The New Game
The Post-War Years
The game we now know as Rugby League was born on Thursday 29th August 1895. Appropriately enough its cradle was a solid four square edifice, the George Hotel, in the centre of Huddersfield. The birth pangs had been long and painful, for the game resulted from one of the greatest rows in British sporting history. It is never easy to trace the roots of a major squabble. Frequently, "the row is not about what the row is all about".
The row was officially about "broken-time", an issue with raised passions amongst its supporters and opposers. At its roots, however, it was a row between representatives of the Northern working classes and the Southern leisured classes, between differences of opinion on the emphasis that should be placed on the competitive and recreational elements in sport.
Perhaps the main driving force in the Northern Players demands for "broken-time" payments were the growing number of "Cambridge Rules" clubs (Association Football, or soccer) and even some "Victorian Rules" (Aussie Rules) clubs that were making inroads into this staunch Rugby area by paying their players.
In the 1890's, the average wage for a mill worker or miner was 26/- (26 shillings, roughly equivalent to 1 pound sterling) for a five and a half day working week based on 12 hour shifts. Travelling to a game often meant losing a shift and consequent financial hardship for the predominately working class members of the Northern teams. On the other hand, the Southern players were drawn mainly (but not all) from University and Public (private!) school backgrounds. In those days that often meant that they could comfortably withstand the costs incurred by playing. For some years it had been alleged that certain Northern clubs had been making "broken-time" payments. In those days that often meant that they could comfortably withstand the costs incurred by playing. For some years it had been alleged that certain Northern clubs had been making "broken-time" payments to their players, ie. recompense for loss of earnings as a result of playing Rugby.
This and allied changes were a result of a long standing controversy within the Rugby Football Union. Reverend Frank Marshall, a founder member of the Muscular Christians Society, was leading what must have seemed like a one man campaign in the area against "broken-time". He made several successful prosecutions against players but he was often inconsistent with his allegations. He targeted Oldham, one of the clubs which voice concern over the "split" in 1895, as the main offender to such an extent that he was promised a "public execution" if he was ever to referee a game involving Oldham again.
Matters came to a head at the Annual General Meeting of the Rugby Football Union held in London on 20th September 1893. Mr. James Miller, president of the Yorkshire branch of the Union, proposed that a motion for players to be compensated for bona-fide loss of time. After a few "unchristian and foul mouthed" interruptions from the Rev. Marshall, Mr. Miller stood up to make a speech, here is a brief extract:
Why have we brought this proposal forward? Simply because of the changed conditions under which Rugby football is now played. That change, I believe, has been brought about by the action of this Union in fostering the game. Formerly it was played only in Public Schools, the Universities, and the by the favoured classes, but the game has become the favoured winter pastime of the young working class men in this country. This is particularly the case in the great industrialised centres of the North of England. The Union, unfortunately, still declines to recognise this new type of player. We recognise him in the North and we treat him differently to what we would have done some years ago.
The question is one which this night will be decided by the southern representatives and I hope you will endeavour to realise the difficulties, which we in the North have to deal with and which people in the south seem to know nothing about. The working man has to leave his work and lose his wages to play for the benefit of his club, his county or his country, but he received no recompense for the loss of earnings. Was that fair, right or reasonable? These men naturally ask why they should have to play on such disadvantageous terms compared to the solicitor, the stockbroker, the clerk or the undergraduate. Why should they take part in these matches at a loss to themselves?...
I have no desire to make football a source of profit to the player, but equally it was not meant that players should play it at financial loss to themselves. If it was legitimate to refund expenses, why not refund lost wages? We wish to remove an injustice, and we have the true interests of the game at heart as much as anyone in this room. Please don't pooh-pooh it simply because it comes from a county which is not always a savoury morsel to others. In concluding, I believe that if the proposal was carried it would be the strongest barrier against professionalism that has yet been devised.
After the motion was seconded (by Mr. Mark Newsome of the Yorkshire delegation) an amendment was passed by Mr. William Cail, the then President of the RFU. Here is a small extract of the seconding speech made by Mr. Rowland Hill, the then Secretary of the RFU:
I have never felt it necessary to advise on matters which were so divided but the time has now arrived where I feel it is my duty to speak out. If the resolution is passed it must inevitably lead towards professionalism. What this resolution means is paying men of playing football. What would be the effect on the working man? The temptation to play rugby was too great already. The opportunities were so many that a man may be away a whole week, and thus earn his wages without doing a single stroke of work. Mr Miller has not given us one practical suggestion as to how his scheme would be carried out. If carried it must break up the Union, and much as I regret this it would be preferable to have division than professionalism.
Further speeches were made by lesser dignitaries in the union. Many were in favour of the original motion but the balance seemed to be tipped in favour of the amendment. After heated exchanges between the Rev. Frank Marshall and his supporters, and some members of the Yorkshire delegation, the vote was finally cast. 282 votes were cast against "broken-time" and 136 were in favour.
The result preceded a wave of even more stringent rules being passed against the "broken- time" issue and the break between the Northern clubs and the Rugby Football Union soon became only a matter of time.
The Northern clubs were by no means discouraged by the result of the ballot. They heeded the words of Mr. Rowland Hill and together decided to hold a special general meeting on 29th August 1895 at the George Hotel, Huddersfield. Twenty, of the twenty- one clubs in attendance, voted to break away from the RFU and form a new organisation called the Northern Rugby Football Union. Of the clubs at this historic meeting, only Dewsbury voted against the formation of a Northern Union. The founder members were:
The Cheshire clubs, Runcorn and Stockport, joined the break-away clubs in time to start the inaugural season. It was formally agreed that the basis of the break-away was that "to live honestly under the proposed new rules of the English Rugby Union was a moral impossibility and much as we regret the severance from the parent body, the bulk of the far-seeing football enthusiasts are unanimous in their opinion that the time has come to kick against the ridiculous rules and demands of the Old Lady (the RFU) at Conduit Vale", ie. the Rugby Union at its London Headquarters.
Though the "broken-time" issue had been the chief motivating factor in its foundation, initially the Northern Union took a hard line against open professionalism. A ceiling of 6/- per day was fixed to recompense players for genuine loss of earnings, all players had to have full-time employment outside Rugby football and heavy fines and suspensions were imposed on offenders. Open professionalism was eventually recognised in 1898 but players still had to be otherwise employed in "legitimate" jobs. Even today, players still have to be otherwise employed, they are paid only when they play and are paid well only when they win.
The administrators of the Northern Union quickly realised that if players were to be paid, then more spectators would have to be attracted and the turnstiles kept clicking. The traditional Rugby Union game of the time was in the main a close-marking affair where play could stay in one part of the field for long periods of time. The new Northern Union administrators felt that this had to change in order to bring in the multitude of spectators that the new game needed. Traditional rules were adhered to for the first two seasons with the line-outs and eight-man scrummage playing a prominent part in the game. In 1897, however, the gap between the two games was widened immeasurably when the line-out was abolished and various methods of recommencing play from touch were tested. Scoring values were also amended. A try was deemed to be worth three points and any type of goal was altered to two points. The following decade was a period of activity in which the foundations of today's Rugby League were laid.
From its inception the Northern Union operated on a competitive basis encompassing two major leagues - the Lancashire Senior Competition and the Yorkshire Senior Competition, In its second season, the new organisation, with a keen eye on the profitable FA Cup of the Football Association (soccer's governing body), introduced a knock-out competition , the Northern Union Challenge Cup open to all member clubs. The first final on 1st May 1897 drew 13,490 spectators who paid a total of 624 pounds sterling to see the event at the new stadium in Leeds, Headingly. Batley, the "Gallant Youths", beat St Helens by ten points to three in a game which helped to expand interest in the new code around the North of England. Stirring inter-county clashes in the Challenge Cup competition soon brought a demand for establishing a super-league involving the cream of the clubs from the Senior Competitions. Representatives of 12 of the strongest clubs meeting at Huddersfield in May 1901 drew up a resolution that a Northern Rugby League should be formed, consisting of the 12 clubs at the meeting, with the power to add to that number. Despite bitter protests from the smaller clubs who feared for the existence under the proposed super-league, the big 12 forced through their resolution at an acrimonious management committee meeting held on 4th June 1901. In fact, the first Northern Rugby League competition was played over the 1901/2 season. Runaway first champions were Broughton Rangers who, as early a February, could not be over-taken at the head of the table. The 1902/3 season saw a further development in League football with the introduction of a two divisional system, eighteen teams in each division with promotion and relegation on a two-up two-down basis at the end of each season. This was soon abandoned when the gate takings of the smaller clubs were reduced dramatically.
It was in the close season of 1906 that the Northern clubs took a decision establishing a fundamental and enduring difference between their new game and that of Rugby Union. For a number of years there had been a an increasingly strong body of opinion which held that only a reduction of players on the field would bring about the flowing, open play spectators thirsted after. It was generally agreed that the reduction should take place amongst the forwards though opinion was divided about how many players should disappear. Eventually a proposal by Warrington, seconded by Leigh, won the day. Two forwards were dropped and the teams were reduced to 13 in number. The play-the-ball was also introduced to remove the fights and disorganisation that often resulted after a tackle.
A party of New Zealand businessmen following the famous 1905/6 All Blacks Rugby Union tour of Britain had taken the opportunity of watching some matches played in the rival code. They were much impressed with what they saw. They decided to sponsor a New Zealand team playing under the Northern Union Rues on a tour of England. The prime movers behind this controversial enterprise were a Wellington businessman, Mr. A H Baskerville and Mr George Smith, a New Zealand winger who had toured with the 1905 All Blacks. The Northern Union administrators speedily concluded negotiations and in June 1907 they announced that a New Zealand team would visit Britain during the 1907/8 season. The tourists would receive 70% of gate receipts with minimum guarantees of 50 pounds sterling for mid-week matches and 100 pounds sterling for Saturday games. Smith was also joined by fellow All Blacks Johnson, Mackrell and McGregor. Also in the party were two youngsters destined to become legendary Rugby League figures; the Australian "Dally" Messenger and the great Lance Todd. The "newcomers" performed very creditably, winning 19 out of the 35 matches played, including two of the three test matches and breaking even financially.
The success of the game in the Southern hemisphere was not matched by further expansion here in Britain. Vigorous efforts had been made to establish the new game in Wales. In 1907 Merthyr Tydfil and Ebbw Vale joined the Northern Union, followed a year later by Aberadre, Barry, Mid Rhondda and Treherbert. Then, as now, the traditional Rugby Union game was deeply rooted in the hearts of the Welsh Nation, almost to the point of the game being a religion. Needless to say, resistance to the new game was fanatical, by 1914, there existed no team playing Northern Union rules in Wales.
Nevertheless, many fine Welsh players "went North" capitalising on their playing skills, to join the wealth of home grown Northern talent and stars such as Todd, Devereux, Francis, Gilbert and Rosenfield, who had been signed from the Australian and New Zealand touring teams.
Many people view the period immediately before World War I as the first golden era of the Rugby League game. Attendance's were excellent, the play thrilling and spectacular, finding its perfect expression in Huddersfield's all-conquering side immortalised as "the team of all talents" which in the 1914/15 season won all four major competitions open to it, the Yorkshire League, the Yorkshire Cup, the League Championship and the Challenge Cup. Harold Wagstaff skippered a side which had no weakness and possessed in flying Australian winger Albert Rosenfield, a man with exceptional talents with the ability to "score at will". His 80 tries in the 1912/14 season remains to this day an all time record which seems unlikely to be broken.
As with other sporting bodies, the Northern Union shared the common experience of extreme hardship and virtual cessation during the World War One and after the Armistice a great resurgence of popularity with a public which had been starved of entertainment during the war years. As early as April 1920, the Northern Union organised a tour to Australia to revive the game at international level. In this respect the game was an outstanding success with a then world record attendance of 67, 859 watching Sydney take on the tourists at Sydney Cricket Ground in the opening match of the tour.
In this, the second of the Unions century, there were three very important events that were to leave a permanent mark on the game. First, at the annual general meeting of 1922, the Northern Union changed its name to the Rugby Football League thus breaking the last link with the parent game.
Then, in 1928, the Rugby League council made a bold but controversial decision to stage the games showpiece, the Challenge Cup Final, at a venue outside the North of England. The Final was now attracting huge attendance’s each year and existing grounds were proving inadequate to accommodate the crowds. The search was narrowed to two prospective London venues, the Crystal Palace and the fine new Wembley (the Empire) stadium, opened just four years earlier. The chairman and secretary were despatched to inspect both venues and their recommendation that Wembley should be hired was accepted by the Council. The intention was to make the final an important annual event in the national sporting calendar. The first Wembley Final was played on 4th may 1929, when 41,500 people paid 5,614 pounds sterling to see Wigan beat Dewsbury by 13-2. Apart from 1932, when the stadium was unavailable and the years of the Second World War, Wembley has housed each subsequent Challenge Cup Final.
In the early 1930's the French Rugby Union was embroiled in a domestic dispute which was to result in the development of Rugby League across the channel. Allegations of professionalism and transfer fees prompted the four home countries to sever relations with the French until the latter had solved their problems to the satisfaction of the Home Unions. Effectively banned from International competition, some French officials began to negotiate with the Council of the Rugby Football League as a result of which Great Britain played an exhibition match against the 1933 Australian tourists in Paris on Sunday 31st December 1933. In the large crowd was French Rugby Union star, Jean Galis. Within three months, Galis assembled a team of 18 French players who toured England playing matches at Leeds, Hull, Salford, Wigan and White City, London. On 15th April 1934, France played Great Britain in an International match at the Buffalo Veledrone in Paris and, as a result, the Ligue Francaise de Rugby a Treize was formed with twelve member clubs at a historic meeting in Toulouse. The game in France developed rapidly and received a great boost in 1937 with its admission to the Federation National Des Sports, giving Rugby League equality of status with other French sports after only three years in being. It took the Second World War and a Nazi puppet government to bring the momentum to a shuddering halt. On 29th December 1941, the Vichy government under Marshall Petain dissolved the French Rugby League and confiscated both its property and funds.
In Britain, however, the real war brought a truce to the cold war that had existed between the two codes of Rugby since 1895, when the Rugby Union granted permission for servicemen to play Rugby League in civilian life, and Rugby Union in the forces. Two charity matches were played, under Union rules, between representatives of both sides, both were won by the Rugby League men.
The years following World War Two were undoubtedly a golden age for the game. Enthusiasm was sky high, and there was an abundance of players of surpassing class to entertain the enormous crowds. Despite the difficulties in finding transport, the Rugby League managed to Australia and New Zealand for the “Indomitables”, they travelled on the Royal Navy aircraft carrier “Indomitable”, hence the nick-name. One French initiative, designed to ride on the back of this enthusiasm, was the Rugby League World Cup. This inaugural contest, contested between all the major Rugby League playing nations, was won by the much depleted Great Britain side.
Capacity attendance’s were achieved at three successive Wembley Finals (1949, 1950 and 1951) and in 1953, on the same night that Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier, a world record crowd of 102,530 saw Warrington play Halifax in the replay of the Challenge Cup Final at Odsal Stadium, Bradford. The crowd has actually been estimated at over 120,000 since, in the chaos outside the gates, the fences were torn down and thousands gained free entry to the match.
Inevitably the boom years reached their end and in the late 1950s, and throughout the 1960s, Rugby League experienced, along with other major spectator sports, a steady decline in attendance’s as social habits changed and the competition for peoples money and time grew hotter.
The Rugby League sought answers in a number of ways. Radical rule changes were introduced to make the game more open and spectacular. Sunday games were first sanctioned in December 1967, and largely to avoid competition with local soccer teams, most clubs had elected to play their games on Sundays as a matter of course within a few years. Probably the most important factor in the fight for survival was the advent of the television age. Today this is generally accepted but it was a hotly contested issue for many years after the Rugby League had taken the decision to allow the BBC to broadcast live games. Prior to this, both BBC and ITV had televised occasional matches, the first of which was the second Test between Great Britain and New Zealand at Swinton on 10th November 1951, screened by the BBC. What is certain is that television has succeeded where most efforts since 1895, live Rugby League can now be seen by millions across the home country.
Rule changes and movements on the international front bring us up to the present day. In 1983 the value of a try was increased to four points; the hand over at the sixth tackle was introduced and the Anglo-Australian ban was introduced to provide both games with the chance to have players that they required. The former Soviet Block countries have adopted the game by setting up their own league, the largest of which is in Russia. The Red Army has also recognised the games existence by making it one of its major team sports.
After 18 years in charge, David Oxley OBE retired from the Rugby League to be replaced by formerWigan chairman, Maurice Lindsay. Mr. Lindsay is only the fifth top official at Rugby League headquarters and it will be he who presides over the Rugby League Centenary celebrations which take place from August 1995 to the end of that season. The Rugby League World Cup will coincide with the Centenary which should provide a fitting focus of attention for Rugby League fans in the 100th year of Rugby League.
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