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19 Sep 2011

Rugby Rules Revised for Re-enactment of First Game of Rugby

When Nelson College and Nelson Rugby Club compete in the Re-enactment of the First Game of Rugby in NZ at the Botanics Reserve on 20 September, it will not just be the replica uniforms that date back to 1870.

The rules and format of play will be based on rugby laws from 1862 which have been interpreted and modified by rugby historian John Goodman and Blair Simpson from Nelson College. With fewer technical rules to follow, the game will appear less structured than modern rugby.

With 18 players per side and ten forwards, a highly physical game can be expected. Scrummages feature a minimum of ten players per side, and are likely to form into enormous rolling mauls as additional players join in. Don’t expect to see much passing of the ball though, as in 1870 this was considered a cowardly act to avoid contact with an opponent.  Another physical aspect from 1870 is “hacking” where it was acceptable to trip up an opponent and kick them in the shins. Although allowed in early games, this is one of the rules from 1870 that won’t be used in the Re-enactment game.

Kicking will form a prominent part of game, as in 1870 points were scored by kicking the ball over the cross bar, with one point awarded for a drop-kick, conversion or penalty-kick.  To earn the opportunity for a conversion, a player had to cross the goal line and ground the ball (“running in”). This act in itself did not earn the team any points, but gave the team a “try” at kicking a goal.

Although in 1870 the game was controlled by the captains of both teams rather than a referee, Blair Simpson will act as referee in the Re-enactment game, complete with bowler hat and booming voice as no whistle would have been used in the first game.

In 1870, teams would swap ends after each successful kick at goal and games often continued for 3- 5 days until 2 goals were scored to settle the winner. The Re-enactment game, however, will follow a more typical format of a game of two halves of 20 minutes each way.

This visually and historically interesting game will be unlike any other that will be seen during the Tournament. Although Nelson Rugby Football Club holds the honour of winning the first game of rugby in NZ, 2-0, either team could come out on top at this re-match 141 years later.

The Re-enactment of the First Game of Rugby celebrates Nelson’s position as the Birthplace of NZ Rugby in 1870. It is Nelson City Council’s flagship event of the Game On Festival, a two month long festival featuring over 30 different events.