Forms of “throw-about” park, street and backyard versions of rugby league have existed since the birth of the game.
Informal no-tackle games were played at picnics and on beaches. All that was needed to get your “footy fix” of rugby league was any old football and a few willing participants.
After WW2 Sydney’s first grade rugby league coaches were wanting to find a means to introduce more tactical, game realisitc and co-ordinated training drills, but were hampered by the need to not put their men (who all still had full-time jobs) at further risk of injury. The solution came in the form of a minimal contact version of rugby league, called “touch football.”
The likely source of inspiration for the new game had come during WW2, when many Sydneysiders had seen visiting American servicemen playing a modified form of gridiron, that they called “touch football.” This safer version had begun in the early 1920s by students at Princeton University, who had given it the name “touch football.” By the 1930s it had gained popularity across the USA as a social game and NFL training tool.
Once rugby league adopted its own brand of “touch football” it became immediately apparent that not only was there far less risk of injury, but that it greatly increased the speed and variety of ball passing and creative skills of rugby league players.
Halves and forwards in particular were free to experiment and learn, and then with some confidence take these new skills, methods and “tricks” back into the full version of the game. If for no other reason, at least by threatening to pass the ball, questions were being put to opposition defenders.
What had begun as simply a training tool to stretch out the legs and mind, was quickly influencing the full version of the game itself. Veteran rugby league journalist, Tom Goodman, attributed the Ashes series win by Great Britain in 1962 down to the advantages they gained from playing touch at training: “The speed of their passing – stemming from their persistence in playing ‘touch football’ at practice – made them appear faster than they really were.” (SMH, 1/7/62)
A decade earlier, the “American All-Stars” rugby league squad had begun their 1953 Australian tour by playing portions of their trial games in country NSW as touch football contests (SMH, 27/5/53).
By the mid-1960s the physical demands and injury risks of playing rugby league were well on the path towards being a game beyond the social footballer.
It was amidst these times that touch football was first formalised as a recreational game. In 1968, under the South Sydney RLFC, Robert Dyke and Ray Vawdon (members of the South Sydney Juniors), gained sanction from the district club and organised the initial touch football competition.
The game found immediate popularity, quickly spreading out to both the St George and Cronulla districts, then other Sydney clubs. By 1972 it had been successfully introduced to Brisbane, and inter-state matches between NSW and Queensland became a regular fixture.
Exposure of the game was aided by the NSWRL and QRL, with matches played on the under-card of major rugby league games at the Sydney Cricket Ground and Lang Park.
In 1977, after the St George v Parramatta Grand Final was drawn, the NSWRL invited the recently formed “Touch Football Association” to provide the curtain-raiser for the Grand Final replay.
In his book, “The Story of Touch“, Bob Dyke points to the playing of touch in front of the 47,000 Grand Final crowd, along with a spectacular match a year later between the British Lions and a “Sydney Metropolitan” rep touch team, as the primary impetus for the rapid growth of touch footy in the late 1970s.
Significantly, Dyke also makes the point that touch football’s founding purpose was to widen and grow the social and recreational appeal of rugby league.
Touch football was seen from the outset as a game that could greatly assist the growth, appeal and awareness of rugby league in the wider community – all of which (if successful) ultimately produce future generations of rugby league fans, players, officials and sponsors.
Forty years after its birth, touch football has now taken rugby league around the world, with “The Federation of International Touch” holding a current membership of 34 nations.
The touch form of the game, which is still six tackle sets and a form of play-the-ball, is played socially and in formal competitions across the globe, by men and women of all ages, as well as boys and girls and in school competitions.
Touch football is recognised as the largest participation sport in New Zealand, with over 300,000 players.
In Australia, touch is played across the nation (not just NSW and Queensland) by more than 300,000, another 500,000 in school competitions.
Other forms of modified rugby league have also been taken up inclusing OzTag (over 400,000 participants), as well as more recent variant games of “Touch Rugby League” and “Kick It Touch”.
All of these games provide a means for people to enjoy and gain an appreciation of the game of rugby league, particularly the ball-passing and running skills.
There seems little doubt that participant and spectator interest in these modified social forms of rugby league will continue to grow.
Combined with the over 400,000 playing the full 13-man version of rugby league, the participant numbers playing the various forms of rugby league push well beyond the 1 million mark, dwarfing those of Australian rules and rugby union, and rivaling soccer (another code which is played in various modified forms).