MOST games were devised, or at least took their present form, in the 19th century. A fair number have remained essentially the same.
Technological development may mean that Rory McIlroy drives the ball a hell of a lot further than young Tom Morris could; nevertheless manipulating a golf ball around 18 holes represents the same challenge to the modern player as to his predecessor 150 years ago.
Little in cricket today would seem strange or unfamiliar to the players of the Pre-1914 “Golden Age”. If a bouncer broke Stuart Broad’s nose at Old Trafford a week ago, the Australian fast bowler Ernest Jones once sent one whistling through W G Grace’s beard. The so-called “mystery spinners” today ask questions of batsmen very like those that the South African googly bowlers of the Edwardian years asked of C B Fry or Jack Hobbs. One might even say that no modern bowler does anything much that S F Barnes couldn’t do. As Barnes’s England team-mate, the great Wilfred Rhodes, said of the bowlers of the 1950s, “the best of them is half as good as Barnie” – and I daresay that, if he was still with us, he would pass the same judgement on today’s stars.
Yet, as one contemplates a new rugby season, it seems to me that rugby is in many ways an exception to this general rule, the game, not only at the top level, being so very different from what it was even 60 or so years ago. Though the purpose of the game – getting the ball over the opposition try-line – is quite simple, in practice it is devilishly complicated. Whereas the laws of football have scarcely changed over the decades, those of rugby are being continually revised and amended. They are not always capable of being understood by the spectator, but the frequent changes have almost all been directed at keeping the game flowing.
Three examples may serve to make the point. The first may seem trivial. Some 50 years ago the law relating to receiving a pass was changed. Until then any catch had to be made securely. The ball was deemed to have been knocked-on if the recipient didn’t immediately catch it cleanly. Any juggling or re-adjustment was not permitted. Now, since the change in the law, it is usual to see a player reach up with one hand, knock the ball forward, and then complete the catch before the ball has touched the ground; and this is permissible. A rather high proportion of tries now scored would have been disallowed before this law change.
In February 1963 on a wet afternoon at Murrayfield the most dismal and dreary of internationals was played between Scotland and Wales. Over the 80 minutes there were 111 line-outs. I’d better write that figure in full: one hundred and eleven. This was possible because it was then permissible to kick the ball into touch on the full from any part of the field. So, because handling the wet – and in those days heavy – ball was difficult and risky, this is just what the half-backs did. The Welsh scrum-half and captain, Clive Rowlands, got most of the blame, fairly enough because I reckon he put the ball into touch some 70 times, but the Scottish halves collaborated, doing the same thing.
This led to a change in the law, and the adoption of what was called “the Australian dispensation”, according to which, if a kick from outside the defending side’s 22 (25 then) went into touch on the full, the resulting line-out took place where the ball was kicked rather than where it crossed the touch-line. This reform changed the game utterly.
So did another law change made at the same time. Till then, the ball had to be played with the foot after a tackle. That’s to say it was illegal to put your hands on the ball, or pick it up, after a tackle until it had been played first with the foot. This requirement encouraged players to stay on their feet. There was no point going to earth at the tackle point. It encouraged rucking, or, if the tackle was made in open field and the ball ran loose, it encouraged the foot-rush or dribble, skills which have now disappeared almost entirely from the game. The inspiring sight of a pack of forwards with the ball at their feet, keeping it under close control and even inter-passing as they surged up the field is one that almost nobody under the age of 60 has ever experienced. One might add that all the frequent revisions of the law at the tackle-point or breakdown have been made necessary by this unnecessary law change.
It has had, over the years, one other unforeseen consequence. Competition at the breakdown is now usually limited to a few players, half-a-dozen or eight at the most, with the rest fanning across the field, Rugby League style. So we have a series of pick-up-and-drives near the tackle point, or one pass-and-charge. As a result you often find now that front-row forwards and locks record the highest tackle-count. Time was when a prop might hardly ever have to make a tackle, because he would have been expected to ruck. Then the ball would have been heeled and moved away from the forwards. Likewise he rarely handled the ball himself. One remembers how the great Bill McLaren would even towards the end of his commentating days remark on a prop’s handling and running with astonished amusement.