History: The Changing Mark
The first written laws of the game appeared on 28 August 1845 as the Rules of Football Played at Rugby School – the rules had not yet been canonised as laws. In them there is reference to "a kick from a catch", which players were allowed to charge "as soon as the player's foot has left the ground".
In 1847 the charge was allowed "as soon as the ball has touched the ground".
In 1862, the Law 3 read: Fair catch is a catch direct from the foot or a knock-on from the hand of the opposite side.
This is how the law stayed for over a century, though in 1874 a mark could also be made from a forward pass.
In the early 19th century at Rugby School, when a player who made a fair catch, his opponents were allowed to stand on the mark. He would then retreat from the mark and when he made to kick, they could charge. The kick could be a punt, a drop or a place kick. In the case of a place kick, the opposition were allowed to charge as soon as the ball touched the ground.
It lasted like this for over a century.
What William Webb Ellis – and others – did was to catch the ball and run forward with it, instead of retreating to kick it. They did not use the free kick. But the option of the free kick stayed.
In the 1866 Laws of Football as played at Rugby School, it is stated that "the opposite side may charge as soon as the player offers to kick". That still exists.
Kicking at goal was not only allowed but a chief source of points in early times. Eventually in 1886, when a points' system was introduced, a goal from a free kick was worth three points. In 1905 the dropped goal was enhanced to four points while a goal from a free kick strayed at three. At Ellis Park in 1928, New Zealand beat South Africa 7-6. The sides each scored a penalty goal and a dropped goal but Phil Mostert's drop was from a mark, Archie Strang's in open play.
In 1892 there was a requirement that no longer exists: "The kicker's side must be behind the ball when it is kicked."
When the catcher of the ball from an opponents' kick or knock-on was allowed to run forward as an option to a free kick, it was necessary to distinguish how the catcher wanted to play.
Blackheath Club in 1862 had the answer, which may not have been original: "A fair catch is a catch direct from the foot or a knock-on from the hand of one of the opposing side; when the catcher my either run with the ball or make his mark by inserting his heel in the ground on the spot where he catches it, in which case he is entitled to a free kick."
Being stationary with a heel in the ground and the toe of that foot raised and shouting "Mark" when catching the ball stayed in the game for years and years, as the older generation will remember.
Using a place kick was a great palaver as the kicker was not allowed to handle the ball once it had been in contact with the ground, thus needing a placer.
There was a change in 1960 when the free kick was referred to as a fair catch. Perhaps it was a prelude to the extended use of free kick.
Fair-Catch. A fair-catch is obtained when a player clearly catches the ball direct from a kick, knock-on, or a throw-forward by one of the opposing team if at the same time the catcher makes a mark on the ground with his heel, (the toe being raised) and exclaims 'Mark'.
In 1971, a player could claim a mark only inside his own 22, which meant the end of scoring from a mark. The kick had to be taken from within the kicker's 22 but a pass back to him was allowed.
In 1977, the free kick was enlarged to include minor errors at scrum and line-out, such as foot-up and number greater than those of the team throwing into the line-out. At the same time the scoring points from this new type of free kick was not directly possible. There had to be intervening play before a drop at goaled could count as a score.
In 1977, opponents to the team claiming a mark were required to stand 10 metres back from the mark, no longer on the mark. This applied to all free kicks, in line with the penalty kick. Tap kicks were allowed and team-mates were allowed to be in front of a quickly taken tap kick.
The elevated toe was dropped from making a mark and the player catching the ball was no longer required to be stationary. In fact he did not even have to be on the ground.
Because of the noise in stadiums in many matches, it has become a custom for players to show that they are claiming a mark by forming an L with their free arm.
We give the full text of the law as of 2018.
Law 17 Mark
A means of stopping play within a player’s own 22 by directly catching an opponent’s kick.
CLAIMING A MARK
To claim a mark, a player must:
Have at least one foot on or behind their own 22-metre line when catching the ball or when landing having caught it in the air; and
Catch the ball directly from an opponent’s kick before it touches the ground or another player; and
Simultaneously call “mark”.
A player may claim a mark even if the ball hits a goal post or crossbar before being caught.
When a mark is called correctly, the referee immediately stops the game and awards a free-kick to the team in possession.
A mark may not be claimed from a kick-off or a restart kick after a score.
RESTARTING PLAY AFTER A MARK
The player who claimed the mark takes the free-kick (in accordance with Law 20).
If the player is unable to take the free-kick within one minute, a scrum is awarded to the team in possession.
The free-kick is taken at the following locations:
Place of the mark Location of free-kick
Within the 22 At the place of the mark but at least five metres from the goal line, in line with the place of the . mark
Within the in-goal On the five-metre line in line with the place of the mark.