The great bugbears of Rugby are penalty goals and the whim of a referee. Is that fair criticism, or is it simply the nature of Rugby football?

A reading of the match reports recounted in “The First Lions of Rugby” will reveal something astounding to the modern Rugby world – in 1888 there was no provision allowing the taking of a shot at goal from a penalty ‘free kick’.

There were no kicks at goal during the 1888 Lions tour other than from conversion attempts, from fair catch ‘marks’, and drop goal shots in the run of play.

Infringements, deliberate or accidental, were generally ‘punished’ by the referee ordering a scrum, or in extreme cases, the giving of a free kick (but it could not score a goal).

The notion of introducing penalty goals had been raised through the 1880s, however it was argued taking points from an opponent’s accidental or technical infringement of the laws lacked honour (in terms of manliness and chivalry), while giving the referee power to penalise deliberate breaches meant players would play to the letter of the law (and often beyond it), rather than let the spirit of the game, gentlemanly conduct and their captain’s admonishing words guide their actions.

Nevertheless, the change came when it was successfully argued that the fear of the punishment of a penalty goal would “morally elevate” the increasing number of players who were bringing chaos, disorder and arguments to the playing field by abusing the self-governing system that had served the game since its framing as a tool of “muscular Christianity” under Thomas Arnold at Rugby School.

Long forgotten, particularly by those that prefer the ball-in-hand try-scoring Rugby game, is that there was another reason in favour of introducing penalty goals, as one commentator explained at the time.

One of the greatest objections which has hitherto been made against Rugby football is that it is not so much ‘foot-ball’ as ‘hand-ball’, and it is manifest that the persons who drew up the revised rules have borne this fact in mind…It can be seen that in future ‘kicking teams’ will have a great advantage over their opponents who are weaker in this respect.

One can point out that the manner of taking of penalty goals today takes away too much time from the game, and that referees have a propensity to become too technical in their officiating (when they ought perhaps let the game flow, by ignoring infringements that do not give the transgressor and his team any benefit), but penalty goals are intended as a deterrent to deliberate foul play, and are a legitimate outcome from having won territory from the opposition.

There is no doubt that the law-makers of late 1888 knew the effect adding penalty goals would have on how the game was played and won, and what it would do the position and influence of the referee within the game.

In former days, when the rules did not give him half as much power, his office was by no means a bed of roses; but now, like the policemen in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, it is certain a referee’s life is not a happy one.

Nor is it a “happy lot” for the team that is left ruing missed penalty goal attempts. Coming to a game fully-armed with a sure and true goal kicking ‘cannon’ is an advantage.

A great penalty goal, either at the end of a game to win it, or simply for the distance it traverses, can be a lasting-memory.

And what is wrong with that?

After all, Rugby is still firmly a breed of foot-ball isn’t it?

© Sean Fagan