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English Beginnings of Rugby League

The modern football codes of soccer, gridiron, rugby and rugby league all evolved from the ball games being played in England's top private schools in the early nineteenth century.

As imagined by Adrian McGregor:

"... 150 or more school boys screaming, hacking and hoofing at the ball in a mass scrimmage, literally trying to drive it through their opponents legs. While the ball was on the ground it was fair game for flying boots. The boys were not allowed to pick the ball up or handle it unless it squirted clear from the scrimmage and was caught on the full or on the bound (bouncing). All play then stopped, rather like the modern rugby union mark, while the catcher, if within kicking distance of the posts, either attempted a kick at goal - place or drop kick - or punted it down field to gain ground." [McGregor 1991, page 18.]

Legend has it that in 1823, at Rugby School, one William Webb Ellis, "with a fine disregard for the rules", picked up the ball and ran with it. The controversy wasn't in picking up the ball, but that he ran with it rather than stopping and kicking it. This eventuated in there being two different school games by the mid nineteenth century - Rugby's running game and the "dribbling" game of Eton. There was controversy in the Universities when students originating from Rugby School would continually handle the ball. This led to the "Cambridge Rules" in 1846 which banned handling the ball. These were the rules adopted by the Football Association in 1863, the original rules of soccer.

In 1871 clubs that had adopted Rugby School's handling game formed the English Rugby Union and established their own set of rules which included the original concept of the "try".

"Scoring continued to be by goals with the additional feature of 'running in' whereby some players stood off from the mass mauls in the hope of running with the ball past the opposition's goal line. This won no points but permitted the scoring side to 'try' a kick at goal - thus evolving the exclamation, 'A try!' A player was now permitted to pick the ball up at any time but could not pass it. When tackled he was obliged to call 'down' and release the ball, whereupon a scrimmage formed around him." [McGregor 1991, page 19.]

In 1875 teams were reduced to 15 a side, in 1880 passing the ball was legalised and in 1882 an offside rule was introduced.

Rugby was originally for the well to do but this began to change with the growth of Northern English clubs in the 1870s.

"In time, the majority of rugby clubs in the North drew their playing strength from the mills, the foundaries and the coal-mines of the region, and these footballers were not often from the salaried management; they were wage-earners of the rank and file." [Moorehouse 1989, page 3.]

In the North the strict amateurism of the game came under pressure with a call from players for payments to compensate for lost wages or 'broken time'. The Rugby officialdom in the South were completely inflexible on this issue and the Northern clubs in the end had little choice but to form their own break away 'Northern Union'. The Northern Rugby Football Union was founded at a meeting in the George Hotel in Huddersfield on 29 August 1895.

The George Hotel, Huddersfield

The Northern Union established the principle of payments for broken time only, and the clubs involved resigned from Rugby Football Union. The Northern Union later became known as 'rugby league'.There were significant rule changes introduced by the Northern Union between 1895 and 1907 including banning the 'knock on', abolishing the lineout, reducing the number of players to 13 and introducing the 'play-the-ball'.

Early Northern Union match

"Thus it was that in little more than its first decade, the game which was to be known as Rugby League had acquired its own shape and rythms, distinctively different from Rugby Union. The object of the changes was, of course, to speed things up, to make the game as attractive to spectators as possible, for they were vital to the payment of broken time and the other emoluments that eventually came the players' way." [Moorehouse 1989, page 7.]

Thus, the game recognisable as Rugby League was already in existence in Northern England when the time was ripe for the formation of the New South Wales Rugby League in August 1907.

Australian RL Beginnings
Origins of RL at Manly