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Which Rugby Code Is Older?

Northern Union rugby c.1900

I’ve heard and seen a few rugby union supporters attempt to demean rugby league via statements that it is “rugby lite” or a stream-lined version of the 15-man game.

The inference they are trying to make is that rugby union is the pure form of rugby (derived from Rugby School), while rugby league is some sort of a half-bred inferior off-spring.

The most prominent rules of the first RFU laws in 1871 were the “held” and “down” rules.

When a player was held or tackled, the game stopped, everyone got back to their feet, the tackled/held player dropped the ball back onto the ground, and the game re-commenced.

“In the event of any player holding or running with the ball being tackled and the ball being fairly held he must at once cry down and there put it down.” 1871 RFU Laws.

It was considered unseemly and unsafe in Victorian times for gentlemen to be seen scrapping about in an unsightly mess of humanity, laying about on the ground in a heap.

With reference to descriptions of rugby in London’s Punch in late 1870, when play was allowed to go on with a man on the ground, he was liable to be kicked in attempts by team mates and opponents alike, in endeavouring to force the football free.

The contest for the football was only seen to be a fair match “when the ball-holder is on his legs.”

Once the ball-holder was on the ground, or “held” by a tackler such that he couldn’t pass the ball, with safety and a fair contest in mind, the game was brought to an immediate halt – this remains today a defining principle of rugby league’s play-the-ball and held rules.

Captain of the 1899 British RU team in Sydney described to local press how the rules were being applied by the RFU’s referees.

“He specially mentioned the case of a player with the ball being tackled and thrown by several opponents. The English rule was that the referee blew his whistle, and the opposing side allowed the player to get up immediately, still holding the ball, and the player, having risen to his feet, placed the ball on the ground in front of him. If a player used his foot in the slightest degree to gain possession of the ball from an opposing player who had fallen with the ball the English referee gave a free kick to the fallen man’s side for hacking.”
(Source: The Brisbane Courier, 16 June 1899).

Significantly, it wasn’t just the ball-carrier in early 1900s rugby union who couldn’t play at the ball while “off his feet”, but every player on the field….

“Supposing a player is lying on the ground, and the ball comes towards him, a free-kick should be given against him if he plays the ball, or handles it. To all intents and purposes a player lying on the ground is out of the game, and cannot take any part in the play till he gets on his feet again. I think I have explained this enough, and the player that cannot understand the ruling now must be indeed a dullard.”
(Source: New Zealand Free Lance, 1 August 1903).

Somwhat ironically, both the “held” and “down” rules still exist in evolved forms today in all the rugby-derived codes – except for one.

These rules feature prominently in rugby league (“held” call / play-the-ball), American and Canadian football codes (“downs”, scrimmage and “snap”), and even in Australian rules (required to drop/release the ball when tackled/held).

Interestingly, there is only one rugby-derived football code that no longer has these true and founding fundamentals of mid-19th century rugby – that code is rugby union.

Rucks evolved into the game of union around 1908 in Australia and New Zealand (later in England, replacing the scrum), and mauls were not allowed in general play until after WW2.

The Referee (sports newspaper) provided comment on how the “held” and “down” rules were being ignored in Sydney rugby union in 1909:

“Mr Melville simply allowed the players to maul one another in struggling for the ball on the ground after a tackle. And after the two sets of forwards had got mixed up in a heap, the whistle went and a scrummage was formed.”

“With all due deference to the abilities and good intentions of most of our referees, this, I contend is not Rugby Union football at all; it is spurious, and is foisted on the players as the genuine thing.”

“Mr Evans deserves the thanks of everyone, players and spectators, for his determination to interpret the rule in the manner in which it was intended, and to prevent a lot of quite unnecessarily rough play.”

“This recalls Rugby of old. Mr Evans seems like a pioneer, but he is merely bringing back to Rugby some of the old and very desirable features.”


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