Why the whistle went

Why the Whistle Went ‘To break the rules, deliberately or through ignorance, is simply to attempt to alter the game to suit your own convenience, and the punishment for that is not, as might be supposed, death, but a penalty to the other side. The laws are merciful as well as sensible and the least the beginner can do is to learn what they say.’

 So wrote Humphry Ellis in his amusing style for the booklet ‘Why the Whistle Went’ described as being notes on the Laws of Rugby Football, for ‘innocent new players’, ‘knowledgeable old players’, and ‘spectators of all descriptions’. It was initially published by the RFU in 1948, with  later revised editions, widely used in schools and clubs.

It was entertainingly written by Ellis and illustrated by Fougasse the pen name of Kenneth Bird (1887-1965) a British cartoonist best known for his editorship of Punch magazine and World War Two warning propaganda posters. Humphry Ellis (1907–2000) had played for Oxford University, Richmond and Kent, was a contemporary of John Betjeman at Oxford, and later taught at Marlborough College. He became a comic writer, best known for his creation of A. J. Wentworth, the ineffectual prep-school master whose fictional diaries were first published in Punch magazine* –where they both met.

Despite Ellis’s best efforts explaining the laws, we fast forward to recent times, to hear the view of Jonathan Davies (1962- ), once described as the last great Welsh fly-half, as a panellist on BBC TV’s ‘A Question of Sport’ in 1995 –commentating on the game,

 “I think you enjoy the game more if you don’t know the rules (he meant laws).

Anyway, you’re on the same wavelength as the referees.”

This was seemingly endorsed by Nigel Owens (1971- ) a respected Welsh International referee, who is quoted as saying:

“I have never read the law book in my life

it’s disastrous for a referee to know that law book too well.”

He later developed his theme in an interview in December 2013, by concluding:

“Rugby doesn’t need to get too hung about laws. In the last few months I have been privileged to be involved in two of the greatest rugby games and sporting spectacles it is possible to imagine. When you look at those matches are you seriously telling me this great sport has a problem? You know and I know, everybody in rugby knows, that the laws work fine when the intent is there from both teams to play positive attacking ‘legal’ rugby.”

In January 2012 Owens made the headlines officiating in a match between Munster and Treviso, by ‘taking time out’ to address Treviso scrum-half Tobias Botes for continually yelling in protest, explaining to the scrum half “I’m the referee –not you” and ending with the words “This is not soccer!”

Another perspective on the laws was taken by Derek Robinson (1932- ) a screenwriter, author, Rugby Union referee, and broadcaster. He is best known for military aviation novels full of black humour and a Booker Prize nominee in 1971. His guide to Rugby Union titled ‘Run with the Ball’ was published in 1984, ‘Rugby: A Player’s Guide to the Laws made Simple’, in 2005, and ‘Better Rugby Refereeing’ in 2007. He was a qualified rugby referee for over thirty years -now a life member of Bristol Society of Rugby Referees. He once explained:

 “The advantage law is the best law in rugby,

because it lets you ignore all the others for the good of the game.”

So there we have it – as Nigel Owens says “…You know and I know, everybody in rugby knows, that the laws work fine when the intent is there from both teams to play positive attacking ‘legal’ rugby.”

You pays your money and you takes your choice!

* Punch Magazine was a British weekly magazine of humour and satire established in 1841. It became a British institution, but after the 1940’s, when its circulation peaked, it went into a long decline, finally closing in 1992.


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