Saturday, 21 January 2017

A History of Rugby League and North American Football

From Manfred Moore to Jarryd Hayne, and surprisingly little in-between, the history of football* and rugby league are intertwined, but both sports have so far failed to take advantage of the other’s athletes.

These two codes of football grew from the same root and, perhaps with the exception of football’s quarterback position, require similar skill-sets.

Hayne’s short-lived conversion to football, and stories that South Sydney Rabbitohs forward Tom Burgess has had a trials with the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills, suggest that the NFL might finally be latching on to this previously untapped talent factory. But could it work the other way?

Rugby league thrives in its heartlands, but the problem is that these lands are few and far between. As a sport which has suffered at the hands of its Union cousin, and one which bafflingly fails to attract the media coverage of its rival code, league is still playing catchup, especially at international level, and especially since union went openly professional in 1995.

A recent article on the Financial Times website suggested that rugby could capitalise on the NFL’s short season, and offer an alternative “tackle sport” in those empty months. But, though the article run with the headline “Rugby league goes after American football fans on their home turf”, the piece was about rugby union.

While this is another example of the media’s ignorance of rugby league, the same reasons given for the potential success of rugby union in North America would also apply to rugby league.

As the code which provides more continuous action, collisions, and running, as well as highly skilled kicking and ball handling, league could stand even more of a chance of success than its more confusing, sluggish, tactical based union cousin.

North America could be an ideal launchpad for rugby league at an international level, creating a fourth and fifth team to challenge the big three of Australia, New Zealand, and England, but in order to to be successful across the pond from its birthplace, it might need a bit of help from football.

Back in 1977, Manfred Moore discarded his protective equipment and travelled to Australia for a short-lived stint with the Newtown Jets. A year after winning the Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders, he scored a try on his rugby debut in the New South Wales Rugby Football League premiership.

Playing on the wing, he beat Wests full-back John Dorahy to the ball to score. The Australian Associated Press reported:

“Newtown’s American gridiron import, Manfred Moore, proved an instant success in his side’s 17-10 win over West at Henson Park, scoring the first try of the match.

“Moore stole the show, crossing for the first try of the match following a high kick from his captain Col Casey.”

1977 - Manfred Moore pictured in action against Cronulla-Sutherland at the SCG on Easter Monday, 1977. Source -

Despite his promising start, Moore soon ended up in the reserves, and a cut to the head suffered while playing in the second row convinced him that the game wasn’t for him. Expecting more attentive treatment for his gash to the head, he was surprised that he only received stitches to the wound rather than something more substantial.

Team-mate Colin Murphy recalled in an interview with Fox Sports:

“He expected plastic surgery and everything. But over here the doctor puts down a beer and wants to stitch you. He was a great bloke but once he got cut he said that was it, he said, ‘I’m going home, this isn’t what you get paid for.’

“It was an initiative and it was something Newtown tried. It got bums on seats, yeah, but I don’t think it’s worked ever since.”

If it is to work, it might be useful for each sport to understand the history of the other, and acknowledge the similarities which remain to this day.

The game of football is omnipresent, and has been for some time. Throughout history the inhabitants of earth have found time to take part in games with balls, or spherical objects resembling a ball.

From the beaches of New England and the open lands of the American northeast, to the villages and fields of old England, there are accounts of games of football being played stretching as far back as the 16th century, and you can bet that these games were played for centuries before this too.

The codification of these games, which took place primarily in England in 19th century, has led to the several forms of football we know today, as each evolved into either the kicking game, or the handling game (sometimes known as the running game).

In North America, teams in Canada developed a penchant for the running and passing game, and teams from Montreal especially played an important part in the transfer of rugby from England to the United States.

Montreal Football Club were one of the earliest proponents of the running game. They formed in 1872 and played matches against teams from Quebec before the formation of the Quebec Rugby Football Union in 1883.

Two years after the formation of Montreal FC, a game between McGill University of Montreal, and Harvard paved the way for football as it is now known in the US.

Harvard were the renegades of early collegiate football, and continued to play under their own rules which involved carrying the ball. Their football was closer to the Boston Game which was similar to rugby, whereas most other colleges at the time played a game similar to association football, which had been abbreviated by the English to simply “soccer”.

The origins of soccer in the US can be traced to a game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, but the origins of football stem from a combination of what is now known as Canadian football, and rugby.

McGill-Harvard Football Game on the lower campus of McGill, 1874.
McGill-Harvard Football Game on the lower campus of McGill, 1874. Harvard players are on the left and McGill players are on the right. Source
Harvard’s encounters with McGill University led them to find an opponent closer to home, Tufts University were the first, followed by rival university Yale, who stepped up in 1875 to play what is widely regarded as the first game of college football.

It’s evident that football grew out of rugby rather than soccer, and the game we see today has similarities with both codes.

The line of scrimmage is very union-esque, as is the use of a punt to gain territory, but there are even more similarities with rugby league.

The limited number of “downs” a team gets in football mirrors the limited number of “tackles” a team gets during its period of possession in league, but in the latter game the count isn’t reset based on yards made.

Walter Camp introduced the line of scrimmage, and sets of three downs to the rules of football in the 1880s, so it could be said that play-the-balls, introduced in 1906/07, and the four tackle rule introduced in 1966 were examples of rugby league borrowing from football.

McGill's champion rugby team, 1912. Source
In league, a team will often kick on the last tackle and similarly a football team will often choose to punt. The skills required from those collecting the kicks are the same in both sports.

If the teams are closer to goal by the time their final tackle or down comes around, then they’ll often try to score a drop-goal or field-goal. The phrase “field goal” is used in both sports, even though in football it takes the form of a place kick, rather than a drop-kick from open play as it is in rugby.

A touchdown in football equates to a try in league (and actually has to be touched down!), and place kicks are taken after the team crosses for a try in an attempt to add extra points — two in league and one in football. In rugby league this kick for extra points is taken in-line from where the try is scored, rather than automatically being taken in front of the goalposts as it is in football.

The parallels between the two sports are there for all to see, and rugby league could soon catch on with North American sports fans if it receives a higher profile in the media, and more investment.

The gap in the market for rugby league to eventually thrive in North America, could in turn benefit the game as a whole.

New Zealand and Australia dominate the sport internationally. At club level the game down under is far superior to its European counterpart, and at international level the game struggles due to a lack of competition for the two antipodean nations.

If the game can develop in the US and Canada, drawing on the skills of talented young athletes who will be more accustomed to this foreign game than they might initially believe, then this could add two quality international sides to compete with the aforementioned duo as well as the likes of England, France, and the Pacific Island nations.

Organisations such as Pro Rugby USA in union, and now the Toronto Wolfpack in league, have begun making strides towards producing successful professional leagues and teams on the continent.

These organisations see a chance to invest in a sport which could catch on in a country with a huge population of sports fans.

The growth of rugby league in North America could be one of the best things to happen to the sport in decades, and it may also convert a few followers of what became America’s game into fans of the sport from which it originated.

*The use of the word "football" in this article refers to the two forms of gridiron played in the USA and Canada.

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