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Remarkable history of the dead-ball line

SPOTLIGHT: The psalmist said: “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Yes, I have a good inheritance.”


We are going to look briefly at the 17 lines on a rugby field and how we have inherited them, including the remarkable history of the dead-ball line.

In the beginning, there were no lines; in fact, there were no fields. Games were played from village to village or within a village/town.

Then came the move of a game with a ball and lots of boy activity to schools. Very often the game was formed to suit the ground available. And the ground at Rugby School, the big trend-setter, was called the Close, which is roughly the size and shape of a modern rugby field.

There the boys would gather for a contest – School House vs the Rest. They immediately adopted one principle from ancient times – that the game should staff halfway between end points, halfway between goals. That would have eventually given the first of today’s 17 lines. The one team was on one side of the originally imaginary line, the other on the other side, which is how the word “side” became a synonym for team.

17? Yes. Seven solid lines and four sets of dash lines are parallel across the width of the field. Two solid lines and four dotted lines run the length of the field. They were not always there.

The first addition to the natural field was the goal posts at either end. The goal (= purpose, end to be reached, target) mostly took its shape from the doorway into the leader’s house when the game was played within a village or town. At Rugby School, only boys of substance were allowed to “follow up”. The rest were packed into the goal to prevent a goal. It became hard to score a goal and so Rugby School extended the uprights, giving the game the H-shaped goalposts which it still has. And it drew its next two lines.


(Continue reading below … )

Because the goal became packed it was decided to extend the line of the goal and a line was cut through each goal, parallel to each other.

The ball became dead when it was grounded, this is an early principle of the game – grounding the ball, killing it by pressing it to the ground. Killing it meant it was dead. The only way of scoring in those early days was by kicking the ball through the goal, and so, if the ball was grounded in the goal area, it did not count as a goal but enabled the team grounding the ball to try to kick a goal. If the ball was touched down a long way out the player had a chance to improve the position by making a mark where he caught the ball to pin the defenders back and then punting it from there infield to the player who would make a mark and then take the ball back to try to improve (convert) it into a goal with a place kick or a drop-kick. When the original player punted the ball the opposition could charge like billy-ho to catch the catcher and prevent his making a mark.


Now we have two lines. At Rugby School they were cut into the turf. The laws now require the lines to be “suitably marked out” but cutting them would still be allowed .

The next lines introduced were the lines on the side to keep spectators off the field. These came to be called the touchlines.

Why? Because if a player or the ball touched them, they were out? No.

The ball was dead if it was grounded, that is touched down, as you would do for a try or to get a 22 drop-out. If it went over the side line, the players would scamper after it, and the first one who touched it down, thereby killing it, was allowed to throw in from touch to restart the game. (Actually he had three ways of bringing the ball back into play – throwing it in at right angles to the touchline, “bounding” it in and walking through the two ranks of waiting players and plonking the ball on the ground for a scrummage to take place. They loved the scrummage in early times, sometimes calling it a hot.)

The oldest known plan of the field dates back to 1862 and it has just the four lines – two goal-lines and two touchlines. The goal-line was called the line of goal as the touchlines were called the lines of touch. There was no dead-ball line. In 1866 the laws decreed that the goal-line was “in-goal”. In 1874 the laws reaffirmed this and stated that the touchlines were in touch.

The lines behind the goal-line, extensions of the touchline, were called touch-in-goal, as still is the case.

For years, those were the lines. The next became an obvious necessity when, in 1877, six years after the commencement of international rugby, Newport Cricket, Athletic and Football Club acquired a large piece of land, the New Ground. Playing with the wind, a player called Cross kicked the ball over the opponents’ goal line.

Dromio (WJ Townsend Collins) recalls: “There was no dead-ball line in those days; everything behind the goal posts and inside the corner flags was ‘in goal’. The ball went rolling, rolling, rolling, driven by the wind, and Cross followed it for about 300 yards before he touched down for a try.”

If the ball went over that line it was dead, that is no longer in play.

In 1891 the dead-ball line got into law: “The maximum extent of the Dead Ball line is 25 yards.”

Next, in 1905, the half-way line, the 25-yard lines and the 10-yard lines came into law. The lines 10 yards from the half-way line and on each side of it were originally short lines. Since 1931 they go across the field in dashes. (Metrification, first proposed in 1969, was approved in 1970 and came into law in 1976, and the 25 became the 22.)

Dash lines are used when they are close to solid lines to avoid confusion – the 10-metre lines and the lines five metres from the touch line and then the most recent lines five metres from the goal line. The dotted lines five metres from the touchline came into law in 1926 to indicate the minimum distance that the ball should be thrown in. Half a century later it also indicated the closest a scrum could be to the touch line.

Question: will it stay like this forever?


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