Scotland were leading by
a try to nil
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
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
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
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.
Hon Sec RFU G Rowland Hill 21 March 1884
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
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
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
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
Letter from G
Scriven (Ireland), Referee 21
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.
that you may soon come to an amicable agreement
Yours very truly
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
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.