History of the different codes of Rugby/Gridiron Football

The Rugby World Cup saw a rise in discussion about the history of the game. Some of this discussion pre-dated 1863-1871, which, as I noted at the time, was somewhat odd as there was no meaningful “rugby” (as distinct from the broad codes of “football”) before that period.

Legend has it, of course, that “football” when it moved to become a field game (almost entirely the case by 1823) became split when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball at Rugby School and ran with it. Legend is exactly what that is, of course. In fact, there were varying codes of football until well into the Victorian Era. The basic aim of “football” was to manoeuvre the ball over the opponents’ goal line; typically between some posts. Quite how this was to be done, and what was permitted in so doing, varied from school to school and club to club. In 1863, an association of schools and clubs came together and set out one code which became “Association Football”; in 1871, another code was clearly agreed upon based on Rugby School’s code which became broadly known as “Rugby Football”. These were shortened, respectively, to “soccer” (from “Association”) and “rugger” (from “Rugby”). One obvious distinction was that the latter was more liberal about the permitting of handling, and (increasingly over time) of physical contact (most particularly, formalised “tackling”).

It should be noted that even “soccer” still has some vestiges which are clearly of common origin with rugby. Handling is still permitted, albeit to one player on the team within a certain zone; charging is still permitted, albeit now in very specific circumstances; the ball is still returned to play from the sideline via a throw, albeit a specific type designed to limit the distance which can be achieved from it. It also retains the distinction between a direct free kick (formerly known as a “penalty kick” even when outside what became the penalty area) and an indirect free kick (formerly simply the “free kick”), which in fact developed after the split from rugby but reflects common influences. “Offside” also has a common derivation, initially from disallowing any player to be in front of the ball, even though the exact rule is now quite different (having begun to diverge in many schools and clubs which came to allow a kicked pass to a player standing in front with certain restrictions even pre-1863).

Football in general soon developed a problem in the UK, in that the more professional classes saw sport as a purely leisure pursuit, whereas industrial workers felt they had a right to compensation. “Soccer” ended up with two separate competitions as a result – the Football Association-administered “Challenge Cup” (a knockout competition which professionals disliked as they could be out of the competition after just one match), and the Football League under different administration (disliked by amateurs as it required professional levels of training and fitness to compete over a full season of round-robin fixtures). “Rugger” had the same division but with much wider consequences: the “Rugby League” did not just become a separate competition in which players could be compensated, but ultimately a different code altogether.

Fundamentally, the objective of all Rugby-derived codes (including “football” in North America) came to be to advance the ball over the opponents’ goal line for a “try” for a score of the highest value, which is also followed by a further play offering extra points (typically, though in North America now not compulsorily, a kick). In each case, kicked goals (through the posts and over a crossbar) without the “try” remained a means of accruing points, but of comparatively decreasing value.

From the late Victorian Era, the rules adopted by the Rugby League came to diverge from those used by the amateur Rugby Union. Over time, League was considerably simplified: line-outs were removed; the points system was altered; the two flankers were lost, making the game 13-a-side; and, most fundamentally of all, the contest for possession after a tackle was abandoned.

Interestingly, and apparently coincidentally, football in North America followed a similar path to Rugby League – it became professional (albeit with a significant “college” variety in both the United States and Canada), and it also removed line-outs, altered the points system, reduced the number of players allowed on the field during play (to 12 in Canadian and 11 in American), and abandoned the contest for possession after a tackle. “Down-and-distance” rules were adopted, separately in Canada and the United States albeit under common influence, which also changed the field layout to a chequerboard, i.e. resembling a gridiron (as, after a tackle, the ball had to be played from the square in which the tackle had taken place). Thus, the name “Gridiron” came to be applied to football as played in North America – even after the gridiron layout was abandoned in favour of lateral lines every ten yards accompanied by longitudinal hash marks.


The original “gridiron” field (Syracuse, NY, 1910) – courtesy Wiki

Thus, Rugby Union is distinguished from all other forms of the game deriving from the Rugby code by the contest for possession after the tackle (known as the “breakdown”). This feature of the game – involving releasing the ball and the creation of rucks or mauls – is perhaps its most distinctive aspect. Competition of possession is in fact the most outstanding distinction in general – such competition also defines scrums (usually awarded for minor infringements and also used for some re-starts), line-outs, and even in theory free kicks. (It is increasingly debatable, however, just how stable this aspect of the game is: the sheer complexity of the laws around it and the obvious potential for injury and concussion are leading to serious questions being raised about the very viability of the game – questions which are currently peripheral but which will no doubt become more mainstream. We may therefore reasonably predict that the laws of Rugby Union will move towards those of the other codes as the century progresses.)

Gridiron Football and effectively also Rugby League are all defined by a set piece after each tackle and “down-and-distance” rules (though the terminology varies). Rugby League allows six “tackles” to score; American Football allows four “downs” to advance ten yards (on a 100-yard grid); and Canadian Football allows three “downs” to advance ten yards (on a 110-yard grid).

Fundamental divisions between both codes of modern Rugby and both main codes of Gridiron are apparent in the attire the players wear (Rugby kits are similar to soccer, albeit with increasing padding; Gridiron uniforms include helmets and shoulder pads) and thus in the type of tackle allowed (Rugby requires arms to be used, and wrapped; Gridiron does not, although this liberal attitude to “hitting” is increasingly being debated on safety grounds, even with helmets and pads). However, perhaps the biggest distinction is that Gridiron’s post-tackle plays begin with a “line of scrimmage” (a deliberate change from Rugby’s grouped “scrummage”) and that it came to permit one forward pass from behind that line. Gridiron also only requires the ball to be moved across the opponents’ goal line for a “try” to be awarded, whereas Rugby requires the ball to be touched down (albeit with very slight differences in precisely how between Union and League): it is odd, therefore, that the term for this in Gridiron in common usage for the score itself has come to be “touchdown” (the “try”, formally at least, refers to the kick or throw for extra points afterwards), whereas Rugby retains the word “try” for the score alone.

American Football has moved further from the original Gridiron version than Canadian has: it reduced the size of the field; moved the posts to the back of the “end zone” (i.e. to the dead ball line from the goal line); and introduced greater restrictions on movement. Gridiron has also adopted a defensive score not available in Rugby: if a team takes the ball behind its own goal line and fails to move it back beyond it, it concedes a “safety” (worth two points to the other team) and also kicks away possession (otherwise, unlike in Rugby, the scoring team kicks off after any score). Canadian Football, uniquely, also has what is known as a “single”, scored by kicking the ball beyond the opponents’ goal line without it being successfully returned beyond it by the other team (one of the marked distinctions of Canadian Football from American is that kicks generally remain live, including missed field goals).

The original means of scoring in Rugby were the “try” (a goal kicked after advancing the ball over the goal line), the “dropped goal” (a goal from a drop kick in open play), the “goal from the mark” (a goal scored by a kick after a fair catch) and, in most varieties, the “field goal” (a goal scored by kicking the ball straight off the ground). The “penalty goal” was added to both Rugby codes as a direct kick following a major foul, but Gridiron did not adopt this. All codes quickly came to recognise that advancing the ball beyond the goal line alone (the “try” in Rugby and the “touchdown” in Gridiron) should have a value of its own, and above that of any other score (Union was the slowest to complete this latter). Effectively the “field goal” and “dropped goal” were merged in all varieties (and the “kick from the mark” either abolished or rendered impractical by adaptations to the precise shape of the ball).

Scoring is now:

  • Rugby Union: 5 for a try/touchdown plus 2 for a conversion goal; 3 for a penalty goal; 3 for a dropped goal;
  • Rugby League: 4 for a try/touchdown plus 2 for a conversion goal; 2 for a penalty goal; 1 for a dropped goal;
  • American Football: 6 for a try/touchdown plus 1 for a conversion goal or 2 for a conversion touchdown; 3 for a field goal; 2 for a safety;
  • Canadian Football: as American, plus 1 for a single.

Even a slight difference in the rules can, interestingly, lead to a very different game. For example, as in Rugby, the ball may be advanced in Gridiron by passing the ball sideways or backwards to a free player at any time (specifically, in Gridiron, prior to contact), but because possession is at a premium this is much rarer. Dropped goals are allowed in Gridiron, including for conversion kicks, but, because the ball is sharper at the ends, they are now almost never attempted.

Gridiron is, of course, also marked out from any other version of football by its strict timing and its rolling substitutions. In terms of timing, Gridiron is based around a game clock for timing, with strict rules. In terms of players, Gridiron teams came to have three distinct “platoons”, for “defense”, “offense” and “special teams”. Rugby is moving that way in both cases, but is markedly different. It now has basic game clock timing, but in practice the final “play” can last several minutes; and it has long had a clear distinction between “forwards” and “backs” as separate groups (albeit all on the field at once). Union now allows 7-8 substitutions and in limited circumstances replaced players may return to the game.

Despite these marked differences, there are a number of areas where all the games retain vestiges of when they were once one. All are about advancing an oval ball over the goal line for maximum value, or kicking between the posts and above the crossbar as an alternative means of scoring (by moving in this direction, scoring has also increased in all codes over the years); all involve tackling by physical contact; all allow forward kicks and side/back passes (although Gridiron now allows one forward pass to restricted receivers from a particular zone); all have a particular default use of the 20-25 yard line (for restarts in certain circumstances); none rewards “knock-ons”; and all exhibit “offside” (albeit in different ways).

The culture of the different codes means they will probably all remain distinct: Canadian Football and, outside Australia, Rugby League remain very much minority versions, but they have a clear geographical home which is unlikely to shift. The big differences will probably come around the common concern to all codes of concussion and later mental health of players, with Rugby Union the code most likely to be directly affected in terms of gameplay. Union’s distinctiveness from all other codes, marked by its constant competition for possession, will probably decline over the coming decades as safety concerns grow. It will be interesting to see exactly how this comes to be addressed!


7 thoughts on “History of the different codes of Rugby/Gridiron Football

  1. Julius says:

    Excellent article. But two comments/corrections.

    1. It’s not really true to say there was no meaningful rugby before 1861-71. Although the Rugby Football Union had not been formed and unified rules agreed, there were still teams who played a consciously Rugby-type version of football.

    2. Although two schools were among the founding members of the FA, it was not “an association of schools”. Most member clubs were not schools.

    • On 1, yes there were, and I did try to get across the notion that differing rules around handling and offside had already begun to point to the eventual distinction. However, I still think at that time most players regarded themselves as playing “football”. It’s arguable of course, as the historical record is scant.

      2. Good point – corrected 🙂

      • Julius says:

        There’s no doubt players of all types of football would have regarded themselves as playing simply “football”, but equally the origin of the handling-type game was also known to be Rugby School and adherents of that type of football would have been conscious of this.
        It would still be quite some years after 1871 before Rugby adherents would regard themselves as playing “Rugby” rather than football according to Rugby rules.

      • My point is (and it’s marginal) that it is only after the 1863-1871 that it becomes clear that the choice is between two codes, each of which is unified.

        Underlying that, then, is the fascinating quirk of history that rugby split up into four more codes, whereas soccer stayed as one despite the same pressures.

        Could it be that, had that been the other way around, rugby would now be the world game?!

        Hypothetical of course, but fun to consider.

      • Julius says:

        Invitations to the first RFU meeting were, after all, made to those clubs playing “the rugby type game” and the new body called itself the “Rugby” Football Union.

  2. […] other versions of “football” with significant followings (notably rugby and gridiron, whose history and comparisons I wrote about here) is its beguiling simplicity. No “down-and-distance” rules, or […]

  3. […] – is exactly a Rugby League hotbed so I don’t really follow the game, but as I enjoy any “dialect” of football I do so enough to know Australia are the world champions and Leeds are the Super League champions. […]

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