St George's Park History
Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Rugby St George's Park - The Good Old Days of 20-man Rugby Recalled
The Good Old Days of 20-man Rugby Recalled
Ivor Markman

With the rugby season drawing to a close, its time to look back at where the game came from and how it used to be played.

Rugby used to be a really rough game, and it was only in the mid 1990’s, with the introduction of professional rugby, that a serious attempt was made to clean up the game.

The first printed rugby laws date from 1845, but there are notebooks recording discussions about the laws from earlier dates.

Boys played to a code of laws from early on - they just disagreed as to quite what it was on occasions

In 1871, 21 amateur clubs established the Rugby Football Union and drew up the original laws of the game.

Much has changed since those days - the game was never the crowd puller that it has become today.

The changes have come about gradually, one step at a time, but the old timers would spin in their graves if they saw how regulated it has become.

The enormous crowds of spectators were unknown and club finances were severely depleted. New footballs at every game was unheard of.

Change rooms were unknown except on the major clubs.

Very often the clubs would arrive carrying their own goal posts, each side bringing one set, and just before the game they would hastily assemble them.

A goal consisted of two poles, each at least 11 feet long, placed 18 ft 6 inches apart with a cross bar 10 feet from the ground.

Hot baths and showers were unknown. Players would arrive all togged out and ready to go. Afterwards they would return home to clean up, if they felt like it.

Twenty players in each team took to the field in the early days. There were two full-backs, one three-quarter, two halves and fifteen forwards in each team.

Cheltenham College introduced the point system and then, to win a game, all one had to do was to score a try, that counted for one point, and convert it for an additional two points.

Scrummaging as we know it today was none existent and nobody would dream of putting down his head for a scrum.

A forward in the front rank would hold the ball between his legs and the rest of the team would attempt to push him forward.

This form of scrummage would often last for more than two or three minutes, in fact, the longer it lasted, the better the play.

When the ball was put down the players closed around on their respective sides and attempted to push their opponents back by kicking the ball to drive it in the direction of the opposite goal-line.

That describes exactly what contemporary scrumming is not.

The men used to push straight ahead with brute force, while to hook was regarded as unfair and discreditable.

It was quite permissible to kick your opponent’s shin or to stick your leg out to trip him up and high tackles were the order of the day.

There were no referees to control the game - that was left to the players.

If someone was ‘off sides,’ he would be kicked on the shins and “Off-side, Sir,” shouted. There were also no such thing as a penalty.

There were extraordinary formalities to be gone through when converting a try.

The kicker would pick up the ball and walk as far back as he wished.

Then he would gently kick the ball to a player in a better position who would have to make a “mark”.

If he couldn’t mark his opponent before being tackled, his kick at goal was lost.

If he was successful, he could either repeat the manoeuvre until his side was in a better position to convert, or he could attempt the kick.

The first step in speeding up the game came when the number of players was reduced to 15. Instead of having 15 forwards, this was reduced to ten.

It was now possible to break away from a scrum much quicker than before.

Heads down in the scrums became the order of the day and tripping and kicking your opponents shins was banned.

A referee was also introduced to control the game.

As the game was now much faster it was found that one three-quarter was insufficient so an another one was added, leaving nine forwards.

Passing was then introduced, but only amongst the forwards. Slowly this spread to the halves and then eventually to the three-quarters.

At some stage a third three-quarter was played and at the same time one of the full-backs was disposed of.

The Welsh were the first to adopt the fourth three-quarter and for quite a long time were the only ones doing so.

There was no such thing as heeling the ball in the scrum or wheeling, but as soon as these plays manifested themselves the benefit of a fourth three-quarter became apparent.

Before heeling and wheeling were introduced everything depended upon superior power and weight in the scrum. Naturally, the nine-man scrum was preferred to the eight-man set up.

In those early days it was considered more difficult to kick a goal and so consequently a kick at goal was worth more than a try.

There were a number of ways of scoring points.

At first, a try was one point and a conversion was 2.

A drop goal and a kick from a “mark” both scored three points.

In 1889 a try and a conversion both scored two points, there were still no penalties, and a drop and mark remained at 3 points.

Then in 1891 the conversion remained two points and a try was reduced to one point until 1893.

Then a try was upped to three points and a conversion remained at two.

A drop goal and a mark were now both worth four points. Penalties were introduced and were worth three points.

In 1905 a mark was reduced to three points.

Then in 1948 the drop was reduced from four to three points.

This system remained in force until 1971 when a goal became six points, four for the try and two for the conversion.

Penalty, drop and mark goals were all worth three points.

In 1977 the rules were once again changed. Points were no longer allowed for a mark kick.

The last change came in 1992 when tries became five points, conversion two points while the drop and penalty kick remained at three points.

Weekend Post,
October 22, 2005.
Website Researched by Ivor Markman
Webmaster Darryn van der Walt

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