Cynics tell us Rugby football grew and prospered in Scotland independently of its government and its lawmakers. They say, in fact, that it grew in spite of itself. Possibly, but it is still growing. No statistics are required to illustrate the spread of the game within the last thirty years. Its increased popularity has compelled the Scottish Rugby Union to vacate a field that at the time of its acquisition was calculated to meet spectacular requirements 'for all time.'
Fifty years' progress in popularity needs no clearer illustration than bare mention of the circumstance that for the use of Raeburn Place for one of the early representative matches, the Edinburgh Academical Club was paid the sum of £5. The contrast with the assemblage and financial receipts for the English game at Murrayfield in 1925 tells the story of the sowing of the seed and the reaping of the harvest.
The story opens some twenty years earlier than the date of that Raeburn Place match in the early 'seventies. Whatever type of football existed in Scotland prior to 1850, there is no evidence of any attempt to establish, or even to introduce, the form known as the Rugby game until 1851, when it was adopted at Edinburgh Academy as a game for the boys. It should be emphasised that Rugby came to Scotland as a game for schoolboys. The former-pupil movement and the formation of 'F.P.' clubs are the branches and upper growth, not the root and stem, of the tree. During the 'sixties there were not more than eight recognised clubs outside the schools playing Rugby.
In the 'seventies a great awakening occurred, and the game took a sudden leap into popularity. There is no doubt the 1871 victory of Scotland over England in the first International match between the two countries imparted the necessary impetus. The Scottish team on that occasion was chosen from the Edinburgh and Glasgow Academicals, Merchistonians, Royal High School (F.P.), West of Scotland, Edinburgh University, and St. Andrews University. These clubs, along with Glasgow University and the schools, represented the entire resources of Scotland. It is important to note that all or nearly all of them became members of the English Rugby Union on its formation in 1872.
The motive, or one of the motives, for their affiliation with that body, it is reasonable to assume was in the interests of uniformity in methods of play and observance of a unified code of rules. One of the difficulties of the pioneer days arose through differences of opinion as to what was allowable and what was not, and even in after days there was a period during which 'disputes,' frequently leading to premature abandonment of play, were not unusual. As in some degree explanatory of the English Rugby Union's claim to acknowledgment as the maker and interpreter of rules during the years of the 'Dispute,' it is important to bear in mind the earlier affiliation of the Scottish clubs with the ruling body in England. A relic of the tacit acknowledgment of its original powers is retained in the English title and superscription, 'The Rugby Union.'
In the later 'seventies and early 'eighties a great change and a marked advance along the line towards the modern style of play set in. During these years the boys at the Scottish schools, particularly at Loretto and Fettes, began to develop combined movement among the backs, and ere long they had established what became known as the 'passing game.' That Scottish innovation was the genesis of all that followed in the way of development of combined play behind the scrummage. From the Scottish schools the 'passing game' was carried to the English Universities, and became general among the English clubs before it was finally adopted in Scottish club football.
Long after the schools were playing a line of three half-backs (old style), the clubs adhered to the earlier formation of two. Even representative teams continued to be constructed on these lines till the inevitable national disaster overtook Scotland in 1883, when England's advantage at half-back by reason of the extra man in the line was so apparent that there and then the question was finally decided, and the two-half-back formation, in current terms, was 'scrapped as obsolete.'
It is an historic fact which cannot be refuted that the 'passing game' originated with the Scottish schools, and that its introduction into English football was due to the presence of so many of these old schoolboys at the English Universities, where they so quickly imposed their style of play that before long all England was talking of the new methods in terms of the 'Oxford game.'
The process was not an example of a little leaven leavening the whole lump. In the Oxford fifteen of 1884-85 there were seven Lorettonians during A. G. G. Asher's captaincy. When Oxford were beaten by Edinburgh University in 1881 it was the first defeat they had experienced in three years.
Lest it should be thought that the complement in the team of 1884-85 was exceptional, it may be mentioned that H. Vassall, who left Oxford in 1883, had eight Scottish schoolboy 'Blues' available for his team, and it was under Vassall that the 'Oxford game' created in England the impression referred to. Originating in Scotland, the 'passing game' was carried into England, and with the general acceptance and establishment of the new methods a distinct and well-defined stage in the progress of the game was reached.
Vassall's contribution to football amounted to an ardent desire to impress upon his players generally the importance and advantages of combination. He had no share in the development of back play.
It is claimed for A. Rotherham that he was the originator of the systematic feeding of the three-quarters at Oxford, and in consequence his name has become historic. There is no need to attempt to detract from Rotherham's reputation, but does he not owe it largely to circumstances over which he had no control, and which he certainly had no hand in making? Behind Rotherham was a line of three-quarters, reared in the school of combination and passing. What, therefore, was Rotherham to do if the striking force and scoring power of the team was not to be rendered impotent? It might be nearer the mark to describe Rotherham as the progenitor of the modern 'stand-off' half-back than as the 'father of the passing game'—a contention which is very wide indeed.
During the later 'eighties and early 'nineties attention was closely concentrated upon back play, to the detriment, or even neglect, of the work of the forwards. The ideal centre was the player who could get most out of his wings, and the correct method was by very wide passing. The two best types of the class were perhaps Rawson Robertshaw in England and Gregor MacGregor in Scotland. Both could sling the ball widely and accurately, and not much more was required or expected of them. It was not a very high standard, nor even a very generally accepted one, and it did not survive long.
In the process of straining after back play, two contributory movements were introduced into the game. Instead of endeavouring to force the ball through the scrummages or carry it away at the sides, the forwards began to scrape for possession of the ball in order to heel out and supply the backs. Scraping for possession was a North of England introduction. According to the strict letter of the law the process is illegal, but as contributory to the current mania for back play the abuse was overlooked, and when it was too late to turn back, the Unions passed the half-hearted regulation 'feet up,' on the principle that 'what can't be cured must be endured.'
Through time the scraping process in forward play evolved its own specialist, the ' hooker.' Almost simultaneously with the scraping, the 'scrum half' made his appearance. Some time elapsed before he acquired all the qualifications entitling him to the particular designation defining the degree of specialisation, but as scraping was the first stage in getting the ball out to the backs, the next link in the chain was naturally at quarter or half-back.
At that time the professional question had become acute in England. The English fifteen of 1892 contained thirteen North of England men, eight of whom were Yorkshiremen. Three seasons later Yorkshire and Lancashire had gone over to professionalism under a new body, the Northern Union. The schism rent English Rugby football to its foundation, and the germs left behind were the progenitors of the 'hooker' and the 'scrum half.'
The next step on the way was taken when the three-half-back — now three-quarters — formation had to be abandoned in favour of a line of four. The change, curiously enough, was forced upon Scotland in the same drastic manner as characterised the alteration from two to three. Before the final conversion, the Rugby world was agitated by a discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of the 'Welsh system,' as the innovation was commonly termed. Many of the leading Scottish players of the period contributed views which will be reproduced when the appropriate event is reached in chronological sequence.
For the present it is sufficient to record that in 1893 Wales, playing four three-quarters against the Scottish three, won so decisively that if Scotland were slow and reluctant to become converted, she was peremptorily compelled to 'tak thochts,' and ultimately to mend or bend. In a measure it was retributive justice for disparagement of her own national heritage, the forward game. Up to the time of that change, Scotland was a country of forwards. The Scottish forwards were the embodiment and the model of the highest class of football in that department of the game and were dreaded by all adversaries.
Except that the play of the half-backs has become more specialised, no decided changes have taken place in methods and procedure since the middle 'nineties.
Having dealt with developments, a few remarks on the stabilised permanencies, which have been in the game since its foundation, may be interesting. The old maul survives in the scrummage, but it may be accepted that the former term became obsolete with the establishment of the fifteen-a-side formation in 1877, though until 'hooking' or 'scraping' and 'heeling-out' became permanencies there was little difference in practice between the forward work of the twenty-a-side times and the earlier days of the 'fifteens.' The reduced numbers induced a more open and faster style of forward play. All the old chroniclers agree that the game received its distinctive character when a boy at Rugby School caught or picked up the ball and ran with it, but none trace the origin of the 'bully ' or the 'maul,' though this is just as characteristic and peculiar to the game as the handling portion. The origin of the drop-kick is equally obscure.
'Touch' is obviously derived from the circumstances that in the earlier days the right to throw in belonged to the side whose player first touched the ball after it had passed over the side lines and out of play. It was permissible at that time for the player who was throwing the ball out of touch, to 'stot' it in play and make off with it if he were not marked by an opponent. All that the practice amounted to was a tricky march on the opposition, revived in recent times by the player throwing the ball out and catching it himself. Both are well expunged from the game, but the revival suggests that in spite of assumed progress events often move in circles.
The dead-ball line is a comparatively modern introduction. Previous to the limitations the ball might even be kicked against the boundary wall and scrambled for on the rebound. As it had to be touched 'dead' before a try could be allowed, it can be realised that pushing, driving, and a general melee often followed a kick over the line. These scrambles frequently occasioned the maul-in-goal, as when two or more players touched the ball dead simultaneously. The ensuing worry on the ground certainly was not an elevating phase of the game.
Still earlier abolitions were made in the case of hacking and hacking over, which practically amounted to tripping, and which may be accepted as passing out of practice when they were prohibited in the first International match in 1871. Much later than that I saw a very fast English back being brought down by the extended boot of a Scottish forward who could not get his hands on him. The old Adam had asserted himself too strongly to be repressed.
The International match of 1877 was the first that was played between teams of fifteen a side. The change was adopted after repeated representations by the Scottish Rugby Union. Many club matches and some representative games had been played in Scotland with the reduced numbers to the advantage of the play. During all the years of twenty a side and for some time later, club games were divided into four periods of twenty minutes each. Frequently the two later periods were reduced to fifteen minutes each. The earlier International matches consisted of two 'fifties.'
Contemporarily with the establishment of organised matches the umpire made his advent. One of these auxiliaries was attached to each team. His first and last duty was to see fair play—-to his own side. That attribute had often to be accepted with a resigned spirit of sporting tolerance.
The umpire performed an arduous afternoon's work. He kept pace, or was expected to keep pace, with the play, which is no more than the modern touch-judge is supposed to do. But the touch-judge is a pale shadow of his forerunner, who could institute claims, advise or admonish the players, and whose voice always led the general clamour in support of the right or denunciation of the wrong.
According to the laws of the game, the decision in the case of a point on which the umpires disagreed rested with the captains, who on these occasions stood a little apart and endeavoured by the exercise of the arts of peaceful persuasion to arrive at a solution of their difficulty.
The debate might extend for some time, during the while the spectators fidgeted impatiently, and the other players threw encouraging remarks at the captains to strengthen and support them in their ordeal. If the captains could not come to an agreement, usually he of the twain who had most to lose if he gave way, called, more or less dramatically, upon his men to follow him off the field, and the newspaper report on the match concluded with the conventional item of information 'ended in a dispute.'
The advent of the referee took the onus off the captains, but even when the whistle was introduced in 1885 it was not until some five years later that the touch-judge made his appearance. Gradual alterations abolished appeals, and vested in the referee his present powers. The appeal, probably derived from cricket, appeared to become ingrained in the game, and was one of the most fruitful sources of trouble and annoyance. It even asserted its obnoxious presence in the International dispute of 1884.
It might not be quite accurate to describe the scoring rules as a 'bone of contention,' yet there are few subjects connected with the game on which opinion has from time to time been so sharply divided. One section has strenuously contended that as the direct object of the Rugby game is the getting of tries, the try should be the dominating score. Others are all against any reduction in the relative value of the goal, and declare that, if it were only in preservation of the sporting spirit and the maintenance of glorious uncertainty, it must not on any account be degraded.
Still another body of opinion, which finds strongest expression in the older school, will never rest content until the dropped goal has been restored to its pristine glory, when there were no points, and when a dropped goal was of equal value to a goal kicked from a try. Apart from its inherent qualities as a point of play, the dropped goal, as an incentive to the restoration of a declining art, peculiar and essential to Rugby, should never be relegated to the background.
When the goal, as was the case up to 1876, stood as the only score by which a match could be won, it may not originally have been realised that goals were supremely difficult things to get. Possibly, the recognition of the try as a winning score, in the absence of the goal, was due to a desire to minimise the number of constantly recurring drawn games.
Artificial numeric values were long pondered over in England before they received the official stamp of approval south of the Tweed in 1886. The English Union, even then, were beginning to find the burden of government a load exceedingly heavy to bear. Professionalism had already become a disturbing element, and irregularities on the field had increased.
The penalty goal was an English repressive, and was intended as a corrective of prevalent abuses.
In the earlier introduction, intrinsic worth appears to have been lost sight of, and nothing but ulterior motives could justify the 1889 reduction of the value of the try to the basic figure one. Although in 1891 the try was conceded another point, the relative three points value of the penalty goal was a striking example of artificial inflation, conclusively demonstrating the absence of due regard to the inherent value of the scores.
In 1893 the scoring rule assumed practically its present form, except that in 1895 the ' field goal' was abolished, and the clause, 'any other form of goal, 4 points,' was expunged in favour of a more explicit definition. A 'field goal' meant a goal kicked directly from a rolling or bounding ball. I cannot recollect ever having seen a field goal kicked.
One of the terms reminiscent of the drop-kicking days, a 'poster,' meant a lofty kick so high that it was impossible to definitely decide whether the ball passed within the area of the extended lines of the two posts. In the 1873 International in Glasgow the Englishman, H. Freeman, kicked a 'poster.' Up to 1883 it was permissible for the scorer's side to obtain a second try by following up the kick at goal. That is while the defending side charged outward, the attacking side charged inward. Occasionally the attacking party were successful.
The original terms applied in Scotland and also in Ireland to the positions of the backs were: 'Back, half-back, and quarter-back.' The present designation of three-quarter was not in use in this country till, for the sake of uniformity, the English denomination was adopted and the Scottish 'quarters' became 'halves,' and the 'halves' 'three-quarters.' Before the line of three halves was introduced, the normal formation was one fullback, two halves, and two quarters. In the earlier International matches Scotland played two fullbacks till 1878, when W. E. Maclagan occupied the position alone.
In a passing reference to uniform, I may remark that I have never known a whole team to play in 'longs,' but have seen several players on a side thus clothed. The original football jersey was woollen, knitted or woven, very much after the style of the cricket sweater. It was a serviceable article, and not so liable to rents and tears as the modern garment. Indeed, it was rather too serviceable, for, taken by the collar, a player was liable to be swung off his feet and literally thrown aside as a fitting termination to his aspirations. A man could be made to describe a circle when held by the sleeve. Many a try has been saved through a player crossing the line being pulled back by the jersey.
Belts were worn of various widths, and were generally made of webbing, and woollen cowls completed the outfit, with, of course, boots and stockings.
During the 'eighties and well into the 'nineties most of the backs played in shoes. A. R. Don Wauchope wore shoes, as did M. F. Reid, whose goal-dropping feats were the talk of his time.
One very important matter in connection with early-day football must not be overlooked. When it is considered that for many years spectators were so few that gate money was practically negligible and that all expenses had to be met by the members, the marvel is that so many of the clubs were able to survive. Chronic poverty was the normal condition of the great majority of clubs, until, I should say, well on in the 'nineties. Even at Raeburn Place, the most popular ground in Scotland, the gate drawings from ordinary club matches in the 'seventies and early 'eighties were far more frequently totalled in shillings than in pounds. Items such as 'drew 2s.,' 'drew 10s.,' represent extracts from an Academical balance sheet, and that, as I say, at the principal football field of the time. In all clubs the playing members paid a weekly subscription of about two shillings or half a crown, and all travelling and personal expenses had to come out of their own pockets. These old-time players, who laid the foundations of Scottish Rugby football, were enthusiasts, patriots, and Spartans.