The story of rugby’s great split as 13-man code celebrates its 125th anniversary
With Queen Victoria on the throne, Oscar Wilde in jail, and six-month old Babe Ruth really a baby, a group of visionaries changed the face of British sport.
On this day 125 years go, August 29, 1895, 21 bold men – years ahead of their time – held a meeting in Huddersfield that created rugby league.
Representatives from clubs across the north of England gathered in a room in the George Hotel, and voted unanimously to break away from the RFU and form the Northern Union.
Their main issue was the RFU’s refusal to allow payments for playing rugby, with the largely working class north struggling to take time off work at weekend without being compensated.
It was a dispute that had been developing for years. In 1891, the Leeds president James Miller noted: “Rugby is no longer the pastime of the public schools and the leisured classes alone. It has become the sport of the masses – of the wage-earning classes in our great manufacturing centres.
“It is unreasonable to expect the same ‘amateurism’ from the wage-earning classes as from public school men. It is unfair to expect working men to break time to play football without their being remunerated.”
But a move to allow payments was rejected at a RFU vote in 1893, and Huddersfield, Leigh, Salford and Wigan all found themselves suspended for breaching rules. As a result, at 6.30pm on Thursday, August 29, 1895, those 21 men came together in Huddersfield to split the code irrevocably.
Respected sports historian Professor Tony Collins explained: “The reason they met at the George Hotel was because their backs had been forced to the wall by the Rugby Football Union. Rugby, wherever it was played in the north in the 1890s, had become hugely popular, played right across the community but especially by industrial workers like the miners and factory workers.
“The Rugby Football Union people were very afraid that those people would threaten their place at the head of rugby. The northern clubs campaigned for ‘Broken Time’ to give compensation for players that took time off work.
“But Rugby union had decided it wanted to be an amateur sport – you couldn’t be paid to play the game and if you were you were expelled. They suspected that they would get picked off one-by-one and came together to form the Northern Rugby Football Union, which became the Rugby Football League as we know it now.”
For the record, the 21 clubs in the room were: Batley, Bradford, Brighouse Rangers, Broughton Rangers, Dewsbury, Halifax, Huddersfield, Hull, Hunslet, Leeds, Leigh, Liversedge, Manningham, Oldham, Rochdale Hornets, St Helens, Tyldesley, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan.
A new club in Stockport signalled their intention to join the group, and when Dewsbury decided against leaving the RFU, there were replaced by Runcorn in the first 1895/96 season, which was won by Manningham.
Leeds Rhinos legend Jamie Jones-Buchanan believes that day 125 years ago remains relevant today. He said: “That meeting certainly shaped rugby league’s identity and personality. It was a northern sport that broke away through a degree of rebellion, because raw-boned, working class people that had to earn a living in the pits and cotton mills couldn’t afford to miss work at weekend.
“They formed the Northern Union and it became a forward-thinking game that’s always trying to change and evolve to better itself on the pitch with different innovations. The primarily northern and working class people that played this gladiatorial game became very tribal between those communities in places like like Wakefield, Featherstone, Castleford and Wigan.
“Now, when people come to see the game for the first time and get over that northern stereotype that we’ve all got whippets and flat caps, they love it, and see it’s a very family-orientated game.
“But the thing that really stands out about that meeting and what happened is that whenever there’s adversity, people in rugby league tend to come together to try and look after each other.
“The sport is facing another huge challenge with Covid at the moment. But you get the impression that during adversity is when it’s at its strongest, and that is its personality shining through.”
10 Significant Moments in Rugby League’s History
1895 – 22 clubs breakaway from the RFU to form the Northern Union
1897 – Batley win the first Northern Union – now Challenge Cup – final
1906 – Teams reduced from 15-a-side to 13, play-the-ball introduced
1907 – First international tour made by RU rebels the New Zealand ‘All Golds’
1922 – Title of Northern Rugby Football Union changed to Rugby Football League
1929 – Wembley hosts Challenge Cup final for the first time
1954 – First World Cup staged, Great Britain beating hosts France in final
1966 – Limited tackles introduced at four, later increased to six in 1972
1983 – Try value increased from three to four points
1996 – First season of Super League, summer rugby and widespread full-time professionalism
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