Rugby, how it all didn’t start

The history of rugby is hidden in muddy pits and drunken haze but there are a few stories that emerge which can be considered established fact. Who has not heard that a lad, one Web-Ellis, at Rugby public school was playing football and became upset at the language and social class of the spectators, not to mention the ban on beer, so picked up the ball and tried to run off with it? When the big lads on both sides jumped on him and beat the living daylights out of him, the modern game of rugby was born.

Even in those dark days, teachers were not allowed to shackle students nor break their necks or limbs. So rugby could be seen as a form of discipline and the occasional fatality could be put down to making a man of the late lad.

Any child who showed signs of original thought could be drafted into the fly half position and a quick suggestion to the referee that late tackles on him would not be penalised, even at half time would be more painful than any caning. In these days of human rights gone mad the bottom of the ruck is the only sane place left for brutality.

The charm of the modern game is that it allows those who want to grunt a lot and push things around to do just that while the rather elegant and, one has to admit, sissy can run about a bit and look cool. Even cooler in those infrequent occasions they have the ball.

Despite the new laws, in essence little has changed in the 150 odd years of the sport, the one exception being when some players decided to go their own way and set up a rival game: Rugby League.

As some are confused by the variations, let us first clear up the differences.

1/ Rugby League has always been played by professionals and Rugby Union has always been played by professionals who told fibs. In order to cover their flagrant breech of the amateur status of the sport the Union players acted like amateurs off the pitch. This facet has remained true despite Union players now receiving their pay packets in daylight.

2/ For Rugby League, it is essential that a coach can count up to 14. In Union, this goes up to 15, although do not read into this any superiority of intelligence on behalf of Union coaches. Fifteen is three hands while 14 requires subtraction.

3/ In Rugby League if a player is tackled he keeps hold of the ball whereas in Rugby Union if a player is tackled he will only keep hold of the ball if the referee is unsighted. Further, in Union many players are tackled when they haven’t got hold of the ball as the referee will be looking at the tackled player to see if he holds onto the ball.

4/ League is mainly played in the North of England whereas Rugby Union players don’t know where the North of England is, and even if they did they would not want to go there.

5/ Scrums (these will be explained later in the blog) are no fun in League as the ball goes in and the ball comes out almost at once. There are no endless resets, nothing collapses, the referee doesn’t have to make up penalties when he’s getting a bit bored and, most important of all, the team that puts the ball in will keep possession. Seems pointless putting it in in the first place if the pack isn’t going to play with it,

6/ Everyone looks the same height and build in League whereas in Union there is a great variation, some looking as if they do not belong to the human race.

It should be pointed out that many books suggest that another difference is that in Rugby League the ball isn’t thrown into the pitch after it goes out of play. This is patently absurd as the logistics of all the balls required would be beyond someone who could only count to 14.

In the initial years Rugby Union was only played by forwards. This meant that rugby pitches could be very small. Indeed many a rugby match was played indoors, often in dormitories and sometimes even in bars. There were a number of advantages to this style of play, one of which was economy. Expensive things like the big metal H at either end of the pitch were not required. The same could be said of the pitch, tactics and the ball. 

All good things must come to an end. Many schools wanted to put class against class and they needed positions on the pitch for everyone. So they invented backs.

This meant a whole new concept had to come to Rugby: the ball had to emerge from the scrum so that these Johnny come latelies had something to do. They invented perfect positions for imperfect kids: the little weedy one, whom no one would miss, least of all his parents, if he was seriously injured could play scrum half. The tall, good looking lads had the wings to pose on. The big fat blokes who liked hugging one another could be the pack, with a special place for the kid who was kept locked up at night for the good of the Matron: the hooker. Those who were quite big who didn’t want to touch their team mates in the scrum could be flankers. The lad who couldn’t do anything and no one wanted to be near could be full back. The little kids who were not much good at anything other than getting in the way could be kept in the centre of the field, hence centres. And the one who couldn’t even get in the way and was good at passing the buck was a gift for #10. Indeed, he was the perfect Prime Minister.

The sport has developed over the years and the main concern nowadays is no longer the weight of the tight five (explained later) but the weight of health and safety regulations. Rugby is a violent sport, especially in the clubhouse. The players put their heads and necks into positions which they were not designed to go and serious injuries often used to result. With litigation moving from being a spectator sport to one which anyone could participate in, things had to change.

The bods in charge and the Rugby Football Union HQ showed great concern with regards to these injuries and they came up with a classically simple solution that satisfied everyone: replacements. So even if two or three players were carted off to hospital, or the mortician, the match could still go on with evenly numbered sides.

That is the modern game of rugby: caring, concerned with health and safety, and with a position for everybody, even if it might be in the back of an ambulance.