The way we were: 50 years of Bill Fallowfield’s four-tackle rule

WHEN the 1966-67 Northern Rugby Football League season kicked off in its then-traditional late summer start, few people could have envisaged how the sport would be changed forever by the time the campaign concluded the following May.
Wakefield Trinity beating title-holders St Helens in a replayed Championship play-off final and Featherstone Rovers (pictured above) belying their small-town status to win the Challenge Cup for the first time – beating Barrow at Wembley, no less – gives modern observes some idea of how different English domestic rugby league was half a century ago.
But there were also very real concerns over declining attendances, the parlous financial state of some clubs and how to improve the sport as a spectacle. Plus ca change, as the old saying goes.
Enter RFL secretary Bill Fallowfield, who had been leading the charge to alter the rules of rugby league since being appointed to his position in 1946.
History takes a somewhat dim view of Fallowfield’s 29-year spell at the helm of the RFL. From the outset, the former Cambridge University and Northampton rugby union player seemed intent to shape the sport more along the lines of the 15-man code, including several bizarre attempts to replace the play-the-ball with a method of releasing the ball in the tackle.
But arguably his lasting legacy is one successful change to the Laws of the Game which is not only still with us today but is also one of rugby league’s most distinguishing features – and that is the limited-tackle rule.
One of the major causes of concern during this era were how teams were increasingly able to dominate possession and therefore kill games by simply not passing or kicking, with the only option being for the defending team to risk giving away a penalty at the play-the-ball in a desperate effort to win possession back.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this came in the 1951 Championship semi-final when, with his Workington Town side winning 8-5 and down to 12 men, Gus Risman simply ordered his side not to pass or kick for the final quarter-of-an-hour.
Having abandoned his attempts to have the play-the-ball changed, Fallowfield took inspiration from American football’s four-downs-followed-by-a-handover rule and, in a rare example of international co-operation on changes to the Laws, proposed the four-tackle rule at a meeting of the International Board.
The New Zealanders proposed having a scrum at the completion of each set and agreement on the matter led to the change being approved. Now all that was needed was to see how it panned out in an actual game.
Fortunately, The RFL had the perfect competition to trial this variation in – the BBC Two Floodlit Trophy. Not only was it still a relatively new competition, being in only its second season, but the fact one match each round was televised on the Beeb’s second channel on a Tuesday evening meant a wider response to the new rule could be garnered.
The four-tackle rule was enacted in the Trophy in time for the first qualifying round in October, with it becoming immediately obvious it had the desired effect of encouraging attacking play and making the game more exciting.
Flushed with this success, The RFL then rushed through an edict decreeing it could be used in Championship matches as well, but with the caveat that both teams must agree to it.
As Tony Collins points out in Rugby League In Twentieth Century Britain though, this haphazard approach was predictably chaotic. Leeds, for example, chose to play under the four-tackle rule against Doncaster one week but then refused to do so against Cup holders St Helens.
Realising their folly, The RFL simply announced that from October 31, the new rule would apply to all matches and it was adopted in Australia for the 1967 season, which saw St George’s run of 11 straight NSW Premiership triumphs come to an end.
Six years after its introduction, four tackles were extended to the six we know today in a bid to allow more structured attacking play to develop rather than the somewhat panicked approach which had become the norm and it remains that way to this day.
Fallowfield’s near-three-decade tenure as RFL secretary may not be looked kindly on, but there can be no doubt he did change the game. Even if – perhaps thankfully – it was not in the way he had first imagined.

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