles - just as in league. But in the 2000s, the ball was turned over only once in twenty-three tackles.

Rugby Evolution... Again

So the evidence is that rugby union’s version of the ‘contest for the ball’ results in less variation in the game and allows one side to dominate possession.

But this should come as no surprise - because this is precisely why rugby league introduced the play-the-ball and limited tackles in the first place.

This is because there is an ‘iron law’ of evolution for all the handling codes of football: the team in possession of the ball will do everything to keep hold of it. Players will cheat, coaches will scheme and rule-makers will fight a losing battle.

Rugby league’s genius is that it has always been sensitive to the needs of the game to adapt its rules to emphasise its spirit - running fast, passing accurately, tackling hard and scoring tries.

And, almost forty years since it was introduced, the six tackle rule has been crucial not only to preserving the essence of rugby league but also to its expansion around the world.

For anyone who wants to pick up an oval ball and run with it, the six tackle rule lets them do it better than any other football code.

1895: the aftermath

Most people know what happened at the George Hotel in Huddersfield on 29 August 1895. Twenty-one of Britain’s leading rugby clubs met to resign from the RFU and form the Northern Rugby Football Union, legalising ‘broken time’ payments to players and marking the start of what we know today as rugby league.

But what is not so well-known is how popular the split was among players and fans or how deeply the split affected rugby across the north of England. The split opened up a period of turmoil that caused passionate debate and enmities that would last a century and more.

No-one can doubt that the formation of the Northern Union had overwhelming support from players and supporters alike. Bradford’s players threatened to strike if the club did not support the new NU and supporters raised petitions in the pubs of Bradford calling for the club to back the split.

The club’s international three-quarter Tommy Dobson said that ‘all Yorkshire owes a debt of gratitude to the senior clubs for speaking out so plainly in favour of what should be the leading element in sport - truth’. Just six members resigned in protest.

At Leeds a special general meeting was held which voted decisively to support the splitters, resulting in two resignations from the club. Newspapers reported that the players in Huddersfield ‘naturally champion the Northern Union and a very large section of spectators of matches take the same side’. At Broughton Rangers, the motion to join the NU was moved by the club captain and carried unanimously. Hunslet, St Helens, Manningham, Hull and Leigh were similarly united.

Although they had attended the meeting at the George Hotel, Dewsbury did not join the NU and stayed loyal to the RFU. It was not a popular decision. A local journalist reported that ‘there wasn’t a single supporter who wouldn’t say “Let us have the Northern Union and the sooner the better”.’

The popularity of the NU was demonstrated at a special meeting in September of the Hull and District RFU (the forerunner of today’s Hull & District RL) which voted 33-24 to resign from the RFU and join the NU, even though the NU had no mechanism for district bodies or junior clubs to affiliate.

After the Aftermath

The summer of 1896 saw Lancashire’s two remaining big clubs join the NU. Both Salford and Swinton had balked at splitting from the RFU due to personal antagonism and organisational jealousy, but in April 1896 Salford held a special meeting to discuss joining the NU; only three people opposed the switch. Rochdale St Clements, Radcliffe, Werneth, Morecambe and many others followed suit that summer. Most of Warrington’s local clubs went at the same time, as did around fifty clubs which formed the Oldham Junior Rugby League.

At the same time in Yorkshire most of the clubs who had played in the first division of Yorkshire rugby union’s leagues decamped to the NU. Leeds Parish Church, that season’s champions, had only five votes against their switch of allegiance. In June 1897 Hull KR, that year’s Yorkshire cup and league champions, went over and the following summer most of what remained of the first and second divisions resigned en bloc to form the second division of the Yorkshire NU.

By June 1897 there were no rugby union clubs in the Halifax district, which was described by a Sowerby Bridge rugby union supporter as being ‘a hot bed of Northern Unionism bigotry’. At the start of the following season the Yorkshire Post reported that ‘in Leeds, rugby union football is practically non-existent’.

The Bradford and Huddersfield district rugby unions voted to disaffiliate from the YRU and affiliate to the NU. In 1899 Hebden Bridge, Ossett, Kirkstall and Alverthorpe flew the nest and in the summer of 1900 Keighley, Otley and Bingley decided that ‘the interest has gone out of rugby union’ and joined the NU.

NU triumphant

At its opening round in 1901, rugby union’s Yorkshire Cup, once one of the biggest sporting contests in Britain, which once attracted bigger crowds than the FA Cup final, and which at its height had 132 clubs, could only muster 11 clubs.

It is also worth noting that two of Yorkshire’s current leading rugby union clubs - Morley and Otley - owe their origins to the aftermath of 1895. The original Morley club joined the NU in May 1897 when a majority voted to leave the RFU. Two months later supporters of the RFU founded a new club, ‘Morley English Rugby Football Club’, to which the present union club owes its origins.

And the original Otley rugby club left the RFU in 1900 and played rugby league for six seasons before disbanding due to financial problems. The current Otley club was founded as a rugby union club only in 1907.

In the North West, Barrow - the region’s leading club - voted unanimously to join the NU in April 1897. Ulverston (who faced a petition raised by fans), Millom and the rest of the followed them in July. By the summer of 1897 the Lancashire Rugby Union had only thirteen clubs, focused on the traditional ex-public schoolboy sides.

The loss of the north-west Lancashire clubs had a knock-on effect on Cumberland and Westmoreland clubs, and at the start of the 1898-99 season Athletic News commented that rugby union in Cumberland had been reduced ‘to an almost vanishing quality’. By January 1899 there was not a single rugby union club left in west Cumberland.

RFU cuts off own nose

The near-death experience of rugby union in the North was not simply due to the Northern Union. It also owed something to the behaviour of the RFU. Immediately after the split the RFU declared that playing for or against an NU team was an act of professionalism, punishable by a life ban from rugby union. This immediately posed problems at a local level.

For example, Beverley FC were left with virtually no fixtures after clubs in the Hull and District Rugby Union voted to support the NU. When they played matches with NU supporting clubs the Yorkshire Rugby Union expelled them.

But it wasn’t just clubs that were threatened. Any player who had any contact with the NU was thrown out of the Rugby Union. In February 1896, a Wyke player was banned for life for travelling with Brighouse Rangers to a match at Leigh, despite not even playing in the match! Elland had two players banned because one of their players had earlier played for a rugby union side against a team which contained a NU player.

Most bizarrely of all, in January 1898 Goole RUFC were ordered not to play a charity rugby match against a touring Little Red Riding Hood pantomime troupe; this was deemed to be an act of professionalism because earlier on its tour the troupe had played in a charity match with Batley!

The old returns as the new

It was only after 1900 that rugby union in the North of England slowly began to rebuild itself. The Yorkshire Rugby Union led the way, encouraging new clubs to be formed by ‘the class of players who hitherto have been elbowed out in the evolution of professionalism’.

Clubs began to be formed by ex-public and grammar schoolboys. Old Dewsburians was formed ‘by some of the better class Dewsbury and Batley residents’. Hull and East Riding club was set up ‘by the sons of Hull and district’s leading citizens’ and Wakefield RFC was founded by ‘Grammar School old boys and others’.

In Lancashire, the Furness, Oldham, Leigh and Vale of Lune rugby union clubs were formed in a similar fashion. By 1907, it was estimated that over 180 of those currently playing rugby union in Yorkshire were former public schoolboys, which, considering that the YRU had barely twenty clubs, accounted for at least half the players in the county.

Heart and Soul

The traditional idea that the split in 1895 was a ‘breakaway’ from rugby union underestimates the sheer scale of what happened in 1895. The entire heart and soul of rugby in the north went over to the Northern Union. Its senior clubs were the strongest in England and its local junior sides (known today as community clubs) were at the core of rugby’s local appeal across the north.

The rugby tradition that had been created in the north since the Yorkshire Cup was first played for in 1877 and which had seen rugby become the dominant sport in Yorkshire, Cumbria and large parts of Lancashire was continued by the Northern Union. It was rugby union that had to recreate a new tradition of its own.

If the meeting at the George in 1895 signaled the start of rugby league as we know it today, the aftermath of the split showed that it was the Northern Union that carried on the historic traditions of rugby in the north.

The evolution of the scrum

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brown’s Scrum Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New thinking in the North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair cheating all round?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Proper’ scrums?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Darwin’s scrum

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

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

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

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

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

League and literature

In a recent edition of the online review The Browser, the novelist Richard Beard talks about the literature of rugby and selects his five key books.

His selection can be found here.

The interesting thing about this (apart from the fact he's chosen one of my books) is that although he's clearly a rugger man, he's chosen David Storey's novel This Sporting Life, which uses league as a backdrop for a doomed love story between an older woman and a younger tearaway league player.

In fact, as he admits in his book Muddied Oafs, the only two decent novelists who have ever written about 'rugby' are Storey and Thomas Keneally, both from hardcore league backgrounds.

Perhaps the devil really does have all the best books?

Why is rugby league 13-a-side?

For a rugby league fan, there’s something magical about the number thirteen. It’s unique in the world of sport - no-one else has thirteen-a-side teams.

But it could have been very different. The move to thirteen-a-side was part of rugby’s evolutionary path that had begun in the 1870s.

And that evolution could have so easily led to rugby league being a twelve-a-side game.

In the beginning...

From the 1860s, adult rugby was played by twenty players on each side. Most of them were forwards. When England played Scotland in the first-ever rugby international in 1871 England played thirteen forwards. Scotland went one better and played fourteen.

This did not make for much of a spectacle. ‘How much longer are we to be wearied by monotonous shoving matches instead of spirited scrummages?’ asked the London weekly Bell’s Life in 1875. It was not alone.

Many in the RFU also thought that rugby had become boring and dominated by scrummaging. So in 1875 the Oxford versus Cambridge university match was played fifteen-a-side and the following season international matches became fifteen-a-side.

The move to fifteen-a-side led to a number of key changes to the way rugby was played.

It made it easier for the ball to come out of the scrum. The danger of a forward breaking away with the ball also meant that a third three-quarter had to be added to defend against the quick breakaway. And passing the ball between backs became more common.

The game was beginning to change. But not as quickly as many hoped.

The rugby reformers

As rugby spread beyond its original confines of the public and grammar schools, new players and spectators came into the game with different conceptions of how the game should be played.

In Wales in the 1880s, the dynamic unleashed by the move to fifteen-a-side led to the number of threequarters being increased from three to four, to encourage the scoring of tries and fast, open play. Yet, some traditional sides in England and Scotland were still playing with two threequarters and ten forwards.

In the north of England, the Welsh reforms were taken up by some clubs. The all-conquering Yorkshire side moved to the four threequarter system under the leadership of star centre and captain Dicky Lockwood.

Even so, many still felt that rugby was in need of more radical change. In 1892, leading Yorkshire official James Miller suggested that, just as rugby had moved from twenty to fifteen-a-side, it was now time to move to thirteen-a-side.

The ‘pushing age’ of the forward game was now over, he argued. Miller was supported by leading Huddersfield official William Hirst and by a growing body of opinion in Lancashire.

The change to thirteen-a-side was not merely seen as the next stage in the evolution of rugby. It was also seen as essential to counter the growing popularity of soccer. In Lancashire the round ball game was forcing rugby out of former strongholds in Manchester and Liverpool, and was also establishing beachheads in Yorkshire.

But the debate on the development of the game’s rules was engulfed by the civil war that broke out over broken-time in the 1890s.

The RFU’s increasing determination to drive out the northern clubs overshadowed meaningful debate and the RFU’s rules became frozen in time for the next century.

New horizons for the Northern Union

So not surprisingly, within weeks of the 1895 split the Northern Union re-started the discussion about the rules of rugby. Halifax and Leeds both proposed an immediate switch to thirteen-a-side.

Leeds official Harry Sewell said that ‘we want to do away with that scrummaging, pushing and thrusting game, which is not football, and that is why I propose to abolish the line-out and reduce the number of forwards to six. The football public does not pay to see a lot of scrummaging’.

In December 1895 Halifax’s Joe Nicholl called for Northern Union rugby to be played ‘by thirteen players on each side and to consist of six forwards, two half backs, four threequarters and one full back’.

Although the proposal was met initially with enthusiasm, not for the first time the game’s officials opted for a conservative approach and voted to keep teams at fifteen-a-side.

But the issue would not go away.

To make a more exciting brand of rugby, the NU was slowly moving the game away from rugby union rules. In 1897 the line-out had been abolished on the grounds that more often than not it led to a scrum.

And in the same year the value of all goals had been reduced to two points, making tries the main method of scoring. Tries were worth three points and all goals worth just two points, in contrast to union’s three-point penalty goals and four-point drop goals.

Twelve-a-side league?

Yet the game was still bogged down in scrummaging. In an attempt to end the log-jam, Halifax and Oldham played a friendly using teams of twelve-a-side in 1900.

The experiment was repeated in local factory and schools competitions during the season and the following year a twelve-a-side England versus Wales match was played as a testimonial for Broughton Rangers’ great Welsh half-back Evan James.

It was the 1903 Challenge Cup final, ironically won by Halifax over Salford, that almost made twelve-a-side the norm. The game was widely thought to be the dullest final since the Challenge Cup started in 1897.

So, just a few weeks after Halifax’s triumph, the Northern Union’s annual general meeting discussed a permanent move to twelve-a-side, with teams comprising six forwards, two half-backs, three three-quarters and one full-back.

But the proposal failed by just five votes. Even so, it was agreed that non-professional matches could be played as twelve-a-side and within a year almost all games outside of the elite ranks were twelve-a-side.

If just three officials had voted differently in 1903, rugby league would have become the twelve-a-side game.

Lucky 13

The failure to abandon fifteen-a-side left the game in limbo. So it was no surprise when in June 1906 the Northern Union’s annual general meeting once again discussed the number of players on a team. There were four different options.

Bradford, who would defect to soccer the following year leaving their loyalists to carry on as Bradford Northern, wanted the NU to revert back to rugby union rules. This had no chance of being approved.

Whitehaven Recs argued for the complete embrace of twelve-a-side, while St Helens, completely out of the blue, proposed fourteen-a-side.

But it was Warrington, seconded by Leigh, who moved that the NU should adopt thirteen-a-side. It was passed uncontroversially by 43 votes to 18. Warrington official Harry Ashton told the meeting that not only would the new rule produce a better game, it was also save many clubs around £100 a year in wages.

Combined the introduction of the play-the-ball rule in the same year - previously a scrum was formed after every completed tackle - the change to thirteen-a-side marked the birth of modern rugby league.

The new rules were an instant success. A record-breaking 800 points were scored in the first two weeks of the 1906-07 season. The leading sports weekly of the time, the Athletic News, summed up the changes with the headline, ‘The New Rules Completely Vindicated’.

Hunslet official T.V. Harrison captured the feelings of most rugby supporters in the North of England when he said, ‘The game as now played was the best that had ever been played by either the Northern Union or the Rugby Union’.

The magic number?

That judgment was shared by everyone in rugby league. Thirteen-a-side has never really been seriously questioned. Occasionally there have been calls for twelve and even eleven-a-side, but for all the changes that league has seen, the size of the team has been the least questioned.

But rugby union, slowly following the evolutionary path set by the Northern Union, has experimented with thirteen-a-side matches.

The increasing size of players and the influence of rugby league defensive coaches mean that there is far less room on the pitch in union than league.

Every sinew of tradition will strain against it but, just the Northern Union discovered, union will eventually be confronted with the necessity of change.

But whatever other sports do in the future, there is no league supporter who would do doubt the wisdom of the move to thirteen-a-side.

As Northern Union president J.B. Cooke wrote exactly one hundred years ago, ‘through many bitter criticisms, the men who led the game have brought forward the finest game of Rugby football that has ever been conceived’.

It is a view that has stood the test of time.

- This piece first appeared in Rugby League World, January 2011

Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League (BBC4)

This post was originally published on on 13 September 2010.

Last week's BBC4 programme, Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League, was a subtle and nuanced portrait of a complex character. Paul Greenan and Tony Parker, the show's producers, have made one of the best British sports documentaries of recent times.

The programme was about 18 months in gestation. Paul and Tony's original idea was to make a three-part history of rugby league but the powers that be at BBC4 wanted a single programme based around Eddie Waring.

I have to admit that when I heard that the focus was to be on Eddie, my heart sank. Did we really need more clips of It's a Knockout, the Morecambe and Wise Show and Don Fox missing a goal kick?

But for once, my fears about the BBC were misplaced. Assisted by some great research from Lucy Smickersgill - who dug out some amazing footage, including Eddie on NBC - the producers managed to capture both the man and his place in the game.

Tony Hannan, Harry Waring and I were interviewed for several hours each, and inevitably some points get cut from the final show. A couple are worth recounting here.

The BBC's standard defence was that Eddie popularised the sport outside of the North. But the BBC actually carried out audience research in 1965 to judge the popularity of their sports commentators. Eddie finished next to bottom. He made no appreciable difference to the audience figures. The only commentator ranked below Eddie was rugby union's Peter West, who within a couple of years had left union commentary to concentrate on cricket.

A broader point is, as Asa Briggs points out in his official history of the BBC, that the corporation historically had problems relating to the north of England and especially the industrial working class. With his background and network of contacts, Eddie offered the BBC a way to reach that community. Once they had him, almost nothing could prise him away.

Why should we care if the BBC didn’t treat rugby league seriously? Andrew Tong in the Independent's review of the programme argues: 'So what if he drifted into caricature at times? Few people pilloried Brian Johnston for sounding absurdly public-schooly on Test Match Special, or decried Murray Walker for actually sounding like a Formula One car'.

But of course, neither Johnston nor Walker appeared on variety programmes making fun of their backgrounds. Perhaps if they had appeared on The Goodies telling jokes about Eton or Highgate schools or starred in Monty Python's 'Upper-Class Twit of the Year' sketch Tong may have a point.

And that is precisely the point. There’s a double standard at work here. Other sports did not have commentators who had become known as comic characters. Other sports were not regularly mocked on television or seen as an excuse for comedic ‘creativity’, as in the case of the K-Nine dog at Headingley (which the producer Nick Hunter now admits was a mistake).

There’s nothing wrong with poking fun at rugby league (take a listen to Roy and HG in Australia if you’re in any doubt) but there is something wrong with poking fun only at rugby league. Perhaps if Ian Carmichael, who often played slightly dim British upper-class characters such as Bertie Wooster, had presented Twickenham internationals, there may have been some parity.

I must admit to a minor disappointment with the rugby league evening. The Game That Got Away, the 1969 Roger Mills documentary that aired after Mr Rugby League, had to be cut by fifteen minutes or so. One piece of footage that didn't make it was the second half of Brian Redhead's comments about the intelligence of rugby league. Here's what he went on to say:

If you want to see stupid rugby, go and watch rugby union, and there you will see people play a game where half the things they do they do without thinking. But in this game, although it looks as if it’s all muscle and toughness, nothing ever happens that somebody hasn’t thought about very carefully. And when rugby union people come and play this game, they get outwitted and they don’t realise that they are being out-thought.

One final point. If you want to get the true measure of the man and understand how important Eddie was to rugby league, make sure you check out Eddie's The Great Ones, recently republished by the estimable Scratching Shed, in a book which also includes his fascinating England to Australia account of the 1946 Lions Tour and other journalism. Essential reading for all rugby league fans.

In honour of Albert Goldthorpe

This is the text of the address I gave to the annual Albert Goldthorpe Medal Awards dinner - organised by League Publications - on 16 September 2009.

I just want to spend a few minutes talking about Albert Goldthorpe himself and why he was not only an immortal player, but in many ways represents the very soul of rugby league.

There can be no doubt that he was a very great player, both under rugby union rules before 1895 and then under rugby league rules after the great split.

He made his debut for Hunslet aged 16 in October 1888 at full back. He was, reported the Leeds Mercury, 'properly put to the test and came through the ordeal with flying colours'. He soon moved into the centres and became known as one of the game's greatest drop-kickers. He played his last game aged 40 in 1911 - a career of over 22 years.

He was selected to play for Yorkshire aged 20. This was when Yorkshire dominated dominated rugby union, winning the county championship seven times in its first eight years. In 1892 he played for Yorkshire here at Headingley when they defeated a full-strength England national side.

In 1895, when the northern rugby clubs formed the Northern Union, he became as prominent in the new game as he was in rugby union.

He was the first player to score 100 goals in a season.

At the age of 36 he captained Hunslet to All Four Cups in 1908, the first team ever to do the Grand Slam, building probably the first truly great team in rugby league history, based on the 'Terrible Six' forward pack and such great backs as Fred Farrar 'the Farsley Flyer' and the legendary Billy Batten.

But Albert Goldthorpe represented much more than this. He was known as 'Ahr Albert' and became a symbol of Hunslet and its community, and of rugby league itself.

In 1892 he played a star role when Hunslet beat Leeds in the Yorkshire Cup final in front of 21,000 people at Huddersfield. This was a time when the Yorkshire Cup was rugby's biggest tournament and often had bigger crowds than the FA Cup Final. When Hunslet arrived home with the cup the spirit of community solidarity overflowed.

The ‘Leeds Mercury’ described the scene:

A procession of wagonettes and other vehicles conveying the victors and their jubilant friends, was headed by the Hunslet Brass Band playing ‘see the conquering heroes come’... Some difficulty was experienced by the procession in passing the junction of Boar Lane and Briggate, both thoroughfares being so densely crowded that for a time the ordinary vehicular transport had to be suspended. ... In Waterloo Road banners were flying from bedroom windows; and at some of the principal hostelries coloured lights illuminated the animated scene. ... Several thousand people had collected at the Anchor Hotel (the club’s hq) and it was with considerable difficulty that the players could make their way from the wagonettes to the building. The scene was one of the wildest enthusiasm. The appearance of Albert Goldthorpe at one of the upper windows was the signal for a thunderous cheer.

But this community spirit was not just about the town, it was also part of the game. When Albert Baskerville's 'All Golds' - the first ever rugby league tourists - arrived in Leeds from New Zealand in September 1907, they were met by the same outpouring of emotion - in fact, the newspaper report in the Yorkshire Post sounds uncannily similar to that of 1892:

When the players appeared the crowd burst into tremendous cheering, which continued until the men had got into their charabanc. The Wright, the New Zealand capt, called for “Three cheers for the people of Leeds”, which were followed by the stirring Maori war-cry and further cheering. The players were escorted to the Grand Central Hotel by the Hunslet charabanc [which was decorated with the banner “Hunslet welcomes the New Zealand team”] and the Northern Union officials in carriages, together with the still cheering crowd. The crush was so dense in Boar Lane and Briggate as to cause the stoppage of traffic.

So Albert Goldthorpe embodied rugby league's community spirit. He also organised benefit matches to raise funds for striking workers and in 1904 the Leeds & District Schoolboys Trophy was named after him in respect for the tremendous work he had put into the community.

But he also represented something equally as important. He stood for character, for self-respect and integrity.

When the northern clubs broke from the RFU in 1895, the players took an enormous risk. They had no idea what would happen to the new rugby organisation, all it offered was six shillings per week broken time payments.

But they did know for certain that they would never again have the chance to play for the England or Yorkshire rugby union teams and that they would forever be treated as pariahs by the RFU. But Albert, and hundreds of other northern rugby players did not flinch in their support for the Northern Union.

Albert explained his support for the rebels:

The formation of the NU was a fine thing… There is now none of the old hypocrisy that we had to contend with [under the RFU]. It is a question of paying players openly, which is considerably better for all concerned… [and] the alteration of the rules has made accidents to players less likely.

[In passing, it is interesting that Albert's brother James, himself a great Hunslet player who later became the secretary of Leeds, was something of a visionary when it came to the rules of the game, arguing in the 1920s for a sin-bin and for the introduction of two divisions, fifty years before they became a feature of the game.]

It is worth remembering how easy it would have been for a prominent player like Albert to have turned his back on the new Northern Union and continue to play union. He would have been lauded and celebrated as a hero of rugby union, and would have been considerably more famous (and probably richer, despite the amateur regulations of the RFU).

But he knew that loyalty to your team-mates, to your community and to the game that made him a hero was much more important. Albert Goldthorpe instinctively knew, like all rugby league players do, that the most important thing was to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say 'I did the right thing'.

No wonder then, that the old Rugby League Gazette magazine paid tribute to Albert in 1950 with the words: ‘character is one of the few things that money cannot buy'.

It is those three principles - Community, Integrity, Character - that made Albert Goldthorpe the great man he was. Those same fundamentals are what makes the Albert Goldthorpe Medal so important to our sport. And ultimately they are precisely the things that make rugby league what it was, what it is, and what it will always be… the greatest game of all.

What was rugby called before 1895?

This post was first published on rugby on 12 September 2010.

I've just noticed a discussion on the Total RL Fans Forum about what rugby was called before 1895. Was it simply called rugby, with the implication that the name ‘rugby union’ emerged later to reflect the split?

The simple answer, as someone on the forum pointed out, is that before 1895 most people would have referred to the game as football. That's because the Rugby and Association codes were seen as variants of a generic game called ‘football’.

It’s probably the case that ‘football’ did not become the exclusive property of the dribbling code until the inter-war years (for example, my grandfather, born in 1907, always referred to rugby league simply as ‘football’). What's more, even today Rugby School refers to the game it originated as football.

But using 'football' in such a broad way could obviously be confusing. So journalists would often identify a code by referring to the name of its governing body - the Association game (after the Football Association) and the Rugby Union game, often shortened to Rugby football. (And after the split, what we know as rugby league was referred to as Northern Union football, hence Bradford Northern’s name).

This can be seen in the title of the Rugby Union Football Handbook, first published in 1889 and, more famously, in Frank Marshall’s 1892 history of rugby Football: The Rugby Union Game.

The hidden history of Sevens and 'short-form' rugby

This post was originally published on on 21 August 2010.

Although Wednesday’s Carnegie 9s is one of rugby league’s newest competitions, it builds on a tradition of ‘limited player’ or 'short form' rugby that dates back over 130 years.

Today, the seven-a-side rugby union circuit is a never-ending smorgasbord of corporate hospitality junkets and, of course, the 'short form' game will be played at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Open any match programme or web page about sevens and you'll be told that the limited player version of rugby was invented in Melrose in Scotland in April 1883.

But that’s not quite true.

Although the idea to have seven players per side may have started in Melrose, that was certainly neither the first nor even the only version of limited player rugby.

Huddersfield again

If anything, Melrose was behind the times. In fact, it appears that the first type of 'short form' rugby began with a six-a-side tournament in Huddersfield in 1879.

This first six-a-side tournament took place on 13 September 1879 and was organised by Huddersfield Cricket & Athletic Club (the foreunner of today’s Huddersfield Giants).

Leeds, Dewsbury, Bradford (today’s Bulls), Leeds St Johns (today’s Rhinos), Huddersfield themselves, Bradford Juniors and Kirkstall entered for the chance to win six silver cups, with six leather bags for the runners-up. Playing regular rugby rules in ten-minute halves, Huddersfield's six over-ran Leeds 23-0 in the final.

Other six-a-side tournaments were played over the next three or four years, with Dewsbury, Bramley, Cleckheaton, Wakefield and Leeds Parish Church all hosting contests. Six-a-sides were played during the summer, usually at athletic carnivals, with the aim of raising money for the club or, more often, for local hospital charities.

When Six became Nine

But by the mid-1880s the popularity of six-a-sides appears to have been eclipsed by the nine-a-side form of the game.

In August 1881 Batley staged the first nine-a-side tournament. Seven clubs entered, competing for a first prize of nine Vienna Regulators (a type of pendulum wall clock), valued at £2 10s each, and nine gentleman's travelling bags for the runners-up.

Dewsbury defeated Batley in the final, but the match ended in uproar, as Batley historian C.F. Shaw described in his 1899 book The Gallant Youths:

The Batley men declared that three points had to be obtained before a win could be claimed. This view was stoutly opposed by Dewsbury, and when the referee, a Mr Bentley of Heckmondwike, was appealed to, he waived his decision which so exasperated a certain section f the crowd that a free fight ensued. The referee was expected to attend a meeting of the Batley committee, but failed to make his appearance, as he had received several threatening letters in regard to the contest; and the committee decided to submit the matter to the editor of the Athletic News, and abide by his decision, which was given in favour of Dewsbury

Batley became the centre of summer 9s competitions. In 1885 two to three thousand people gathered at Batley Town Hall to see them receive the silver trophy from the mayor. The fact they had defeated Barrow in the final showed the appeal of the limited player game to fans and clubs alike.

Nine-a-side tournaments were staged throughout the 1880s in Leeds, Castleford, Dewsbury, Huddersfield and also in Lancashire, attracting large crowds and raising thousands of pounds for local charities.

Union authorities cut nines down to size

So why did nines die out? As you might guess, the leadership of rugby union were not keen on limited player contests.

This was due to two reasons. Most tournaments were played outside of the regular season using modified rules, thus undermining the official leadership of the game. For example, the 1881 Batley tournament was played under a point-scoring system. A converted try was worth eight points, a goal was six and an unconverted try four. But at this time, official rugby union rules only counted goals as a method of scoring.

The second problem for the authorities was that the limited player contests were suspected of professionalism. The prizes were often valuable and it was well-known that players would often simply sell-on the clocks and medals for their cash value.

And some tournaments even offered cash prizes, strictly against RFU rules. Wakefield's 1882 six-a-side contest saw the winning Thornes' players pick up two pounds each.

In August 1890, the Yorkshire Rugby Union suspended eight teams for playing in a summer six-a-side tournament. The following month the Lancashire Rugby Union outlawed limited player contests. Feelings ran 'very strongly against the nine-a-side game during the closed season and it was decided that in future no more contests be allowed during the summer,' stated a Lancashire spokesman.

This marked the end of the line for sixes and nines, early victims of the convulsions in rugby that would be caused by the RFU's campaign for pure amateurism.

Innovation and Tradition

The limited player version of rugby continued only in the Border region of Scotland, where it spread to other towns in the area after emerging in Melrose.

Isolated from the rugby union mainstream, the Borders seven-a-side version of the game continued largely unnoticed until 1926, when, freed of its previous associations with rule-changes and professionalism, limited player rugby was allowed back into English rugby union with the start of the Middlesex Sevens.

But, as with so many innovations in rugby, the initial impulse for limited player rugby came from those clubs in the north of England who were to revolutionise the sport and found the Northern Union.

Rugby union may have forgotten its own history but, when you go down to Headingley to watch this year's Carnegie 9s on Wednesday, take a few seconds to remember that you're watching one of rugby's oldest innovations and longest lasting traditions.

Kenneth Wolstenholme and rugby league

This post was originally published on on 14 May 2010.

Tomorrow is FA Cup Final day, so what more appropriate time to reprint the boyhood rugby league memories of soccer's most famous commentator, Kenneth Wolstenholme, originally published in his 1999 autobiography Fifty Sporting Years and It's Still Not Over.

He was born in 1920 into a well-to-do Lancashire cotton family that fell on hard times during the depression of the late 1920s. Short of money, his family could not afford private education for him so he ended up at a local state school in Swinton, where he takes up the story.

'The cotton trade was particularly badly hit [by the depression of the late 1920s].We left the Priory, and instead of going to a public school like Edna and Leslie, or a famous grammar school like Neil [his brothers and sister], who was a pupil at Manchester Grammar, I found myself at Cromwell Road Council School in Swinton. And I loved every minute of it.

'As far as education goes we were given a sound grounding in the three Rs, and the more you think of the three Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic (there has got to be a little poetic licence somewhere) - the more you realize that those three subjects were the very foundation of learning.

'It was a long walk to and from school and we worked hard. We also played hard, but the main game for the boys at Cromwell Road was rugby . . . Rugby League, not Rugby Union. We had a good school team, far too good for me to be a member because frankly I was never any good at the game, but I loved Rugby League, and still do.

'We were lucky enough to have the school not more than a drop kick away from Station Road ground, home of the Swinton RL Club, one of the best in the league. Not too far away was the Willows, home of Salford, Swinton's deadly rivals. Whenever the two teams met the ground was packed with spectators, and what rugby they saw.

'I remember going to watch a Test Match al the Swinton ground - England against Australia. With a number of my school chums I was allowed to sit inside the small concrete wall at one end of the field, just behind the try line. It was a rough, skilful rugby. The only thing it lacked was any scoring. Then, in the very last minute, England launched an attack.

'My chums and I were sitting on the grass not far from the corner flag at the end England were attacking. The excitement mounted as the ball moved swiftly from one English player to another, then suddenly the England loose forward - I think his name was Frank [it was actually Fred] Butters and that he played for Swinton - broke clear. He was being chased by at least three Aussies so it was touch and go whether he would make the try line before he was grounded.

'Suddenly one of the Australians pounced and made a desperate lunge at Butters, who dived for the line at the very moment the Australian grabbed his ear. We had a close-up view of the Englishman touching down for a try... and also a close-up view of his ear being partly torn off his head. It was the winning try, but what a price to pay for it. If I remember correctly, Frank Butters wore a skullcap for the rest of his playing career. [In fact, Kenneth's memory is playing tricks here. The match is the famous 1930 0-0 drawn Ashes Test match and it was the Australian scrum-half Joe 'Chimpy' Busch who went in for a try at the end of the match, only to have it disallowed. Fred Butters was injured making the tackle that stopped the try. For the full story see p. 124 of Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain.]

'Exciting and memorable though that fantastic victory was, there were just as exciting and memorable moments in the schoolboy Rugby League tussles which were organized by the Daily Dispatch, one of the Kemsley newspapers produced in Manchester. The Daily Dispatch Shield was our FA Cup. In fact it was run on the same lines as the FA Cup, or should I say the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

'Schools from all over the area entered and the big prize was a place in the final, which was always played on a senior Rugby League club ground. Warrington, Widnes, Wigan, Salford, St Helens and Swinton had their share of finals, but it seemed tome that Central Park Wigan was the venue which most closely filled the Wembley role. Every season Cromwell Road were favourites to win the prized Daily Dispatch shield.

'Sadly, the Daily Dispatch which did such a lot for schools rugby, and for our entertainment, went out of business like so many other provincial papers, soon after the Second World War.'

A contest for possession?

This post was originally published on on 6 May 2010.

Former Scotland rugby union coach Jim Telfer's grumpy dismissal of last week's Murrayfield Magic contained one of the classic myths of rugby union:

Some aspects of rugby league are worth noting such as good passing, angles of running and organised defences but rugby union has far more variety especially in the contesting of possession such as scrums, lineouts and ruck and maul.

Of course, if you don't think that the essence of rugby is passing the ball, running with the ball and tackling the player with the ball, then endless stoppages for the ball being kicked out of play or for set-pieces to formed possibly do offer an attractive form of 'variety'.

But, like beauty, rugby aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. The real problem with Telfer's statement is that the 'contest for possession' in rugby union is essentially a myth.

This is confirmed by a 2005 statistical study - 'Changes in the Playing of International Rugby over a Twenty Year Period' - that compares union international matches played between 1982-4 with those in 2002-4. The report demonstrated that in the 2000s:

  • 13 out of 14 times the side in possession retained the ball at the breakdown.
  • 9 times out of 10 the side in possession retained the ball at the scrum. 
  • 8 times out of 10 the side in possession retained the ball at the line-out.

The report's authors conclude that 'the contest for possession is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed' [my emphasis].

It also finds that the 'contest for possession' didn't amount to a huge amount in the 1980s either. Then, the side in possession retained the ball at 88% of scrums, 83% of breakdowns and 58% of line-outs.

Ironically, the report found that in the 1980s, sides with the ball turned it over on average once every six breakdowns - pretty much in line with league's turnover after every six tackles! But in the 2000s, the ball was turned over only once in twenty-three breakdowns, suggesting that possession is more evenly distributed in 'one-dimensional' league than in 'ball-contesting' union.

Typical rugby league propaganda, you might conclude. And indeed it does confirm league criticisms of union rules. So who was the author of this report?

None other than the International Rugby Board.

'Invictus': whitewash meets fairytale

This post was originally published on on 8 March 2010.

There's been an ocean of ink written about Clint Eastwood's latest movie Invictus. But perhaps the verdict on the 1995 Springboks should be delivered by Chester Williams, the side's only black player.

Interviewed in the Guardian in 2002 he recalled that in 1995:

"The marketing men branded me a product of development and a sign of change," he says. "Nothing could have been more of a lie. I wasn't a pioneer. Other black players had been Springboks before me, one of them in my own family [his uncle Avril was capped in 1984]. More have followed me. They know the vibe. They have felt it and been demoralised by it."

The mood in the [Springboks' world cup] camp, he says, was, give or take the odd James Small barb, "nothing malicious". There was rather an overwhelming sense that he did not deserve his place in the team and a low-level resentment that his very presence for political reasons meant a white player was being deprived of his opportunity.

"It could never occur to them that a black player could be better than a white," he says. "They only tolerated us in the team because it made them look as though they had embraced change. You know, much of it was born of the belief that being white in South Africa somehow made you superior to anyone born black."

The proof of his position dawned on him when he was dropped from the 1999 World Cup squad. The then coach, Nick Mallett, told him the team had enough black players to fulfil the terms of a newly imposed government quota and frankly the only way a black player was ever going to get into his side was through a quota.

"All I ever wanted was to be accepted as a rugby player," says Williams. "I hated being called a 'quota player'. That suggested I didn't deserve my place in the team. Until then I really believed my performances in 1995 and after that had broken down prejudices and changed mind-sets. That hurt."

So much for bringing 'people together through the universal language of sport' as the movie claims.

A game for all shapes and sizes?

This was originally published on, 21 February 2010

One of the hallowed shibboleths of rugby union is that it is 'a game for all shapes and sizes'. Indeed, this is often held up as a positive distinguishing feature from league.

In reality, this was usually a euphemism for justifying the inclusion of unfit fat blokes in the scrum and failed basketball players in the line-out. But, as soccer writer Harry Pearson pointed out recently in the Guardian, the view that union today is a game for all shapes and sizes bears no relation to reality.

To demonstrate that it is indeed a myth, let’s compare the heights and weights of the England league and union teams that played against the Kangaroos and the Wallabies in November 2009, in the Four Nations final and at Twickenham respectively.

Both were fairly typical of the type of sides which the RFL and RFU have fielded in modern times and so offer good examples to test the idea that union is ‘a game for shapes and sizes’ when compared to league.

When we look at the England league side, the heights of players rise from five feet, six inches (Kyle Eastmond) to six feet, five inches (Jamie Peacock and Sam Burgess), a range of eleven inches.

In contrast, the heights of the England union side start at five feet, eight inches (Danny Care) and go to six feet, seven inches (Matt Banahan), exactly the same range of eleven inches. There was precisely no difference in the range of heights between the two squads.

Six of the 17 England RL players measured exactly six feet tall or less, whereas seven out of the twenty-two England RU squad were six feet or less, a statistically insignificant difference.

The average height of the league backs was five feet, eleven inches, whereas the average height of their union counterparts was six feet exactly, although one could argue that winger Matt Banahan’s six feet, seven inches exaggerated the union average.

The league forwards averaged six feet, two and a half inches, whereas the union forwards measured six feet, three and a third inches.

In terms of height, there is practically no difference between league players and union players, and certainly no evidence to support the ‘all shapes’ mythology.

But what about size and weight?

In terms of weight, the league backs range from eleven stones, eleven pounds (Eastmond again) to fourteen stones, ten pounds (Shaun Briscoe), a range of two stones, eleven pounds. Their average weight was thirteen stones, two and a half pounds.

The union backs ranged from twelve stones, two pounds (Paul Hodgson) to Banahan’s eighteen stones and one pound, a range of five stones, thirteen pounds. Even if we leave Banahan out, the range would be five stones and two pounds, thanks to Ayoola Erinle’s seventeen stone, four pounds frame. Their average weight was fourteen stones and ten pounds.

The league forwards started at thirteen stones and seven pounds (James Roby) and rose to nineteen stones and one pound (Eorl Crabtree), a range of five stones and eight pounds.

In contrast, the weights of the union forwards went from sixteen stones and three pounds (Lewis Moody) to nineteen stones and ten pounds (Duncan Bell), a range of three stones and seven pounds. In this case the range of weight was greater in the league pack.

However, they were considerably lighter. The league pack averaged fifteen stones and eight pounds, while the union forwards weighed in at seventeen stones and ten pounds. In short, there’s a greater range of weights among the league forwards but the union forwards are considerably heavier.

On the basis of this evidence, there is absolutely no truth in the idea that rugby union is ‘a game for all shapes and sizes’.

In fact, there’s marginally more variation in the England league team, but this could easily disappear depending on selections, for example if Leon Pryce was selected at stand-off or Eorl Crabtree was replaced by Gareth Carvell.

On the whole, the union players are slightly taller and somewhat heavier, but it is historically the case that privately-educated youths are physically bigger than their working-class counterparts (thirteen of the twenty-two union players went to private schools, none of the league players did).

Of course, the extra weight of the union forwards is essential for all the scrummaging work they put in, whereas the league forwards cannot afford to carry such bulk because of their involvement in running the ball.

It may be the case that the beanpole second-rower has died out in union since the legalisation of lifting in the line-out, reducing the variation within union sides, but I suspect that any variation has always been exaggerated, mainly by proselytising school teachers who tried to promote union ahead of soccer and league.

Like so many other myths about the game, the idea that rugby union is ‘a game for all shapes and sizes’ reflects not so much the reality of the game but they way its supporters wished it was. And like all of those fantasies, it collapses as soon as it comes out contact with reality.