Football and Rugby: kissing cousins of sport

Now that British sports fans have survived their recent summertime encounter with American pro football, the world can get back to enjoying the assortment of football games that dominate autumn sports across the Northern Hemisphere.

It would be more accurate to say that in August two American professional football clubs, the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Cardinals, returned to its British birthplace a game - with a number of alterations - that had been exported to North America about 100 years ago. Yes, despite the very obvious differences, British Rugby and American football are two of the more closely related games in world sports. October is the time to sort out the fine points.

English football, or soccer - that round-ball, no-hands-under-any-circumstances game - has spawned several other ''handling'' games of note including Rugby, US football, Gaelic football, and Australian rules.

Back in the days of Empire, when the British were winning their wars on skills honed on their school playing fields, a young man attending Rugby named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball during a soccer game and ran with it in his hands.

He should have known better, but it seemed like such a fun thing to do that his peers at Rugby devised a new game that still bears the name of that school. They also turned the ball into an oval, the better to carry it, and also, it is suggested, to discourage any tendencies among players to revert to soccer.

Late last century Rugby crossed the Atlantic. It turned up first in Canada, at Montreal's McGill University, which then took it to the United States while on a sporting visit to Harvard.

But Transatlantic connections are not always good, as evidenced in this case.

Americans - being Americans - couldn't leave well enough alone and pretty soon they began bending the rules as dramatically as William Webb Ellis had several decades earlier.

They replaced Rugby's scrum - a sort of free-for-all wrestling match in which both sides strive for possession of the ball - with a set line of scrimmage. From then on posession became much more important in the American game simply because teams couldn't get the ball back without going to an inordinate amount of trouble. They also slimmed down the ball a bit, so that one-handed throwing was no longer the domain of the ham-fisted giants of the game.

The big change, of course, came with the introduction of the forward pass to the American version of Rugby.

It was introduced, according to records, to reduce the level of violence that had crept into the American version. Exactly how it curbed the violence is not always clear to those who weren't there at the time. But, apparently, it did. It also made possible that crowd-pleasing spectacle other football games lack - ''the long bomb.''

But every rule change has its trade-off. With the arrival of the forward pass , the use of the lateral (Rugby is filled with laterals) dropped off sharply and that's a pity. Just what the game lost, surfaced briefly last year in the University of California's celebrated Trombone Triumph over Stanford University. With some four seconds to go and trailing by a point, California lateraled the ball five times before crossing the goal line (and bowling over a Stanford trombone player in the process).

TV stations aired the spectacular play repeatedly, both that day and the next. ''Stunning'' and ''unbelievable'' were just two of the superlatives used. It was, in fact, vintage Rugby, but only one commentator, to my knowledge, noted the connection.

The forward pass changed the relationship between football and Rugby from that of brother to first cousin. But, be assured, a strong relationship still exists.

Until the 1930s, Rugby's drop kick was still an accepted part of US football and, according to the rule book, remains an accepted way to score today. In both games, too, the idea is to run with the ball securely tucked under one arm, over the opposing side's goal line, thereafter to kick for extra points.

The term ''touchdown'' also indicates football's connection to Rugby. To score in Rugby, the ball must be touched down behind the line. To throw it down, as exultant pass receivers frequently do in professional football, would be to throw away the points. ''Line of scrimmage'' is yet another term common to both sides.

For someone who was raised on Rugby and, since moving to the United States 16 years ago, has learned to appreciate ''American Rugby'' (as we often called to it), I find myself dwelling on how one game could benefit by incorporating some aspect of the other.

For one thing, football could adopt Rugby's kick for extra points following a touchdown.

It would take place in a line directly back from the point where the player ''touched down.'' In other words, a touchdown beneath the uprights becomes the ideal. Score in the corner and the extra-points kick takes place on the sideline - where the light between the uprights seems little wider than the ball itself.

This change would bring back the true touchdown. The pass receiver, with the ball in the end zone would, if he could, run toward the uprights before touching down to make it much simpler for the place kicker.

When introduced to football, Rugby players frequently ask why the ball carrier is given all the praise and his blockers almost none. There's a touch of envy there. No ball carrier gets that kind of protection in Rugby. Even accidental interference is penalized, so the only way to help the ball carrier is to be up there to take the lateral when he can go no farther.

For its part, Rugby might enjoy the luxury of a forward pass initiating a sweeping-line movement. Of course, the quarterback, or fly-half as he is known in Rugby, would have to get the pass away pretty smartly since there would be no legal way to impede the oncoming flank-forward bent on a tackle.

But these are just dreams. The greater likelihood is that the games will drift still farther apart.

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