Outwith Sevens, the concept of short-sided rugby matches also began in Scotland. With these short-sided matches, was the introduction of the collective passing rugby union game.
1872 Loretto School, Musselburgh
At the time when rugby union matches were twenty-a-side, the Loretto School were playing eleven-a-side rugby with Edinburgh Academicals in 1872.
This is detailed in H. B. Tristram’s 1911 book ‘Loretto School’.
Hely Hutchinson Almond (1832-1903), headmaster of Loretto School, promoted the use of passing in rugby union to his students at the school. This was his attempt to try and out-think the opposition who would just rely on brute strength. Unfortunately for this rugby union pioneer, it took a good few years before his collectivism idea became accepted in Scotland.
These early short-sided eleven-a-side matches of the 1870s and possibly earlier, to focus on passing skills, unfortunately did not last as the Lorettonian students were not keen on the idea.
p. 153 of Tristram’s ‘Loretto School’ details that Hely Hutchinson Almond ‘urged on his boys in the sixties that if only they would pass constantly and systematically to each other, they would baffle any side unaccustomed to such tactics.’ His boys’ answer was that they did not want to try it because – it would look like ‘funking.’
Problems with 20-a-side and moving to fewer players
So, despite Almond’s tinkering, there remained systemic problems with the 20-a-side model that rugby union used at the time.
The main problem for rugby union was that it was difficult for clubs to field a large amount of players. And even when they could, the sheer number of players on the field from both sides meant that scoring was kept to a minimum.
For example, aside from the first season in 1872-73, every match between Glasgow District and Edinburgh District was a draw until the 20-a-side numbers requirement finally dropped to 15-a-side in 1876. Every match between those dates ended a 0-0 draw, with a solitary pointless try (tries only allowed a scoring opportunity at the time) in January 1874. The lack of scoring did nothing to promote the game with players or spectators.
The Wanderers from Greenock switched to association football in 1874 as it could not commit the twenty players for rugby union. They only switched back to rugby union later when the association club was effectively taken over by a rugby union club – Greenock West End – that wanted their ground.
The switch to fifteen a side in 1876 helped the game recover in Scotland against association football which was swiftly gaining popularity with the modern Scotch Professor passing game being exported worldwide.
However even in association football, they were experimenting with four-a-side football; and occasionally five-a-side football in Scotland.
Short-handed games were not new. For rugby union, it was left to Melrose’s Ned Haig and David Sanderson to fix the standard Sevens format that is now played the world over.
England and the move to Rugby League
In England, short handed rugby games were linked with rugby league and a move to professionalism. It was obviously easier to pay fewer players if the teams needed a smaller contingent on the pitch.
The Dewsbury Athletic and Football club played a six-a-side tournament in 1879. It was reported in the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 26 May 1879, having taken place on the Saturday 24 May 1879.
It was not repeated in the following year.
However another Dewsbury club did play a six-a-side tournament in 1880. The Dewsbury Shamrock Cricket and Football club played a six-a-side tournament on 15 May 1880.
Batley Mountaineers Football Club intended on a six-a-side tournament on 15 May 1880.
However there are no reports of the Batley tournament going ahead; and it is assumed that the Batley club could not get sufficient numbers with the nearby Dewsbury Shamrock club tournament taking place the same day.
The English Rugby Union were not in favour of these short-handed games. They viewed them as a backdoor to professionalism. This did happen later in the north of England when Rugby League began, and their team numbers were cut from fifteen to thirteen.
Collectivism and the passing game in Scotland
In Scotland, however, both the clubs and the Scottish Rugby Union saw the value of Sevens. This even lead to the rugby union Tens format also starting.
The Dundee Evening Telegraph of 8 December 1885 notes an eight-a-side match between Dundee HSFP and Newport RFC on 5 December 1885.
At the late nineteenth century, eventually the collectivism espoused by Hely Hutchinson Almond in the 1860s and 1870s began to bear fruit in Scotland in its rugby union.
The Scottish Referee newspaper of 18 October 1895 noted that rugby union was prospering in Glasgow with various teams like Clydesdale, Kelvinside Academicals and Greenock Wanderers displacing Glasgow’s old guard teams of West of Scotland, Glasgow University and Glasgow Academicals. It notes that Glasgow HSFP and Partickhill RFC are also rising clubs.
The paper singles out the West of Scotland club for criticism: they were still using the old individualist methods, even bringing in stars from elsewhere to try and maintain individualism, rather than use the new collective passing game.
The West of Scotland have themselves to blame for the retrograde movement. They have ever relied on individualism rather than collectivism, and would rather give a stranger a place in their team than elevate one of the juniors.
In 1898, one of Glasgow’s old guard, Glasgow University formed its own Sevens tournament, playing at Gilmorehill.
Almond was a legend of Scottish rugby union. He was one of the umpires in the first international rugby union match between Scotland and England in 1871. He supported the founding of the SRU in 1873.
Not only that but for his achievements in rugby:- the pioneer of short-sided matches; the pioneer of the collective passing game in rugby union; he also made Loretto School a famous rugby nursery for players. Almond was nominated to the IRB’s Hall of Fame in 2007. He was not inducted.