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How did Rugby terminology come about

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Have you ever thought how rugby terminology came about, for example, why are the back line players known as three-quarters. Let us have a look at how some of the terms were derived. The starting point must be the laws of the game. In the mid 1860’s the growing popularity of the sport focused on the need to have a set of standard rules that could be applied to all rugby matches. With this in mind a meeting was held on the 26th of January 1871 at the Pall Mall Restaurant in Regent Street, London. Representatives from twenty one clubs were in attendance and these clubs, eight of whom are still in existence, became the founder members of the Rugby Football Union. The famous old London club, Wasps, which is also still in existence, should also be able to boast that they were founder members as well, but legend has it that the person delegated to represent them at the meeting arrived not at the restaurant, but at a pub of the same name. Waiting for the other delegates to arrive he settled down and had a few drinks to pass the time. By the time he had discovered his mistake he had imbibed so much that he was in no fit state to make his way across town to the meeting.

The delegates who found the right address met under the chairmanship of the club captain of the Richmond Club, one E. C. Holmes, and got down to the job in hand. Within two hours the terms of reference for the new association, which was to be called, the Rugby Football Union, had been drawn up and agreed upon. The delegates then made their first mistake for they delegated the responsibility of drawing up the first code of rules to Mr E. C. Holmes, the chairman of the meeting, who happened to be an Advocate. He retired to his chambers and in due course he published the rules under the title ‘Laws of the Game’. Being a legal man no doubt contributed to the laws being so complicated.

Early point scoring was limited to the kicking of conversions. These could only be taken after the ball had successfully been grounded over the opponents line, which were called touchdowns, but no points were awarded for this. All it entitled the attacking side to do was to attempt the conversion. The spectators, in their enthusiasm, would take up the shout ‘Try, Try’, meaning an attempt should be made at kicking the goal. From this term ‘Try for goal’ came the term we know today for points scored. The conversion process in itself was more complicated then what we know today and must have been comical to watch. The player who had made the touchdown had to kick the ball from that point to his kicker, who was charged by the opposing side. If the kicker could catch the ball before the opponents reached him then the kick was allowed and he was entitled to place the ball for the kick at goal. When he took the kick his own team also charged for if he was unsuccessful, they would try to gain another touchdown. Whether the try was converted or not the kick off took place from between the goal posts. It was fourteen years later that the law was changed in that in the event of no goals being scored the side which scored most tries won. Obviously this caused dissatisfaction for within one year three tries were given equal status to one goal. In 1890 a further change was made in that a try now counted one point, and a goal three, and any other goal four points including a field goal, which was defined as ‘any ball kicked through the goal posts after, for example, a dribbling rush, the only proviso being that nobody touched it.

The oval shape of the rugby ball did not come about because the ball needed to be handled during a game. The shape was dictated by the pigs bladders that were inserted into hand stitched leather casings which was used as the ball. It was only much later that rubber gained popularity and replaced the pigs bladder. In those early days it was necessary to ask for volunteers to inflate the ball for it was not a job that was sought after. The pigs bladder would be blown up while still in its very smelly ‘green state’ solely by lung power down the stem of a clay pipe which was inserted into the opening of the bladder.

The shape of the rugby field was designed by accident, for when the game moved from the streets and school quadrangles to the playing field, the only markings were a line through the middle indicating the territory of each side and another which indicated the goal. When the game started to attract spectators they would encroach onto the playing area so a line was drawn to keep them back. The ball did not become dead until it was grounded over this line. The first player to get the ball over the spectators line to touch it down was entitled to restart the game by putting the ball in. That is how the term the ‘touch line’ came into being.

The dead ball line was a much later introduction into the game and was only introduced during the 1887/88 season in the United Kingdom as a result of an incident that took place in a match at Newport in Wales. This game was played on an exceptionally windy day and a player chased the ball over the goal line for some 300 yards before he eventually caught up with it and touched it down, claiming his try. The outcome was the introduction of the dead ball line.

The scrum today is the foundation of rugby, and has been since the sports earliest days when it went on for over twenty minutes at a time. This so intrigued the spectators, that they would take out their pocket watches to time the scrumage. In the meantime the backs would be standing shivering in the wet waiting for the ball to emerge. The scrummages then were a solid mass of humanity, the two packs of forwards would be fifteen a side, and would form a compact circle, with those in the centre standing bolt upright. As the ball could not be seen and only occasionally felt it was necessary for a forward to kick at the ball or, if it was not there, to kick at the opponents shins instead, which at that time, was perfectly legal. Healing the ball and packing down in the scrum as we know it today were ranked as major sins and a sign of sharp practice.

It was only after the art of hacking, that of kicking your opponents shins, was abolished that the scrum evolved into shoving matches and developed into the format that we know today. Another change in the laws resulted in faster and more spirited forward play with the long-drawn-out scrummages disappearing. Forwards also developed the arts of wheeling the scrum and dribbling the ball, which played a part in shortening the time of the pushing contests. Another development, which was far more important, was the emergence of the practice of actually heeling the ball out for the backs to use. This in itself was a major revolution in the development of the game for not only was it previously thought to be sharp practice but also effeminate for the backs to have the ball to pass among themselves. This development also required a major marketing effort with the spectators for they believed that the scrums and the maul, which normally preceded it, to be far more exciting then the most brilliant of runs, the cleverest dribbling, or the prettiest drop at goal.

In the light of the important role that he plays in the modern game, the referee is a comparatively late comer onto the field of play. Up until late into the nineteenth century, disputes on the field were settled by the two captains who would endeavour to decide on the correct course of action to follow when there was an infringement. The side against whom the infringement had been committed would often not call the play to a halt, if they realised that the play since the infringement, or at least the possibilities, were in their favour. This was the origin of the of the advantage law that we know today. A later development was the appointment of two umpires, to adjudicate, who watched from either side of the field. The captains, if they could not agree on the correct course of action, would then appeal to the umpires for a decision. It was only later that the referee appeared on the scene but in the early days he also used to consult the umpires before making a decision. Eventually he assumed sole command of the game, with the umpires duties being relegated to that of a linesman. It is only just recently that the laws have been changed to allow the linesman more input into the game. At first the referee did not have the advantage of a whistle and had to shout above the noise to make himself understood. New Zealand claims the honour, a dubious one in the eyes of some players, of introducing the whistle to the referee.

. If rugby were to revert to its original format and the two captains were made responsible for controlling the game. Who would you have chosen to oppose Sean Fitzpatrick, the former All Black captain?. That could lead to an interesting debate over a beer.

At the time that the first standard set of rules for the game were being drawn up rugby teams consisted of twenty players made up of seventeen forwards and three full backs whose sole job was to fall on the ball if the opposition managed to hack it out the scrum. The next development in the game was the restriction of the number of players to fifteen with ten forwards and five backs. This was written into the laws a little over one hundred years ago in 1893 One then asks how did the playing positions get their names. Originally there were only two positions forwards and backs. It was only when the rules were first drafted in the 1870’s that the full back, of which there were three, was named and his role defined. A rule change limited the position to one player on the field. The decision was then made that the other two players would be stationed at a midpoint between the forwards and the full backs and were to be called halfway backs. In time this was shortened to half backs. Their role and that of the full back continued to be to fall on the ball in the event of the opposition hacking it out of the scrum. In 1878 at Cardiff, in Wales, they developed a short pass to one of the half backs who would then go charging ahead with the ball. He became known as the flying half back which in time was shortened to the fly half.

In the 1880’s the game had spread to the Universities, particularly Cambridge and Oxford, whose input lead to far more thought being put into the game and the style of play that was developed. They were instrumental in the development of the games tactics, the introduction of need to practice and the coaching of the players. In addition they reorganised the scrum, developed short passes amongst the forwards and long passes amongst the backs. This lead to the need for more players to be placed in the back line between the halves and the full back so they were called quarters and the fact that three of them were put in this position led to them being known as three-quarters. The middle player being called the centre with the two on his outside called wings. The introduction of a fourth player into the three-quarters was to a large extent, accidental, with Wales again being allowed to take the honour. Cardiff were due to play a tough match away from home and their first choice centre was not available so they promoted one Frank Hancock from the second side in his place. Hancock was a great success scoring two vital tries. When the Cardiff selectors sat down to pick their team for the next match they were keen to revert to their original team, but they were most reluctant to drop Hancock, so they compromised by introducing a fourth three-quarter. Within two years Wales had introduced it at international level.

The New Zealanders were quick to see the advantage of having a fourth player in the three-quarters. Their solution was to pull a forward out the pack and put him between the half back and the three-quarters. Their problem was what did they call the new position. Legend has it that consent was reached by deciding that the half back was 4/8ths and the three-quarters 6/8ths, so therefore the new position must be a 5/8ths, a name that has continued to this day in that country. When fly half play developed they introduced the first 5/8th and the second 5/8th.

The forwards in the early days were just a mass of players, having an important role, but having no individual responsibility. When the scrum developed into the eight man unit it operated on the basis of first there, first down. From this came the formation of the 3-2-3 or the 2-4-2 scrum formations, both of which was developed in the United Kingdom, and it was from this style of scrumming that the term back row players first originated.

South Africa’s major contribution to the evolvement of the scrum was the introduction of the 3-4-1 packing formation which was a more solid unit capable of produced a stronger more sustained shove. Under the legendary Stellenbosch coach and Springbok selector, ‘Oubaas’ Markotter, they incorporated the Welsh invention of the tight head and loose head prop, and perfected the new scrum formation forcing the other rugby nations in the late 1930’s to follow suit if they hoped to challenge South Africa for the rugby supremacy of the world.


1. Up Front. The Story of the All Black Scrum. - Graeme Barrow. 2. A History of Rugby. - Wallace Reyburn. 3. World of Rugby. - Wallace Reyburn. 4. History of South African Rugby. - Paul Dobson. 5. History of South African Rugby. - Ivor Difford.

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