Does an achieved feat have any value if it has been won too easily? William Webb Ellis first ran with the Rugby ball, but he had to traverse a perilous field full of lurking dangers to do it.

tom-brownWhile Ellis was free in 1823 to hold the game’s traditions in contempt and run with the ball, the opposition were equally free to employ whatever tactic or force they wished to stop him.

Author Thomas Hughes, who attended Rugby School as a student in the 1830s, recalled “a jury of Rugby boys of that day would almost certainly have found a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ if a boy had been killed” attempting to run with the ball.

No one had yet thought to pass the ball away to a team mate possessed any manliness, meaning tacklers did not have to resort to the bear-hugging method to capture player and ball together. Knocking the opposing boy over would do. The favoured means to bring a runner down were hacking (something akin to tripping) or charging (using your shoulder or torso to  bowl or knock him off his feet).

For any Rugby player running with the ball, and succeeding at it for any distance, was an exhilarating thrill, a sense of brave achievement and indeed survival. It was a hare or fox hunt played out in human form with the blood hounds pursuing their prey – the captured were overthrown and quickly disappeared under a massed pile of arms, legs, bodies.

Looking back in his autumn years to his Rugby playing in the 1860s, a Newcastle (NSW) old-timer wrote, “A genuine charge in those days was a sight worth seeing. The opponents would come together with a great run, charging as furiously as though it were a battlefield, and a great cheer would mark the result.”

It was understood then and ever since (though perhaps less in recent times) that in carrying the ball you are signaling to all your consent to, within the limits of the laws and customs of the game, being pursued and physically harmed until dispossessed of the ball.

In A History of Rugby School [1898] it is noted that when running with the ball first arrived in the game anyone attempting it “was liable to an extra allowance of hacking during the progress.”

In the 1860s it was written that the ball-runner was “presumed to be on the look out for spills”.

The game of course evolved, ball-carriers thought more about where they chose to run to minimise the risk or avoid capture, or they transferred the ball by kicking or passing it, and later team work and combination came to fore.

The “shoulder charge” by gradual degrees faded out of the game. In 1921 charging an opponent in the line-out was banned, but it was still allowed in general play: “Charging is permissible, but it must not be violent or dangerous.”

The assessment of what was “violent or dangerous” was left in the hands of the referee, but a wide understanding of what was acceptable or not existed.

Writing in the British press in 1922, a Rugby expert stated that any charge that included jumping was in the dangerous category, while a legitimate “charge should either be a shove with the shoulder in a standing position, or, if with a short run, one or both feet should be on the ground.”

“The charge should be on the upper part of the body – shoulder or chest” and “There is no need to be squeamish about it, but there are obvious limits.”

The unanswerable poser was how far can a player run to deliver a charge, particularly in the case of a back racing 20 or 30m across the field to meet an opponent, often a forward, that is also running flat out.

Every player knows the violence of a charge delivered with all the accumulated impetus of a long rush. It is of course much worse when tackler and ball-carrier are both running into each other, moreso if the attacker is not aware and braced  for the oncoming collision.

There is no formula that can be the basis for a law to determine or limit the amount of force reasonably used when opponents come into contact on a Rugby field. The tackler makes choices, the ball-carrier has options.

By the late 1990s the IRB had in effect banned the shoulder charge by adopting Law 10.4: “A player must not charge or knock down an opponent carrying the ball without trying to grasp that player.”

It was an amendment that initially passed without much debate, if any, as charging had long vanished as a part of the game. The trigger for the law change is thought to have been a pre-emptive strike to prevent rugby league’s growing predilection for shoulder charges re-entering the code, along with the outcome of studies on potential injury risks and insurance costs in a litigious age, specifically in the USA where many players coming to rugby had been bred on American football tackling methods.

Ultimately protection and prevention from injury lies with the players themselves on the field. A game designed to placate doctors and mothers won’t attract the same number of players, nor tv viewers and spectators. It is the presence of the risks that makes Rugby an exhilarating game to play and watch.

In Hughes’ description of football at Rugby School (in Tom Brown’s Schooldays) most of the players were involved in the mass of humanity called the scrummage – outside of it were the older players, the ball-carrying ‘dodgers’ and their mortal enemies, the ‘chargers’.

Hughes had it right when he wrote 150 years ago that the dodgers “must have more coolness than the chargers.”

The onus is on the ball-carrier, not the tackler.

© Sean Fagan