The following article is reproduced from the 'Boy's Own Annual' of 1920. Very much in the style and vocabulary of the time, it gives an insight to changes in back play from the early days of rugby (more information on George Hirst can be found in the Players section of the History Site here http://www.historyofnewport.co.uk/players/players.php?id=000155 ):-
"Hints on Half and Three-quarter Play."
"Some points about the Rugby Game."
"By GEORGE L. HIRST"
"(Welsh International and Newport R.F.C.)"
"IN this article, which I have been so kindly asked to contribute to your widely-read magazine, I intend, boys, to speak mainly of the relationship, combination, and success which are, or ought to be, the aim of every set of backs behind the scrum in the Rugby game."
"It will, of course, be generally acknowledged that the whole success of any team as a combination must depend largely on how the backs understand each other's play. When you see two halves, four three-quarters, and a full back on any Rugby field who are thoroughly au fait with one another's intentions, play, aims, and methods of work; when you find the combination of seven moving together like a well-oiled and well-directed machine as they set about either attack or defence; then you may be quite sure, my lads, you are up against a pretty stiff proposition, and that goals will not be easy to score by your side, nor easy to be prevented from accruing to the side of your rivals as the game progresses."
"Now, this clear and quick comprehension between the backs, and more especially between the halves and threes, is comparatively easy to talk about; it is what everyone, player or spectator, likes to see; it is what every critic and writer on the game constantly urges; it is what we term "splendid in theory," but it is often extremely hard to compass, and most difficult to attain in any notable degree. Why, do you ask ?"
"For many reasons. Because there is seldom any seven playing without some one fellow amongst them, however much they may agree to combine when off the field, who does not believe he can manage to do this or that piece of play better than a comrade; hence he is at all events reluctant, and occasionally hesitating, to get rid of the ball himself, so as to give some other man the chance of doing better with it. After all, boys, we are, every one of us, human, and the better the half or three, the more will he be inclined to regard himself as the safe person, as the one who can score if any chap can !"
"So the very first thing, if you desire to see your set of backs attain the very high position I spoke of a little time back, is to get entirely rid of that selfish feeling and fancy, to clear it out wholly from the mind of every man of the seven! The whole and sole consideration of everybody behind the scrum must be - with perfectly unselfish thought and judgment -" Am I the man who has at this instant the very best chance of carrying-on the ball to the greatest advantage of my side? If so, I will take full responsibility and go on with it till I see otherwise; if not, I must at once give it to Jackson, Thompson, Wilson, or whoever is better placed for attaining the end we all have in view". "
"I wish, boys, you could have seen the splendid sets of halves and threes that it has been my pleasure and delight to join, to oppose, to watch, during my career in first-class football. I assure you nobody ever learns so much, so quickly or so well and effectively, as when playing with, or against, or closely observing, men like that. When I ponder over the various combinations I remember in this way, I am often lost in wonder, in appreciation and delight, at their cleverness and success."
"Amongst such striking examples of halves and threes who worked like a machine endued with thought, I might recall that famous Harlequin combination - Adrian Stoop and Sibree; Brougham, John Birkett, Frank Stoop, and poor Duggy Lambert - with that fine back Maxwell-Dove as the last mainstay. What wonders they did; what running; what marvellous passing; what facility in dodging and deceiving opponents; what almost perfect combination in understanding and working together! Then I would mention the great Cardiff fifteens wherein my friend Percy Bush often played such a prominent part at half. "Bush and Vile," with their threes, were inimitable, when Cardiff was at its acme. And what about that great Swansea fifteen which saw the brothers James in full swing? What of that astonishingly clever Oxford team when Stoop and Munro played so great a part time after time in bringing victory to their ranks? What of some of the Cambridge halves, threes, and backs who gave Queen's Club Ground such a grand exposition, as it has seldom had before or since, of what seven "giants" behind the scrum can do?"
"These are glorious memories, boys; they proved veritable inspirations to me when playing with or against these men, or watching their tactics from the ropes! I was always out to learn, and I was never slow at picking up anything worth knowing when I saw other three-quarters carrying it out successfully. I only ask here that you may determine to follow my counsel and example in this particular; for I can assure you that is the only way to improve and progress from good school football to excellent club fifteens, and from great club football to international honours."
"May I say a word or two as to what made the success of several of these famous sets of backs I have mentioned? As you doubtless are aware, to-day the two halves have quite separate duties, quite distinct functions from what was once the case. In earlier Rugby days they used simply to stand one on each side of the scrimmage, and on whichever side the ball came out, the half there was supposed to grasp it and run off with it! If he himself could not get away, he passed it or kicked it to one of his back men - there were but three three-quarters then - and the man who got the ball again did what he best could with it."
"But the whole plan was crude and most ineffective as compared with later developments of half-back play. Stern experience proved that the halves of the old style too frequently got in one another's way, and that the formation too often meant the lack of opportunity, of initiative, of judgment, as well as of combined play. Also, when the four three-quarter system became widely prevalent, the old type of half-back play grew unable to cope with the new dangers arising from the later arrangement of the threes, and it was soon discovered that halves do much better if working in concert, that the greatest advantage is derived from one of them "working the scrum," as it is called - that is, standing close behind the forwards in it, and intent on getting the ball as soon as it leaves their heels - whilst his comrade stands some little distance away (he is usually called "the stand-off half ") and so can act as an intermediate between the half at the scrum and the threes, for the better passing, better advancement, better dealing, with the ball when it gets loose."
"Now, what qualities are necessary for success to attend this formation of the backs -this later arrangement whereby one half works the scrum and the other stands off, whilst the four threes are waiting in a diagonal line behind him, or in a V-shaped formation with the centres as the apex, in order to receive the ball and dash towards the opposite goal? What qualities, I repeat, are most requisite to lead to success in this style of play?"
"The half working the scrum must be plucky beyond the ordinary; he must be very quick-sighted, very lively on his feet, equipped with tricks and dodges galore for deceiving the enemy. He will surely need all these at one time or another, for his is perhaps the most dangerous position of the whole fifteen! Above all, must he be abnormally quick to seize the ball and to pass it out ere his rivals are able to collar him."
"The stand-off half may - probably he will! - be just a little bit slower than his comrade in certain movements. His eyesight may be a shade less keen; his trickiness a trifle less developed; his footwork the least bit weaker. But, to make up for all these, he must have a strongly-developed sense of quick judgment; he must have the instinct which makes him know to a nicety which of his waiting threes is in the best position to receive the ball at any given second, so as to make most headway with it. He must, like a flash, be able to decide whether it will not be better, after all, to kick the ball as far as he can, and let his swiftest threes follow up, rather than to risk a dubious long pass which may be intercepted by a smart man of the other team. It is a fair statement of their respective duties to say that, roughly, the business of the scrum-half is to get the ball, whilst the business of the stand-off half is to set it going in the most advantageous manner possible."
"As to the three-quarters, of course your wing ones must be the fleetest fellows you can find, whilst your centre two should, being quick runners, be men with some "bullocking" power, as this may be necessary to carry them through heavy opposition. I can hardly conceive four men who better fulfilled, or were fitted for, the respective requirements of a three-quarter line (as I see it) than were that ever memorable Harlequin four at their best - Brougham, Birkett, Frank Stoop, and Douglas Lambert. In them you had practically the exemplification of all the necessities of such a line, all just in the right place. And when that line got going, it was one of the most-difficult things conceivable for any team to stop its progress."
"The passing of four splendid threes can be brought to a degree of perfection and thrill such as few schoolboys can imagine. I recall our own Welsh four in the teams where I played for my country against the other nations; I think of that wondrous Hunslet line when the famous northern team won the Yorkshire Cup; I look back at the bewildering passing by the Harlequins at their best. I doubt if more wondrous exhibitions of "passing" have ever been seen in Rugby than these three fifteens gave during their time of greatest prestige; certainly I can never hope to see some of their exhibitions excelled."
"The secret of it all was, of course, a surprising understanding between the backs, which enabled them to do and dare things in running, dodging, and passing which would in most cases have meant disaster to ordinary fifteens. They took all sorts of risks because the men had, by experience, by good fellowship, by utter unselfishness, got to know one another, and one another's play, so thoroughly. To see Hunslet fairly on the run, with the ball sent from one three to another - occasionally a half would also take a hand - four or five times across the full width of the field as they ran swiftly towards the opposing goal, and finally grounded the ball down in triumph ere their bewildered opponents had come up to them, was a sight for the gods."
"To watch our Welsh threes in the team I have mentioned dispose of the ball by high or low passes, by long or short throws, by quick amazing movements, as the burly English or Irish forwards tried to stop their course, was something to thrill any man outside the ropes, let alone one on the field of play taking part in it. To stand gazing at Adrian Stoop throwing the ball goodness knows how many yards, right across to Lambert on the wing, whilst his rivals were looking for its going near him to Sibree or Birkett, and then to see Lambert splendidly transfer it back again to Stoop, or right over to Brougham, whilst all the other team were dashing up to himself to deprive him of the ball, was so astonishing that even to-day one often wonders how it happened."
"The heroes they were, boys! And now so many of them are gone from us for ever! They paid the greatest sacrifice of all; they scored for England, for the world, in the greatest contest the earth has ever known. But their glory and fame are immortal, and their names will remain enshrined in our hearts, not only for what they did so unselfishly in real war, but also for the fine and unselfish spirit they always showed on the field of play; for their astonishing sense of good comradeship, of clear understanding, of marvellous combination, which they always evinced when taking part in one of the finest games this country has ever seen."
"I cannot do better than close here, whilst advising you to follow their splendid example by ever trying to gain that same high standard, that same spirit of good fellowship, that instinct of combining with those around you in everything for the general good."