Kicking the ball ahead in the scrum seems today to be an absurd move, but in the first 50 years of Rugby football to hook the pigskin backwards was regarded by one and all as dishonourable cheating.

Football at Rugby School
Football at Rugby School

The objective of a scrum was to push the opposing forwards out of the way and propel the ball towards the goal posts via a hearty kick. All would set off in pursuit, the ball being the fox, the footballers the hounds.

While we may think an innovator who brings a positive change into how the game is played would be widely applauded and revered, traditions held strong in Rugby football, particularly where a new tactic was seen as closer to chicanery and reducing the manliness and chivalry of the on-field combat. 

To heel the ball backwards and out of a scrum, and thus neuter and avoid the battle between the forwards, was regarded as akin to running away from the enemy purely out of fear.

While traditions at Rugby School held strong, as Webb Ellis and other ‘runners’ had demonstrated, evolution was not entirely blunted out.

Bernhard Wise, a colonial Australian educated at Rugby School and Oxford University, would later write Rugby in the 1870s. The title suggests an enticing resource for those interested in the game’s history, however, it was primarily about the School and education, not its football.

It does though provide one nugget:Bernhard Wise - born in Sydney, educated in England, he became a famous Australian politician and advocate for Federation.

It is, I believe, still an undecided point as to who first introduced the distinctive feature of Rugby football by running with the ball [Webb Ellis vs Jem Mackie]. There is no such uncertainty as to the name of the innovator who changed the Rugby game into its present form.

In 1874 or 1875 one Clarke, who played half-back for Hutchinson’s House [at Rugby School], came up to the edge of the scrummage and instructed the forwards to ‘furk’ [hook] the ball to him on every possible occasion, instead of keeping it in front of them.

The innovation, which proved immediately successful — for Clarke was a very fast runner and active as a cat — was received at first with sibilant [hissing] condemnation.

But the merits of the new style were so obvious that next year every House adopted it; and thus the looser game of the present day, with fifteen players a-side and five or six behind the scrummage, gradually established itself.

And yet I can myself remember the days in public school football when heeling-out was regarded as oh so caddish!

Interestingly, ‘furking’ has its origins in the Eton Wall Game, where it was the name given to the act of a player intentionally allowing or heeling the ball backwards away from the contest.

At Rugby School the tradition, which was not backed up by written rule, gave way, and heeling-back and ‘hooking’ became the norm across the Rugby world.

© Sean Fagan

— George Orwell

If you can keep your face, when all about you
Are doing their level best to push it in.
If you can swear (though, swearing, all men doubt you)
It wasn’t you who slicked the keeper’s shin,
If you can furk and not get killed while furking,
Or being fisted, fist ‘em back again,
If neither fists nor fearsome feet can hurt you,

But you can hurt all men, though none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty second’s worth of slaughter done,
Yours is the game and everything that’s in it,
And you may wear your College Wall, my son.