Slingshot or not: Do the posts need updating in rugby league or union?

Fifty years ago, the NFL changed its uprights to the slingshot shaped ones we know today. Are the rugby codes in need of an update?

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Spencer Kassimir

Fifty years ago, the NFL changed its uprights to the slingshot shaped ones we know today. Are the rugby codes in need of an update?

Wavell_Heights_hugh_courtney_2.jpg
©orderinchaos

We all know that a ball grounded against the posts is a try in union and no try in league and usually don’t care why. According to my colleague, Dr. Kevin Ball Ph.D. of Victoria University, a less frequently known fact is that grounds utilised by both rugby union and rugby league teams that don’t change the uprights are out of spec with one of the codes. This is because the width for union is 5.6 but only 5.5 for league. This may not sound like much but it is essentially enough for a union player to have successfully made an attempt at goal instead of bouncing off the posts.

But otherwise, why would we want to change our beloved H shaped goalposts?

For those followers of either codes but not the gridiron, it has been 50 years since the NFL switched to the “slingshot” model. Two Americans, retired sports writer/editor Joel Rottman came up with it while staring at his fork along with colleague coach Jim Trimble while having lunch in Canada. Why? Because it would make the game safer and would prevent players from gaining advantage by using the posts to set a pick.

From 1966 onward, the Canadian Football League has used the new shape and from 1967, the NFL has as well. After all, the two were having that fateful lunch in Montreal so why wouldn’t the CFL get it onto the field first?

But, more importantly, the history of how these came to be requires some explaining. Unlike in most countries where professional sport dwarfs that of all others, college football still reigns supreme in America. This was even more so the case in 1920, when the NFL was founded. It used the classic H shaped goalposts and placed them on the goal-line just like in both rugby codes. This is because that was what college football did and college football did it because the origins of the sport are in pre-split rugby. Still this was a long time after the most influential event that split the North American games from their English counterpart. In 1879/1880 the scrimmage/scrummage ceased to be contested and, as a result of ball hogging and boring games, a three down restriction was brought in two years later.

But still, it was not long after that in 1927, the NFL followed suit with college football and retreated the goalposts to the back of the end zone as a way of reducing kicking attempts. This was not to last and in 1933, the NFL decided to make its own rules and moved the posts back up to encourage more kicking due to ties.

Digital Camera
©Unclekevy

But the next step was not entirely linear to the “gooseneck” shape we have today. Until 1967 as exemplified in the AFL-NFL Championship Game (in hindsight referred to as Super Bowl I), the design was changed to that the bottom half of the H was recessed but the top crossbar and top half protruded forward to sit over the goal line.

For those that say the Y shaped NFL style is just too much, maybe this is something rugby folk should be looking at.

No they are not the prettiest but they are 1) safer in reducing collisions at the line 2) prevent players from using them to their advantage and 3) do so without changing the distance needed to be kicked.

However, if the goal is to reduce the amount of goals kicked, we could simply move the current H or even the broken H shaped design to the deadball line.

It is hard to find someone that follows rugby union to say that a game of aerial ping pong that is then won entirely off of penalty goals is more exciting than hard fought tries scored. The National Rugby Championship (NRC) has attempted to change the strategy of coaches in Australia by assigning different values to the goal after try (usually two but now three) and penalty kick (usually three but now two). Whether or not this grows beyond the comp has yet to be determined but it may just go the way of that white card experiment.

150-old goalposts
Old NFL goalposts @Packervilleblog

In rugby league, this means that there would be at least eight more metres to kick when trying to break that tie to win in the final seconds of the game. Some find the status quo exhilarating but others would argue that it is 80 hard fought minutes reduced down to who is arbitrarily lucky enough to have the ball in their hands as the buzzer sounds. With a ten-metre retreat, and just two markers off the ruck, it is understandably frustrating since, unlike union, this provides a major advantage to the kicking side.

But what about the Y shaped goal? If we are so keen to keep the goal over the goal line, would it serve a purpose? It provides only one post to come in contact with or to use for advantage and, by design, it is recessed into the in-goal area, which would allow defenders to line up in front of it. Since we are this far down the rabbit hole, there is always the option of suspending the uprights as they do in the Arena Football League (also AFL) though, even with tethers strapping them to the ground, it is likely they will sway in the wind!

It is unlikely that any of the above ideas will ever be put into practice unless a game is being played on a field designed for American football but it is important to note that, though its intended design and use in the CFL is still being felt today as they still sit on the goal line, Rottman and Trimble’s slingshot only maintained its purpose for eight years in the NFL. For all the eight seasons from Super Bowl II through to Super Bowl IX, the wishbone sat up front like it’s Canadian cousin. After that season, the NFL decided there was too much kicking and decided to move them back behind the dead ball line. The idea reducing the number of posts in half for safety while maintaining a goal line stance were no longer needed. As such, if we in the rugby codes are serious about reevaluating the goalposts it is crucial that we establish what we would like to achieve in any sort of changes and, as such should keep this final piece of the puzzle in mind as it has remained unchanged for more than half a century on the gridiron.

Spencer Kassimir

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James Peters- England Rugby’s first black international

An awe-inspiring tale of perseverance, talent and hard-work to overcome the odds. Here is the amazing story of James Peters.

Tom Weir

An awe-inspiring tale of perseverance, talent and hard-work to overcome the odds. Here is the amazing story of James Peters.

Peters for Bristol (richard boddie)
Peters for Bristol (Richard Boddie provided)

That the England Rugby team 2018 vintage embraces a wide ethnic diversity is barely newsworthy in an increasingly modern and post-racial sport. The West African heritage of the current team’s superstar (and captain in waiting), Maro Itoje, provides a thin thread back in history to England’s very first black player, James Peters.

A ‘pallid blackamore,’ ‘wooly haired mulatto,’ ‘honorary white man’ or simply ‘Darkie Peters.’ Various racially charged epithets were attached to England’s first International sportsman, James Peters, who debuted 112 years ago in the Calcutta Cup of 1906. Underdogs England emerged that day with a 9-3 victory, inspired by their debutante half-back pairing of Peters and Adrian Stoop, (the Stoop of Harlequins legend.) The mixed-race son of an English mother and West Indian Lion-Tamer father, Peters won five caps for England between 1906-1908, despite the disadvantage of being a working class ‘coloured’ man in an elitist game.

Peters could have been a pioneer in the sport just as baseball superstar Jackie Robinson was to prove in the 1940s, leading to the increasingly utilisation of the talent of those with mixed-racial heritage. That he didn’t says something of his own temperament and motivations; as a lover and player of the game, rather than a politician or activist. It also though asks some searching questions about rugby’s willingness historically to integrate, but that is a grand topic for a seperate time. A comprehensive biography of Peters is only now (slowly) being written, but a short biography of Peters provides a glimpse into some of the challenges he faced, from an unwelcoming hierarchy to becoming the first victim of a South African sporting boycott.

Born August 7th 1879 in Salford, the circus dominated Peters’ childhood, where he worked as a bareback rider. Following his father’s untimely demise at the jaws of his lions, Peters was abandoned aged 11, after breaking his arm in a fall. Adopted by Fegan’s children’s home in London, he proved a ‘champion athlete,’ with his love of rugby kindled by watching the local Blackheath Club.

jimmy-peters child fegans
A young Peters (Tom Weir contributor provided)

 

Having outgrown the orphanage in 1898 he moved to Bristol, excelling for Dings, Bristol and by 1902 the Somerset County team. Despite obvious ability, Peters was to experience that talent was not always colourblind. He was ‘a pallid blackamore…keeping a white man out the team,’ declared ‘naive [displaying] some of the worst half back play ever witnessed,’ whilst a protesting committee member reportedly resigned. Yet, for every example of prejudice were those acknowledging his talent; notably Dings who deigned him an honoured guest at club dinners. His 1902 move to Plymouth, precipitated his starring role in the Country Championship winning Devon sides, and led to a growing clamour for international recognition. There were however additional obstacles beyond his ‘dusky’ skin. Peters was a carpenter not a gentleman, an unforgivable affront for some, given the animosity lingering from the 1895 schism with the ‘Northern Union’ over professionalism.

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Peters (Back right) in the Orphanage team photo (Tom Weir contributor provided)

With his continued exclusion from the first 1906 home international against Wales The Western Times thundered: ‘Peters is sacrificed. Colour is the difficulty… pity for the chances of the English success.’ England losses to Wales and Ireland, combined with untimely appendicitis for incumbent half-back Dai Gent, led to Peters’ opportunity. He seized it masterfully, praised both individually and for his combination with Stoop. The following week a 35-8 rout of France was notable both for Peters’ try-scoring effort and France’s inclusion of two black players: Andre Verges and Georges Jerome, from French Guiana. Despite his successes selection against England’s next opposition, South Africa, was ruled impossible owing in part to the events around Devon’s fixture against the Springboks on October 17th 1906.

This game has spawned the most frequently repeated myth around Peters: that the Springboks refused to leave their changing room, protesting Peters’ selection, only finally persuaded out by their High Commissioner. It is a compelling legend featuring a blameless hero, contemptible foreign villains, all played out in front of the fanatical crowd. Yet the story is, at best, highly embellished. It owes more to South Africa’s late 20th century status as international pariahs than any contemporary historical evidence, (their High Commissioner was in fact in Durban!) Yet racial antipathy certainly marred the game. Springbok Bob Loubster’s memoir describes the ‘Boks attempts to injure Peters, whilst diary extracts and newspaper columns declaim how unhappy the tourists were mixing with ‘kaffirs.’ The irony that these same Springboks entered the field with a ‘Zulu War Cry,’ appears somewhat lost.

The Springboks were spared further embarrassment. Although there is no definitive documented proof of their deliberation, balance of evidence point to the RFU selection committee choosing to exclude him from international consideration. Despite being fit, in form and incumbent in the shirt, Peters was not selected for either of the two trial games. Whilst arguably Peters lost out to more talented halfbacks in final selection; Raphael Jago and Stoop; racial motives loom apparent in having denied him even a sporting chance.

PFH 2.5.1908 p.2 man of the year
Peters named ‘Man of the Year’ (Tom Weir contributor provided)

His non-selection went beyond simple sporting considerations. Scheduled five years after a bitter civil war, in which four Springboks had fought on opposite sides, the tour party deliberately mixed both English and Boer settlers, intending to symbolise the new South Africa. Playing against Peters divided opinion within the Springbok team. Had he played the chances of a unified team returning were greatly diminished. The case for the RFU excluding Peters, although never morally right, thus proved overwhelming.

Peters won three further caps in 1907 and 1908, however hardship continued to stalk him. Losing three fingers to a workplace accident in 1910 forced him into early sporting retirement. Making light of the injury, he attempted a return, only to be banned as a professional for receiving money from a testimonial by an unsympathetic RFU. In 1913 he ‘went north,’ representing Barrow and St Helens before retiring in 1914 and returning to raise his family in Plymouth. His passing in 1954 is recorded with little fanfare, logged in The Times with a short paragraph.

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James Peters resting place (Tom Weir contributor provided)

In contrast to Jackie Robinson, and other celebrated pioneering black sportsmen, Peters’ story had all but vanished. His England caps were more an anomaly than a watershed, with a full 80 years passing before England’s next black International, Chris Oti. Peters proved one of the unlikely beneficiaries of the Stuart Lancaster era, with his story used to inspire and holding particular resonance for the Vunipola brothers. England fans would hope history repeats itself with victory again over their oldest enemy, 112 years after Peters’ inspired debut against Scotland. That this is achieved by a racial rainbow of a team would, i hope, be a source of pride for Peters.

Tom Weir