Part of the brains trust: Mark Ella playing for Randwick in 1984. Photo: Fairfax Archive
William Webb Ellis is known as the schoolboy who invented a game, rather than the other way round.
Many believe the story of the rugby schoolboy being the first to run with the ball is a myth, given the first reference to it was in 1876, four years after his death. Furthermore, it was supposed to have occurred after the lad, whose name adorns rugby’s World Cup trophy, had already left school!
It wasn’t until 1896, a year after rugby league began in England, with the amateur code under threat, that an investigation decided the story was true, probably to assert historical control of the game.
However, there can be little doubt over the origin of the hybrid game of rugby league and union, which will be played on Sunday between the Western Suburbs Magpies and Randwick at Parramatta Stadium.
Phil Franks, the former feisty five-eighth at Balmain, Wests, Norths and Penrith whose two sons went to the rugby nursery of St Joseph’s College, has been working on the hybrid project for years, first experimenting with games between elite schoolboy teams.
His brains trust of former World Cup winning coaches (in both codes) – union’s Bob Dwyer and league’s Bob Fulton, together with Randwick and Wallaby great Mark Ella, have drawn up rules that are a compromise of the 15- and 13-man games.
Essentially, rugby league rules will be played in a team’s defensive half of the field and rugby union rules will be applied in the attacking half.
At first glance, this is not designed to showcase rugby league skills, since the boring part of the 13-a-side game is when a team is running the ball away from its own posts – essentially dummy-half runs, hit-ups and kicks.
When the leaguies cross halfway with the ball, they switch to rucking and mauling.
However, Franks has introduced a shot clock, meaning a team only has the ball for 60 seconds.
Given that an average set of six tackles in league lasts about 45 seconds, the team in possession of the ball in its defensive half of the field has time to throw it about.
The Magpies (established 1908) versus Galloping Greens (established 1882) game will have 13 men each, with five points for a try, two for a penalty or conversion and one for a field goal.
A hybrid game has been discussed by the leaders of the two codes for years, with former ARU boss John O’Neill arguing that if the concept had legs, the rival administrations would have made it happen, with games between the Kangaroos and Wallabies.
Former NRL boss David Gallop saw little value in giving rugby union a leg up, particularly at a time that code was struggling for relevance.
“Administrators come and go,” Franks says. “They are transients. But the one who puts this game on the calendar will have his name in history.”
However, the fiery Phil, whose blow-ups were once measured in megatonnes, has learnt diplomacy, conceding “we wouldn’t have this hybrid game without the great games of rugby league and rugby union”.
“This is not a third code. It is like cricket in the sense cricket has three forms of the game.”
He proposes a return match in Sydney in January, or possibly promoting similar games in NSW country areas.
Significantly, Mazda Australia has sponsored the hybrid concept, with a five-year option, joining the other car companies who hold naming rights over the AFL, NRL and A-League. The game will be streamed live.
It will be refereed by accredited NRL and NSWRU officials, with six TV cameras in case Franks decides to convene a judiciary.
Should one of the referees not report for action, Franks admits he will not fill in as a whistleblower.
“I once told Arko [former ARL boss Ken Arthurson] that I wanted to put something back into the game,” he said.
“Arko suggested I become a referee. I told him I would be the first referee in history to be sent off.”