The Entirely Serious History of Rugby, Part 4: The Great Split, or some southerners get the arse about northerners getting money
In the latest chapter from our sporadically updated series, we take a look at why and how two rugby codes were created. Was it geography? Was it class? Was it because northerners couldn't kick out of hand or southerners couldn't tackle? Read on and find out.
There are many phrases in history that sound so banal it is hard to believe they had such an impact: appeasement, The Beatles, Norman Lamont. Such an example is "broken-time payments"; the phrase that divided a sport so bitterly in 1895 that one branch of it was still banned from the British Armed Forces as late as 1990, and to this day the level of antipathy on internet message boards between the two sects is akin to a less killy version of the Balkans.
Amazingly, the attitudes between each code have changed very little in over 100 years. RL fans still see RU as soft, overly complicated, and populated exclusively by people called Tarquin who spend most of their time fox-hunting and throwing buckets of piss at the poor. Conversely, the RU gang see RL and brainless, repetitive and played and run by Tetley's-drinking, lumpen labourer-types who think that a luxury experience is having salt on their black pudding.
How could a phrase so inconsequential as broken-time payments cause such antipathy? Because it was about the one thing that causes the vast majority of all epic rows. No, not Steve Walsh - money. Specifically, being given money to play. ergo professionalism.
As rugby developed as a popular game, teams in the North of England came to be owned and run in many cases by the constantly burgeoning industrial owner-class. Men stern of face, giant of sideburn, and intimidating tosspot of demeanour, who wanted their teams to win rugby matches and so set about recruiting the best players. Many of the players came from their own factories, but these men were not averse to offering relatively lucrative jobs in their own factories to outstanding players from rival clubs; provided they agreed to switch teams, naturally.
While under-the-table financial transfer inducements were very difficult to prove (much like those in envelopes received by Welsh RU players at motorway services many years later); what was much easier to prove was that these players were being remunerated by their employers whilst playing rugby on Saturday afternoons. Saturday being a normal working day in the late 1800s.
Simply put, these men could not play if they did not receive their normal wages; their team would not win if they did not play; and their industrialist owners were not the types to tolerate losing and so they did the necessary.
Illegal payments happened all over the place of course, but reports of illegal payments in Yorkshire and Lancashire had, by the early 1890s, reached such a critical mass it could no longer be ignored. Those responsible for the payments in the North played the technicality card: "we're not really paying them to play, we are compensating them for having to miss work. Do you see?". The powers that be did see, but didn't give a shit: rugby was an amateur game, and any kind of payment to play was subverting that ethos and so perverting the spirit of the game. The RFU committee even went so far to to re-write By-law #1 to say "the name of the society shall be called the 'Rugby Football Union' and only clubs comprised entirely of amateurs shall be eligible for membership, and its headquarters shall be London where all general meetings shall be held."
Northern clubs countered that they were being up front about their payments - inferring that amateur clubs in the South were paying out far more but not accounting for it; that any debate or vote on the issue was bound to be defeated as the RFU committee was overloaded with southern reps; and moreover, that RFU meetings were discriminatory in that they were all held in London and so northern reps were a bit thin on the ground due to the travelling practicalities. It mattered not, the Northern clubs were told to stop payments and locked down by both the RFU and their respective county unions with a threat of expulsion.
This reached a critical point in July 1895 when Huddersfield, Batley, Dewsbury, Bradford, Manningham (who later became Bradford City FC), Leeds, Halifax, Brighouse Rangers, Hull, Liversedge, Hunslet and Wakefield announced their resignation from the Yorkshire Union, leaving themselves as outcasts.
This was the catalyst that brought together that famous meeting at the George Hotel, Huddersfield, on Thursday August 29 1895, when the Yorks and Lancs clubs formally announced the creation of the Northern Rugby Football Union. A body totally divorced from the RFU, run by the clubs of the North, and crucially allowing broken-time payments, thus paving the way to the fully professional game and the eventual formation of the Rugby Football League. The professional game then set about the changes in the rules to make the game more of a spectacle (in their eyes) that created the two very separate games we ended up with.
Many have argued that the split was more about class than the sanctity of amateurism, citing that many clubs in the South payed players one way or the other, and it was only when Northern teams began winning major tournaments regularly that the stink was created about payments. There is some mileage in this argument. However, the layers of complexity in this issue and this time in history are such that it is dangerous to make this a North/South, rich/poor paradigm and state it as simple truth.
Those mudsters wish read more about this fascinating split and its reflection of rugby and Victorian society at that time would do well to read Rugby's Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football by Tony Collins. It's well worth it.
The Entirely Serious History of Rugby, Part 3: The Rugby Football Union and rules
As we all know from Part 2, clubs that played rugby football wanted no part of the Football Association and carried on playing their game while the FA and its new rules moved inexorably towards gobbing off at referees, diving and David Beckham.
However, a few short years later, the differing rules that still existed in rugby football were causing havoc among teams travelling to play each other, with each club having their own subtle variations. Much like playing pool in pubs now, areas of discrepancy had to be clarified beforehand because, as anyone attempting two-shot carry somewhere other than their local knows, the consequences of such confusion could be argument and violence. So it was that in 1870, Edwin Ash of the Richmond club posted a letter in the newspapers stating, "Those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play."
On January 26, 1871 this meeting occured, attended by representatives from 21 clubs at the Pall Mall Restaurant, Charing Cross and it founded the Rugby Football Union. The clubs in attendance were: Blackheath, Richmond, Ravenscourt Park, West Kent, Marlborough Nomads, Wimbledon Hornets, Gipsies, Civil Service, Law Club, Wellington College, Guy’s Hospital, Flamingoes, Clapham Rovers, Harlequin F.C., King’s College, St Paul's, Queen’s House, Lausanne, Addison, Mohicans, and Belsize Park. Some of these are still playing in the top flight today, and I for one am gutted that Flamingoes, Mohicans and Gipsies are not in the Guinness Premiership.
A notable absentee is Wasps. The story goes that their representative went to the wrong pub, had a few and was too bladdered to find the right venue; a location-confusion tradition they continue today by calling themselves London Wasps despite being based in High Wycombe, 40 miles away.
Following this meeting rules were drawn up and formally ratified in June 1871. To prove that rule changes are not a modern phenomena these ones were also subsequent to change - the original ELVs were in 1877 when the number of players was reduced from twenty to fifteen. The original scoring system was very different also, with no points at all for a touchdown, this simply earned you a "try" at kicking for goal to "convert" it to points, hence the terminology that has persevered to this day, well beyond its logical use.
In 1892 the oval ball became the compulsory shape, the game having previously been played with a mix of round and oval; and in 1893 tries (3 points) became worth more than conversions (2 points), establishing the game firmly as the one we recognise today. (As an aside; tries were increased to four points in 1971, which is much later than I imagined.)
NEXT TIME: "The Great Split", aka "Some northeners get the arse about not getting any money".
The Entirely Serious History of Rugby, Part 2: Hacking and The Great Schism
In Part 1 of our series, we demonstrated that the commonly helf belief that William Webb Ellis invented the game of rugby can best be described in technical historical terms as bollocks; there were many forms of football around in 1823, of which the Rugby rules were but one and none of which were cast in stone. However, the Rugby rules did develop into allowing the player to run with the ball in the 1840s and it was from this point on that Rugby Football begins to proliferate around the country.
The reasons for this are not exactly clear; but it is most likely to be a combination of the success of Rugby as a school at that time and the number of Old Rugbeians who were so enamoured with their sport they set up clubs once settled around the country. The expanding rail network allowed clubs to travel to each other play matches, sing "Climbing Up the Sunshine Mountain", strip off, and steal tour pendants and other club memorabilia from the wall. This led to a point in the 1860s where "Football" was being played all over the shop without a codified set of rules.
In 1863, a new draft of rules devised by Cambridge University were published widely in the press, becoming known, amazingly, as the "Cambridge Rules". This particular rule variation forbade players to run with the ball in hand and also did not allow them be hacked, tackled or held by opponents as they attempted this action.
In the same year, the fledgling Football Association had drawn up draft rules that were subsequently presented at its inaugural meeting at The Queen's Tavern, London. Along the lines of the Cambridge Rules, the FA were not at all happy with either running with the ball, hacking or holding and sought to expunge them from their rules. This is mainly due to the fact that, even in 1863, footballers were big, soft, diving jessies; or as Francis Maule Campbell a member of the Blackheath Club argued at the time, "to eliminate hacking would do away with all the courage and pluck from the game," and, hammering home the point by slandering a nation, "I will be bound over to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice". Good work Francis!
And so it was that in December 1863 Blackheath and numerous other clubs decided to ratify the creation of the FA, before immediately sticking two-fingers up at it by not affiliating due to the pansy-arse rules of what was to become known as Association Football (hence the abbreviation "soccer"). These stroppy clubs carried on playing the Rugby game, thus creating the Great Schism that led to the existence of two markedly different football games.
Next time: The formation of the RFU, many of whose founders are still on the board today.
The Entirely Serious History of Rugby, Part 1: William Webb Ellis and lies
It is easy to think that this great game of ours appeared when Sky bought the rights to boradcast most of it; after all, Sky do have a special way of marketing that leads people to believe that they invented sports. Football is the most obvious example. If you watch Sky coverage you will struggle to find any reference to football before the creation of the Premier League in 1992. For instance, their stats start in that year, because Liverpool didn't play a game against Manchester United (to pick one example) before the Premier League was created did they? This is, of course, nonsense, as everyone knows football was invented in 1966 when England won the World Cup.
As a counterbalance to this miasma of glitzy ignorance, bloodandmud.com is setting itself the task of giving you The Entirely Serious History of Rugby in many parts. Starting with the birth of the game.
William Webb Ellis (right), the man widely credited with creating the game of rugby, was a cheat and a bounder. While playing a perfectly normal game of football at Rugby school in 1823, he picked the ball up and ran with it in his arms, thus inventing the game of Rugby Football. We must assume that Webb Ellis was either loaded, one of the "special" children who the teachers had to be gentle with so they didn't start headbutting the wall or wetting their breeches, or had some serious dirt on his PE teacher; because otherwise he should have been sent off and given a month's detention for cocking about and showing off.
However, all of the above is now widely believed to be utter nonsense, and the story only came into the public domain in 1876 when a couple of Old Rugbeians - who were not even at the school when William was there - accredited this action to him. The fact is that rules for football were not fixed in 1823, and boys would agree a set of rules before every game, therefore Webb Ellis could not possibly have revolutionised the playing of the game is such a way at that time. However, this did not stop the IRB naming the World Cup in his honour back in 1987 and thus the legend lives on each time a captain hoists the trophy every four years.
The creation of rugby as a separate, distinct sport as opposed to football actually happened much later, and we'll look at that next time.