From the Deep Vaults…

James Corsan is currently working on a Harlequins Heritage project in connection with the forthcoming 150th anniversary of the founding of the club. His research has included trawling the microfiche of local newspapers. Here he reports on this and shares some of the more interesting things that have caught his eye…

As a task, it is rather ‘as it says on the tin’ – hour upon hour of detailed, repetitive, often frustrating slog, especially when tiny type point sizes and browning newsprint can make letters, words or figures indistinct.

Happily, the routine of the day can sometimes be enlivened, albeit not often, by the odd ‘light bulb’ moment. For example, perhaps confirmation that a particular player, possibly one you had not come across previously, played in a certain game, or that the reason a well-known playing colleague did not play in the same fixture was because he had ‘scratched’ due to an injured ankle suffered in the match the previous week.

As revelations, neither quite ranks alongside the discovery of penicillin but – in some small sense – they do take the sum of rugby history knowledge forward a notch.
Then there are the diversions you might come across. Items of ‘historic’ national news are occasionally covered in local papers, amidst all the local shop advertisements and reports of petty criminals making court appearances in which you are otherwise temporarily buried. It is fascinating to note, with the benefit of modern hindsight, how a local newspaper of 1910 was covering contemporary political crises, or indeed – as occasionally happens – to read a piece in which a rugby correspondent offers his personal opinions upon rugby ‘issues’ of the moment.

Here is an extract from a ‘Bystander’ piece for the ‘Local Sports’ section of the Saturday 9th October 1909 edition of the same newspaper:

‘There is some talk and some writing – it does not amount to much else – about alterations in the Rugby game with the idea of inspiring it and making it more attractive.
The suggestion for such action comes from ‘down under’, where the Northern Union game seems to be making a progress which has caused genuine alarm amongst Rugbyites.
New Zealand proposes that a conference be held between the home and colonial unions to consider the matter’.

Mr J.A. Smith, hon sec of the Scottish Rugby Union, is reported to have said when speaking of the proposed alterations:

“There was a possibility that these might be propositions which might be for the good of the game. If they were, they would be seriously discussed, and if regarded as being of utility, they would be heartily approved. On the other hand, if the colonial suggestions went to what was called making the game faster or more open they would have none of them. They would not be party to legislation for the spectator as against the player.”

A writer in Athletic News recently wrote:

“The moment the spectator becomes the prime consideration of the Rugby Union or a Rugby club then goodbye to good sport.”

Here we are, many years later, still dealing with pressure to ‘improve’ the entertainment value of the game by altering the rules. I pass no comment one way or the other upon these recurring topics but it is interesting that our predecessors of a century ago and more were fielding similar.

9781848762107About the Author – James Corsan began profession life as a barrister and then survived a quarter of a century in the British television industry. His book ‘For Poulton and England’ is available here.

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1 Response to From the Deep Vaults…

  1. Larry Freitas says:

    Why am I not surprised that even back then the Southern Hemisphere would try to affect the game’s laws? Did not New Zealand have the two-man front row for several decades before it was outlawed (and it was employed in that California rugby era of 1906-18, and therefore used by the Americans in Antwerp and Paris, by the way)? Did not Australia outlaw direct kicks into touch from outside the 25, in order to compete with league, until that law was accepted worldwide by 1969?
    I’m fascinated by the idea a century ago that the need of the player would trump the spectator’s interest in the game. If that were indeed true, would not rugby union allowed for players to get worker’s compensation (broken time payments) if they were injured playing the game and couldn’t work? It seems hypocritical. But regarding just how the game is played in and of itself, speeding up the game, by today’s time, has meant that the aspiration of some players to play the game has, to an extent, been affected. Decades ago most club players played rugby to get fit. The idea to get fit to play rugby hadn’t really taken hold, but it would by the 1970’s, especially when coaching had finally been accepted in the UK and Ireland. Without professionalism, and even with semi-professionalism that certainly existed by the 1980’s, getting fit to play rugby was still something that was time consuming and meant balancing the work day and work week, with just about everyone playing the game still needing a job, no matter how part-time for the top players, to survive economically. I read the book “Nobody Beat Us” recently, and to think that Wales’ top international players trained on Sundays, starting in the late 60’s and into their glory days of the 70’s, with no compensation, the day after a match, whether club or international, is simply amazing. What’s even more amazing to think about is that most of those players wouldn’t be able to play in today’s game, even with the training they went through then. So, in modern times, the needs of the spectator to watch a faster game, on the TV in particular, has taken precedence, through a professional game that takes much training to play, with laws dictating how the game needs to be played. Nuances of the old-style game be damned! We want to watch a lot of tries, by men (and women) who lift weights, run, practice skills, cross-train, and eat right and don’t drink too much!
    The fact is the game has sped up to the point that Gareth Edward’s assessment that one needs to be about 6’2″ or 6’3″ in height, at about 15 or 16 stone (think Sonny Boy Williams), to play in this speedier game, with less kicking, scrums and lineouts overall, is very accurate. Case in point: one cannot, when outside the 22, any longer pass the ball to a team member standing behind the 22 for a direct kick into touch. Result of that law alone is much less lineouts, and backs (and forward sometimes also) trying to run out of their own quarter, which sometimes leads to disaster as a back gets tackled with little or no support behind. I’ve seen it as a referee that many flyhalves in my corner of the world, Northern California, aren’t very adept at kicking as their previous counterparts a decade or more beforehand, especially kicking to touch. When I set a scrum or lineout behind the 22 I now am in the habit to call out to the fly half that he can kick directly to touch, because even in that situation there is a tendency to try to run the ball from behind one’s quarter. I don’t see too many with what was once a given skill: kicking to touch to settle things down, or for safer tactics. Running and passing take precedence to learning kicking skills. The laws have dictated that fact. Personally I don’t see that as necessarily a good thing, because the game does look much too much like rugby league now than it did in the past. And regarding the issue of concussion, that change in law that I refer has made for more running, and therefore, more tackling, to take place during a match. I never saw anyone get a concussion from a lineout, and if it has occurred, and it has, it’s been from blatant foul play more than anything else.
    One doesn’t see that 5’10” overweight prop much anymore, or the 5’6″ scrum half either, at the top levels of the game. Perhaps there needs to be two sets of laws for the game now: one set for the amateur and casual player, and one for those at the top, the pros. Otherwise it’s a lie that the game is for anyone, regardless of height or weight, for both sexes. It used to be true, and I wish it still was.


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