Does an achieved feat have any value if it has been won too easily? William Webb Ellis first ran with the rugby ball, but he had to traverse a perilous field full of lurking dangers to do it. While Ellis was free in 1823 to hold the game’s traditions in contempt and run with the ball, the opposition were equally free to employ whatever tactic or force they wished to stop him.
Written by Sean Fagan
Author Thomas Hughes, who attended Rugby School as a student in the 1830s, recalled “a jury of Rugby boys of that day would almost certainly have found a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ if a boy had been killed” attempting to run with the ball.
No one had yet thought to pass the ball to a team mate, meaning the bear-hugging method to capture player and ball together was of little necessity. The favoured means to bring a runner down were hacking (something akin to tripping) or charging (using your shoulder or torso to bowl or knock him off his feet).
For any rugby player running with the ball, and succeeding at it for any distance, was an exhilarating thrill, a sense of brave achievement and indeed survival. It was a hare or fox hunt played out in human form with the blood hounds pursuing their prey – the captured were overthrown and quickly disappeared under a massed pile of arms, legs, bodies.
It was understood then and ever since (though perhaps less in recent times) that in carrying the ball you are signaling to all your consent to, within the limits of the laws and customs of the game, being pursued and physically harmed until dispossessed of the ball.
In A History of Rugby School  it is noted that when running with the ball first arrived in the game anyone attempting it “was liable to an extra allowance of hacking during the progress.”
The game of course evolved, ball-carriers thought more about where they chose to run to minimise the risk or avoid capture, or they transferred the ball by kicking or passing it, and later team work and combination came to fore.
The “shoulder charge” by gradual degrees faded out of the game. In 1921 charging an opponent in the lineout was banned, but it was still allowed in general play: “Charging is permissible, but it must not be violent or dangerous.”
The assessment of what was “violent or dangerous” was left in the hands of the referee, but a wide understanding of what was acceptable or not existed.
Writing in the British press in 1922, a rugby expert stated that any charge that included jumping was in the dangerous category, while a legitimate “charge should either be a shove with the shoulder in a standing position, or, if with a short run, one or both feet should be on the ground.”
“The charge should be on the upper part of the body – shoulder or chest” and “There is no need to be squeamish about it, but there are obvious limits.”
The unanswerable poser was how far can a player run to deliver a charge, particularly in the case of a back racing 20 or 30m across the field to meet an opponent, often a forward, that is also running flat out.
Every player knows the violence of a charge delivered with all the accumulated impetus of a long rush. It is of course much worse when tackler and ball-carrier are both running into each other. But there is no formula that can be the basis for a law to determine or limit the amount of force reasonably used. The tackler makes choices, the ball-carrier has options.
By the late 1990s the IRB had in effect banned the shoulder charge by adopting Law 10.4: “A player must not charge or knock down an opponent carrying the ball without trying to grasp that player.”
It was an amendment that initially passed without much debate, if any, as the tactic had long vanished as a part of the game. The trigger for the law change is thought to have been a pre-emptive strike to prevent league’s growing predilection for shoulder charges re-entering the code, or the outcome of studies on potential injury risks and insurance costs in a litigious age, specifically in the USA where many players coming to rugby had been bred on American football tackling methods.
Even if the shoulder charge was still legal in rugby, the nature of the game compared to league affords few opportunities to utilise it, outside of the backs in open field situations.
League has in many respects de-evolved, returning to rugby’s origins where predictability and repetition afford opportunity to a player possessing a desire to charge an opponent many a likely target.
It is not hard to identify situations in league where a ball-carrier is not intending to pass the ball – the player returning the kick-off or drop out, the ubiquitous “hit up” from the play-the-ball under the 10m rule.
Charging is a tempting option when these situations give ample occasion to get a head of steam up, and the reward is often the ball-carrier and his team being dispossessed of the ball.
With non-contestable play-the-balls and scrums, along with defenders penalised for ball stripping (apart from one-on-one), attempting to mine-blast the ball from a ball-carrier’s hold via body and shoulder charging is all that is left to change the possession flow of the game.
All of this is coupled with a dire mantra that sees all obligations in contact fall upon the tackler (accidental head contact, loose carrying of the ball, not releasing the tackle quickly enough) and to their being penalised and sometimes suspended, while the ball-carrier in league sometimes appears to run in a blissful daze of comfortable routine. You can understand why some one-dimensional ball-carriers make for juicy targets for a shoulder charge exponent.
The question of what is too much force for a shoulder charge can never be answered unilaterally – each situation is different. Certainly don’t make the initial contact be to the head.
Be sure to understand though that league has created the environment to foster the shoulder charge, especially one encompassing a running start.
Be equally sure that a game designed to placate doctors and mothers won’t attract the same number of players, nor tv viewers and spectators.
Ultimately protection and prevention from injury lies with the players themselves on the field.
In Hughes’ description of football at Rugby School (in Tom Brown’s Schooldays) most of the players were involved in the mass of humanity called the scrummage – outside of it were the older players, the ball-carrying ‘dodgers’ and their mortal enemies, the ‘chargers’.
Hughes had it right when he wrote 150 years ago that the dodgers “must have more coolness than the chargers.”
League players getting swatted by the modern-day chargers aren’t exhibiting much coolness of thought, and are a long way from being dodgers and looking after their own protection.
But league lacks the collective intellectual ability and will to enter an internal, let alone public, discourse where it can fully explore its position, its playing rules and tactics, and mount argument to counter the hysterical claims of media, medical professions and other groups.
The cop out would be to change the rule book and further mollify the ball-carrier’s path towards the goal line.
A game without risk is not worth playing, not worth watching.
© Sean Fagan