Riot & Revelry : Try 20-a-side Rugby!

Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens;  Nov 26, 2013

Rugby today means 15 a-side, but 20 was once considered the superior ideal, the more the merrier! At times the game was more riot than football!

The inspiration, of course, were the stories of hard-won glory in ‘Bigside’ matches at Rugby School, not least of all known for the sheer scale of playing numbers.

In 1839, when Queen Adelaide visited Rugby School, the School House team’s 75 boys played ‘The rest’ – all 225 of them. The football match in Tom Brown’s Schooldays pits “fifty or sixty boys” for House against “a huge mass opposite” of some “two hundred”.

England 'Twenty' Rugby team of 1871 vs Scotland
England ‘Twenty’ Rugby team of 1871 vs Scotland

The first meetings between England, Scotland, and later Ireland were all 20-a-side encounters when the international contests began in the 1870s.

Australian rules kept with the 20-a-side Rugby tradition until the formation of the VFL in 1897 saw the team’s drop to 18 which is still used today in AFL.

The last of the great 20-a-side ‘shoving age’ Rugby matches in Australia was played on Sydney’s Moore Park  in 1874.

Scotland ‘Twenty’ that played in the first Rugby international (1871) – “hereby challenge any team selected from the whole of England, to play us a match, twenty-a-side, Rugby rules”. 

Montague Shearman, who was a prominent Rugby player at Oxford University in the 1870s wrote later of the era:

The plain truth of the matter was that the Rugbeian traditions of ‘big-sides’ still remained an article of faith with players … matches as a rule were only between fifteens and not twenties, but … the players … still thought that twenty was the minimum for a model side. So far also did the notion go that scrimmaging [scrums] was the essence of the game … what kept the old system alive was undoubtedly the retention of twenty a side in the international contest with Scotland [vs England].

The bulk of the forwards chosen for the twenty-a-side contests were strong, heavy men, and without strength and weight a player had little chance of making his mark amongst the forward brigade. The result was that under the old regime the typical forward was a man who knew how to ‘shove’ and very likely could do very little else.

So firmly, indeed, was the traditional notion of the ‘big-side’ impressed upon the chief players of the Rugby game, that as late as 1875 the “Football Annual” … was still advising captains … to play twenty-a-side if they could get the men to play. By this time, however, twenties had been abandoned in all but the classical matches of the year …

The mid-late 1860s saw Rugby first played in Sydney, and while full records of the games held are often scant, it appears that 20 a-side was the norm. It is often quoted that 1869’s inaugural Rugby meeting of Sydney University and Newington College was between their ‘twenties’.  

When club Rugby finally got up and running in Sydney in the early 1870s, the major clubs all carried a ‘First Twenty’, and if they had enough players for another team, it was a ‘Second Fifteen’. Smaller one-team clubs were content with a ‘First Fifteen’.

The Wallaroos, one of the city’s most powerful clubs, noted at its 1875 annual meeting, “During the past season [1874] ten first-class matches were played – four by the 1st twenty, and six by the 1st fifteen”.

At the start of 1873 the Wallaroo club secretary had reported that “An endeavour will be made this season to establish first and second teams of, say fifteen each; this, it is hoped will enable more of our members to engage in matches against rival clubs, besides imparting greater interest to the clubs”.

The most prominent fixtures in Sydney were 20 against 20 (particularly University vs Wallaroo), but practicalities of the city having limited playing stocks had dictated that 15 vs 15 was the norm for the average Saturday club game.

Some matches were arranged with uneven numbers if it was thought it could help provide a more competitive game. For example in 1872 the University team turned out with 14 men in a match at Parramatta against twenty boys of the King’s School (the latter were beaten one goal to nil).

Sydney University FC 1871
Sydney University FC’s 1871 ‘First Twenty’

The reality was finding a competitive team of 20 to play against each Saturday was difficult, and if a club had less than 35 match-fit members, the ‘Second Fifteen’ either played short or didn’t play at all.

There was also a growing belief that Rugby with teams of 15 each was a more open game to play and to watch than the ‘shoving match’ that 20 a-side produced.

Though the English RFU’s laws did not finally set down the number of players on a team until 1892, all Rugby in Britain moved to 15 a-side for the 1876/77 season (with the 1875 Oxford vs Cambridge game played 15-a-side cited as the catalyst for the change).

Ireland's first Rugby team played vs England in 1875 (20-a-side)
Ireland’s first Rugby team played vs England in 1875 (20-a-side). Green & white hoops jersey.

The move to fifteen though had come earlier to Sydney, with the last 20 a-side games played in 1874.

A Wallaroos vs Camden College (Redfern) match on 29th August 1874 held at Moore Park (west of the SCG) was advertised as ‘between the first twenties’, however only sixteen of ‘the marsupials’ turned up. After the Wallaroo captain cajoled two men from the crowd to join his team, the game went ahead as 18 vs 20.

The last 20 versus 20 contested with ‘full brigades’ therefore became the Wallaroo and Sydney University game on 25th July 1874.

Played on Moore Park’s open fields, Town and Country Journal suggested “The meeting of these old antagonists … has been looked forward to since the commencement of the season by the admirers of the game”.

The University men played in their all white uniform, the Wallaroos in tri-coloured hoops. The crowd stood along the touchlines, and when play was lost in a distant corner, many entered the playing field to get a better view of the contest.

Wallaroo FC early 1870s
Wallaroo FC early 1870s

A dour struggle ensued though. With 20-a-side each ‘pack’ comprised 14 forwards, who were ‘over’ the ball for most of the game, trying to kick the leather forward to the opposition’s goal and, as the match report states, “battling for every foot of ground … where the forwards keep it all to themselves and scrummage succeeds scrummage”.

In Rugby scrums in the 1870s heeling the ball backwards and packing with your head down were seen as ‘low tricks’ and severely admonished by both friend and foe alike.

As a half-back the best you could do was hope your opponents kicked the ball too hard and out of the scrum, giving you a chance to pounce on the leather should it suddenly appear. 

You were a brave man to pick up the ball and run with it, knowing that if you were caught both packs would descend upon you. In the Wallaroos and University game it was reported that the teams “have a great objection to see the ball run with and ‘down’ every man who tries it”.

But that was the thrill of it, to “adventure your life” by running with the ball. It was an exhilarating feeling. If you succeeded via a long run or to crown it with a try, you were lauded by one and all.

Rugby’s advocates argued that it was the only football game that truly tested a man’s character, while at the same time developed a muscular body from the physical exertion required.

The ‘scrummage’ (or ‘scrimmage’) was called for every time a ball-carrier was tackled to the ground or was ‘held’ and couldn’t advance – ironically, a vestige of 19th century Rugby now long gone from the game, but which has survived in league (play-the-ball) and gridiron (down).

Rugby, especially when 20 a-side, was a game for the players, and no one else. The Argus (Melbourne) informed its readers that the English game wasn’t worth watching or playing: “In the Rugby game half the time is wasted by the scrummaging; which is neither skilful nor graceful, but sheer bulldogism.”

“A Match at Football: The Last Scrimmage”
“A Match at Football: The Last Scrimmage” [‘The Graphic’, London 1871]
Because the scrum still involved most of the players, this was praised as an advantage over Victorian football [now AFL] where teams were also 20 a-side, but the players were scattered around the field in matched pairs, jostling and nudging their opponent while they both waited for the ball to finally come their way.

In Sydney in the early 1870s, with teams of 20, captains usually disposed three players as half-backs, though some considered two was enough.

Teams that had three half-backs put one to assign the base of the scrum, with the other two each patrolling a ‘flank’, up to ten metres behind the forwards. If the ball came their way, they were quickly onto it, haring off on a short or long solo run.

Some twenty metres behind the half-backs were another three ‘backs’.

Bigger and stronger men, they were the last resort of their side if the opposition should burst through. They were usually good quick runners, reliable tacklers, secure fielders of the ball, and most importantly the best drop-kickers in the team. If they made a run with the ball the golden rule was to close it with a flying drop-kick for goal, touch or territory before being tackled or cornered. Passing the ball between the backs was rarely seen or encouraged.

cadburyThe forwards constituted the majority of a side, but, as Shearman’s recollections have already described, they didn’t require as many special qualifications as backs and half-backs.

Obviously, to be strong in forwards was one of the best qualities that a team could possess. The problem in all parts of Australia that played Rugby though was that it was near impossible for a club to get fourteen really good men to form a side’s vanguard. 

The best forwards needed a thorough knowledge of the game, wise enough to not waste their energies by constantly running from one place to another trying to chase where the ball may arrive. Forwards were invariably sturdily built, able to withstand being knocked about. Forwards generally all kept close around the ball for most of the game. 

In a scrummage the forwards of the two sides (28 men) formed a heavy mass, shoving their way for territory, standing shoulder to shoulder and leg to leg as tight as they could, each man pushing the opposite way trying to work the ball through.

As it happened, Sydney Rugby’s final 20-a-side battle was mostly a game of forwards shoving each other, and the backs making rare long runs and occasionally, and unsuccessfully, taking drop-kicks at the goal posts.

The game came to a close at 5pm as a nil-all draw.

The Wallaroos had the best of it, running-in two tries (which didn’t yet count for points). They also only had to ‘touch down’ in their own in-goal area three times, compared to the University men having been forced to ground the ball a staggering “seventeen in their own goal”.

An era had come to an end. With less players on the field, and the shoving scrummages no longer the game, Rugby opened up.

England forward of the 1870s Arthur Budd, writing in the 1892 publication Football : The Rugby Union Game observed:

Scrummaging was then the real article. It meant carrying the pack by superior weight and propelling power … to put one’s head down in a scrummage was regarded as an act of high treason. We were frequently boxed in a scrummage for three or four minutes together, only to discover that the half-back had by that time absconded with the ball to the other side of the ground.

The reduction of the number of players from twenty to fifteen [nine forwards, six backs] may be said to have marked the dawn of modern scientific football. At first, despite this reduction, the arrangement of the back players remained intact, but the forwards, no longer hampered by an overplus of numbers, found themselves able to take an active part in the open play. Fast following up, breaking away en masse, concentrated dribbling, and forward tackling henceforth became features of the game.

In this departure the forwards were greatly assisted by the general recognition of the practice of scrummaging with heads down, which, instead of being regarded with disfavour as hitherto, had by degrees become one of the sine qua non qualifications of a good forward. This innovation was the landmark of scientific scrummaging.

Henceforth players were able to watch with certainty the whereabouts of the ball, and try by skilful manipulation to control its destination, and, henceforth, for this very reason, which so much facilitated a means of exit for the ball, the breaking up of the scrummage became a comparatively easy matter. This fact the forwards were not slow to appreciate, and by breaking up the scrummage as quickly as possible placed this advantage to the scale of open play. 

Known 20-a-side matches in Sydney:

1865 August 19th. Sydney University and Sydney FC, result unknown, at University Ground.
1866 July 28th. Sydney University and ‘Mr Campbell’s Twenty’, result unknown, at University Ground.
1866 August 4th. Sydney University beat Military & Civil Club by 2 goals to nil at University Ground.
1867 July 6th. Sydney University beat Military & Civil Club by 2 goals to nil at University Ground.
1871 July 22nd. Sydney University and Wallaroo [result unknown] at Moore Park.
1872 August 4th. Sydney University and Wallaroo drew nil-all at Moore Park.
1872 August 10th. Camden College ‘Twenty of the scholars’ beat  ‘Twenty of the ex-scholars’ 5 goals to nil at Camden College.
1872 August 17th. Wallaroo beat Sydney University by 1 goal to nil at Moore Park.
1872 August 24th. Sydney Grammar ‘Past’ beat  ‘Present’ 1 goal to nil at University Ground.
1873 June 21st. King’s School (Past & Present) and Wallaroo drew nil-all at Parramatta.
1873 August 16th. King’s School (Past & Present) beat Wallaroo by 1 goal to nil at Parramatta.
1873 September 13th. King’s School beat Newington College by 1 goal to nil at Newington.
1874 June 20th. Wallaroo beat King’s School (Past & Present) by 1 goal to nil at Parramatta.
1874 June 20th.  Balmain and Waratah drew 1 goal-all at [venue unknown].
1874 July 11th. Wallaroo and Waratah drew nil-all at Military & Civil Ground (now SCG).
1874 July 25th. Sydney University and Wallaroo drew nil-all at Moore Park.
1874 August 29th. Wallaroo and Camden College drew nil-all at Moore Park.

Other known ‘big side’ matches outside of Sydney:

1876 July 1st. 16-a-side. Brisbane FC beat Rangers by 1 goal to nil at Queen’s Park, Brisbane

Budd also wrote in England’s Sporting Life in 1899:

The method of scrummaging consisted in straightforward propulsion – still to this day when you can get a body of workers – rara aves [uncommon], it is true, since fashionable innovations have become the rage, still remains to this day the most effective.

© Sean Fagan