Story of Scottish Rugby Chapter I.
The Establishment and Early Progress of the Game in Scotland
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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