Jeff Probyn: One hundred years on – and rugby hasn’t changed

Jeff ProbynThere is a saying that there is nothing new in rugby and I think I may have found the proof. While clearing the attic, I have discovered a copy of The Boy’s Own Annual dated 1915-1916 and in its  yellowing pages, is an article written by WTA Beare (ex Saracens, Handsworth and Eastern Counties) outlining how the game should be organised and played.
He writes about the structure of the game and the individual skills required by different positions laid out over three pages and, surprisingly, the descriptions bear a striking similarity to today’s game.
For example, the scrum has been a major talking point over the last few years because of what many feel is the erosion of its importance within the game and the loss of the individual skill which have contributed to too many collapses and the continual resets.
We also have had to endure my old mate Brian Moore continually bemoaning the loss of the hooker’s skills as scrums had degenerated into pushing matches, and yet according to Mr Beare’s 1915 article that is exactly what they were – pushing contests.
Beare writes: “In some quarters in recent years there has been a tendency to make Forward play subservient to Back play, but I am of the school which regards sound Forward play as the first consideration, the basis upon which the actions of the whole team should be built. Forwards are all too often taught nowadays that their duty is to get the ball in the scrum and heel it out to the backs with the greatest celerity.
“Heeling has become so inherent in the modern game that it would be futile to decry it, however it annoys me to see a forward dangling one leg in the often vain hope of heeling the ball, better to have both feet planted firmly on the ground.”
So there you have it, hookers as we know them were not a part of the game and all forwards were expected to push or as Beare says: “The weight of all should be thrown as fully as possible against the opposing side.”
He ascribed to the view that backs should practise so that they instinctively know where and when each other will run or pass but he notes: “There is a great tendency amongst backs that once they have got rid of the ball, they slacken pace and for the moment drop out of the move, this must be avoided.”
Even back then it was deemed essential for players to spend as much time as practical (ten minutes before the game in 1916) in team training, with agreed strategy so as he writes, “there is a level of mutual understanding that will enable the players to break out of the stereotypical obvious moves that are comparatively easy to defend”.
That should enable the team to play with a fluidity and accuracy that will, to quote Beare again, “enable you to baffle your opponents with a series of varied and surprising forms of attack”.
What is illuminating is his view on coaching, where he states that “a coach must be aware of the physique and temperament of his players before determining whether they should play an open attacking game or rely on a strong forward game to secure victory”.
That is sound advice for Stuart Lancaster given the variations in style and play that we saw from the England team this autumn.
Although there is a need for a more varied and flexible approach to the game nowadays because defence has taken over from attack as the preferred game style, there is still the need to understand where the strength of your team is and build your game-plan from that base – some things never change!
Despite the fact that this book was written almost a hundred years ago, many of the areas of the game that were a cause for concern then, still remain so to this day.
One area where there is a tremendous difference, is the politics of professional sport compared to those golden days of amateurism, a time just eight years after the land was bought to build a home for the Rugby Football Union, a place where every club as shareholders could be proud of being part of building the new sport, to the game we have today.
Talking of the RFU, it’s good to see that they have finally taken at least one cheek off the fence they have been occupying over these last few months and come out in favour of a ‘pan-European competition’.
The fact that everybody wants a pan-European competition is not in question.
It is just the simple matter of who runs and organises it that is the sticking point as most other areas, sizes, distribution of finances etc have been open to negotiation for a long time and, despite the RFU’s statement, we still don’t know if they are supporting the clubs or joining all the other Unions in keeping it a Union controlled competition run by ERC, or another Union appointed body.
What is strange is the RFU have waited until the Premiership were isolated by the French ‘about turn’ before commenting on the need to find a solution.
It may be that the Premiership are using the RFU and are preparing a climbdown should the Welsh regions reach an agreement with the WRU.
The Welsh regions have expressed a desire to join the Premiership competition but that may just be a way of putting pressure on the WRU to up their funding.
All in all, the game was far less complicated back in 1915 – even if it was played the same.

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