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A Disputed Try

England vs Scotland 1 March 1884

England 1 goal from a try; Scotland 1 try

Scotland were leading by a try to nil[1] when one of their players, CW Berry, "knocked back" the ball near their line when it was "thrown out from touch" - in modern parlance, in a lineout. It soon came to RS Kindersley of England, who promptly ran in for a try.  There followed a disputatious 10 minutes (or more) as the Scots argued the try should be disallowed.  Eventually the game was resumed, and, under protest, WN Bolton kicked what was to be the game (and championship) winning goal.

Since part of this dispute turned on a question of law, here is the relevant passage:-

LAW 26 Knocking On ie hitting the ball with the hand, and Throwing Forward ie throwing the ball in the direction of the opponents' goal line are not lawful.  If the ball be either knocked on or thrown forward, the opposite side may (unless a fair catch has been made as provided by the next rule) require to have it brought back to the spot where it was so knocked on or thrown forward, and there put down.

The law was well established by 1884, having been essentially in effect for International Matches since 1871.

After the match the Scots continued to vigorously dispute the decision to allow the English try, and hence their winning goal.  So aggrieved were they that they attempted to have the decision overturned by appeal after the match was over. 

Strange though it may seem to us, in those days a result or incident could be overturned by appeal to the RFU (a right finally abolished in 1969).  The Scots problem here was that the match was played in England, and the RFU was not prepared to agree that anyone other than themselves should rule on the laws they themselves had made, and under which the game had been played for some years.

There was a stiff, formal, somewhat waspish exchange of letters between the two Secretaries, extracts from which perhaps best convey the flavour of the problem and the arguments raised.

From: Hon Sec SRFU James Alex. Gardner 19 March 1884

          They [the Scottish Committee] at once accept the ruling of the Referee that the ball was 'fisted' by a Scotchman, but they entirely dissent from your reading of Rule 26.  They consider that 'knocking on', the technical expression for what is commonly called a 'fist', includes knocking forward, knocking to the side, and knocking backwards.  Striking the ball with the hand in any direction they believe to constitute a knock-on, and thus to be illegal.


From: Hon Sec RFU G Rowland Hill 21 March 1884[2]

          Did your Committee in deciding to appeal on the grounds that a knock back is illegal consider the words in law 26, - "the opposite side may?"

          The interpretation of these words is, that it is only the opposite side that has the right of appeal.  I was told by the referee that no Englishman appealed.  I am not admitting that knocking back is illegal, but simply pointing out that if it is, the act was done by a Scotchman who has to suffer for his mistake.


From: SRFU 25 March 1884

          In the Laws of Rugby Football, 'back' is contrasted with 'forward', not with 'on'.  We maintain that a 'knock on' means a knock onward in any direction.


From: RFU 1 May 1884

          You ask that the fact should be considered that you believe an Englishman appealed.  Assuming the necessity for discussing such a point the Scotch Umpire is of the opinion that an appeal was made by an Englishman.  The English Umpire holds a contrary opinion.  The Referee has to decide.  He gave his verdict that no Englishman appealed.  On a question of fact against the decision of the Referee no appeal can be made.


At the suggestion of the RFU, both sides made statements to the newspapers.

RFU 28 May 1884

[after quoting Law 26] The Scotch Committee maintain that 'knocking on' mentioned in the Law means knocking the ball with the hand in any direction.

          The Rugby Union Committee have ruled in the past and still hold that the words in this Law, - 'in the direction of the opponents' goal line', apply to 'knocking on' as well as to 'throwing forward'.

          It is equally lawful to knock back as it is to throw back.

          This is the reading of the Law which was intended by the framers of the code.  Therefore, as there was no breach of Law, the try was fairly obtained.

          It should be further noted that if the act was illegal it was done by a Scotchman.


SRFU 22 July 1884

          There was at the time an appeal from several players, and it was not then, and probably could not be decided who made individual appeals to the Umpire, but that the appeal was acquiesced in by both sides was evident from the fact, that the majority of the players on both sides stopped playing as soon as the piece of play under dispute occurred.


What did the Referee think?


Letter from G Scriven[3] (Ireland), Referee 21 September 1884

Dear Hill,

          I am sorry to hear that you are still in difficulties regarding the Scotch International Match of last year, and shall be very glad if I can do anything to assist in settling the dispute.


          With regard to the points you mention, -

          (1) the ball was knocked back by a Scotchman.

          (2) no Englishman appealed on the ground of the knock-back certainly to me, or as far as I heard, to either of the Umpires.

          It seems to me frivolous to say that the interpretation of the rule has anything to do with settlement of the point.  For, if the knocking back were lawful there is no ground for an appeal; if unlawful the English team had a right to take advantage of the mistake.

          I was sorry I was obliged to decide in favour of England, as I thought that Scotland had in other respects the best of the match, but felt quite confident that my decision was correct.

Hoping that you may soon come to an amicable agreement

            Yours very truly

            G Scriven


Later, in an article in The Field, he commented further.

G Scriven 6 January 1885

          'The 'fact' on which the Umpires disagreed during the match, and which was therefore referred to me, was whether the ball was knocked back by an Englishman or a Scotchman, and on this I decided at once that it was by a Scotchman, as above stated.

          The plea that an Englishman had appealed to the Umpire at the time was not, unless my memory deceives me, put forward until after the match was concluded.


The Scottish case relied on (a) their interpretation of Law 26, and (b) there having been an appeal by the English to the Umpire.  It is true that the interpretation of the actual words in Law 26 insisted on by the RFU looks a little strained when taken in vacuo, though it is by no means impossible.  It certainly accords with the modern view, and it is strange that after several international matches, this point had never needed to be resolved before.  Moreover at that time it was still commonplace for different countries to have slightly different rules, so it should have been no surprise to the Scots that they were expected to abide by the English version.

It is not possible to test the extent to which the RFU had previously made any relevant rulings.  Although there are many references in the minute books to points of law being discussed, it is very rare for any details to be given, and I have found none relevant to this case.

The question of the appeal loomed large in the Scottish mind, and it is interesting to note that despite their protestations that there had been an appeal by the English, the SRFU seem never to have produced anything from the Scottish umpire to support that claim - the English umpire certainly rejected it, as did the referee.  At that time the referee only interfered with play after an appeal to one of the umpires.  His job was simply to adjudicate between them if they disagreed.

Not surprisingly, if you go through Scottish reports of the incident, they do not read quite the same way.  In his 1925 The Story of Scottish Rugby, RJ Phillips wrote: "In Scotland at that time there was no such term as 'knock on', 'knock back', or knock of any kind.  It was illegal to 'fist' the ball in any direction.  One of the most prevalent shouts or appeals heard in every match was 'fist', and it was followed customarily by a stoppage of play.  Whether at that time in England it was permissible to knock the ball back is an obscure and doubtful point".

It is legitimate to ask why he casts doubt on the firm assertions of the RFU, and this further underlines the oddity that the two countries had played 13 previous matches against each other, to say nothing of matches against Wales and Ireland, without this problem surfacing.  Somebody is surely stretching a point!

Phillips goes on to quote AR Don Wauchope, writing some unspecified time after the event: "I have not got any of the papers by me, but as I played in the match, and was a member of the Scottish Committee at the time, and for some years subsequently, I know the subject pretty well.  In those days there were two umpires who carried sticks, not flags, and a referee without a whistle.  The ball was thrown out of touch, an appeal made, the umpire on the touch-line held up his stick, all the players, with the exception of four Englishmen and two Scotsman, stopped playing, and England scored a try.  The only question of fact decided by the referee was that a Scotsman knocked the ball back.  This, according to the Scottish view of the reading of the rule, was illegal, and the whole question turned on the interpretation.  The point that no Englishman had appealed was never raised at the time, and, to judge by the fact that eleven of the English team ceased play, it would appear that their idea was that the game should stop.  I do not know of any other point of fact on which the referee decided the try was valid."

Phillips further wrote that: "For the best part of half an hour the players stood about the field not knowing what to do.  Mr Rowland Hill came on armed with a copy of the rules, but play was resumed without a decision, and it was not until the dinner at night that the referee expressed himself in anything approaching decisive terms. [] JHS Graham was the Scottish umpire who held up his stick immediately the 'fist' occurred."

If the final sentence is accurate, the umpire was surely a little premature, and it is no wonder if players not directly involved thought play had been stopped (rather than stopping because they felt they should).

The argument has also been put forward that the advantage law, under which England could benefit from the illegal play (were it such) of their opponents, was not introduced until 1896.  The argument is specious:  the officials could not act unless there were an appeal, so the option of taking advantage was built in to the way the match was run.  Obviously you would not appeal on behalf of your opponents!  If their umpire appealed to the referee, yours would not, so the referee would decide - which is what apparently happened.  The change in 1896 came because the roles of the umpires and referees were then redefined, and the need to appeal was dropped.

The dispute was still rumbling on when the time came to arrange the match for the next season.

RFU 12 February 1885

          We shall be pleased to play the Annual match at Edinburgh on March 7th, provided that the Referee's award be accepted.


Since Scotland refused to accept the result, the match was cancelled.  In 1886, on the morning of the England vs Ireland match, 6 February, representatives of all four countries tried to resolve the dispute, and Scotland eventually accepted the defeat, but "only in the interests of rugby football". This was laconically reported in the RFU minutes: "The Hon. Sec. reported the result of an informal meeting of the various Unions in Dublin on the 6th inst and that the England v Scotland match would be played in Edinburgh on 6th proxo." (23 February 1886)

To set this in context, it should be noted that in 1885 Wales and Ireland were also in dispute, and refused to play each other, as they did in 1886 as well.  These were fractious times.  The end result was the eventual founding of the IRB - but that is another story.


[1] Technically a draw, since only goals counted in those days.

[2] Note the impressive speed of the post in those days.

[3] George Scriven was known to both teams, having captained Ireland against them the previous season.  He was on the losing side both times, so could reasonably have been considered neutral.

P Shortell, 2010
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