A true rugby pioneer
October 22, 2010
Vassall was a key player in the early development of the game © Getty Images
Part of the fascination of rugby is that it is constantly evolving, with apparently minor shifts in legislation, tactics or interpretation changing the game in unpredictable ways.
Some changes are more important than others. Few periods have been more significant than the late 1870s and early 1880s, the first time in which the massed wrestling of the primeval game began to give way to something a little more sophisticated and imaginative.
That change was associated with the Blackheath, Oxford University and England forward Harry Vassall, who was born 150 years ago today on October 22, 1860. Vassall went to Marlborough, a school second in importance only to Rugby in the game's early stages, and went up to Hertford College, Oxford in 1879, playing in the Varsity match against Cambridge in his first year as a student.
A thick-set, powerfully built 15 stone 9lb he was well equipped for the traditional game and always prepared to go hand to hand with an opponent - A.A.Thomson's cheerful Unhistorical Survey of the early game recorded 'a personal and individual maul between Vassall and Charles Gurdon which is said to have lasted a full five minutes'.
He was a good player, described by the Football Annual as 'a fine forward, very heavy and very fast, and difficult to stop'. Yet his real distinction lies in being an early exemplar of the player who is concerned not merely with rugby as it is, but with the game that it might be. He proved an innovator when elected secretary of the Oxford University club in 1880-1, ensuring that college games were properly organised and introducing a system of trials for testing out promising players. As captain in 1882-3 he persuaded the university to shift from two threequarters to three to accommodate the brilliant Australian Gregory Wade.
And he arrived at a time when rugby was ready for change. The shift from 20 to 15-man teams in 1876 made matches faster moving and pitches less crowded. There had already been some movement towards more imaginative forward play - Blackheath were hugely successful in the late 1870s when captain Lennard Stokes encouraged his pack to do more than just shove, and the leading Scottish schools were still at the thoughtfully creative stage of the arc that took them from innovators to dinosaurs within the span of a single lifetime. Vassall played for Blackheath. There was a considerable Scottish presence in the Oxford teams of this period and copious talent - in Vassall's fourth season there were 12 full internationals in residence. And more than anything, there were large numbers of young men with time and energy on their hands.
Arthur Budd, adviser to the university team, may have been the game's most vehemently articulate critic of northern moves towards compensating players for the time taken off work to train and play, but he demanded a similar commitment in time from his players at Oxford and found plenty of takers. Vassall would recall that, "crowds of men were ready to play six days a week if given a chance."
These were perfect conditions for a would-be reformer and Vassall seized upon them. Thomson records that 'though a great shover, he taught his forwards that there was more in life than shoving. He showed that it was possible for them to heel, to wheel, to break at great speed, and to pass the ball out to their more agile backs'. It was similarly uncoincidental that Oxford teams from 1881 should also have included Alan Rotherham, the first half-back to operate primarily as a link between backs and forwards. These tactics spread rapidly elsewhere because they worked. Oxford were unbeaten in 58 matches between November 1881 and February 1885, winning 52 including four Varsity matches, a run bracketed at both ends by losses to Edinburgh University.
Vassall won his first England cap when still only 20, making his debut in the 13-try Blackheath massacre of the first ever Wales team. He was more conspicuously involved than most, becoming the first player to score an international hat-trick before being overtaken by team-mate George Burton who crossed four times. He scored again on the same ground in the 1881 Varsity match, leading Oxford to victory with a performance in which 'picking up close to the line [he] went over like a traction engine'. An England regular for two years, the last of his five caps was the first ever international in Wales, at Swansea in December 1882.
Vassall captained Blackheath in 1884-5, and as late as 1891 appeared as a threequarter in the veteran 'Old Crocks' team - also including Budd, Gurdon and Rugby Football Union chief Rowland Hall and good enough to hold Blackheath to a single score - whose photograph forms the frontispiece of the Rev Frank Marshall's Football : The Rugby Union Game (1892), the most important early book on the game.
By then his energies were firmly focussed off the field. For a decade from 1884 RFU treasurer, described by Hill in Marshall as 'as good a treasurer as an athletic body has ever had'. Suitably for a man who had devoted more thought than most to rugby, Vassall was author of the first book specifically written about the game in 1889, his efforts rounded off by a chapter of fulmination against professionalism by Budd. He also contributed a chapter on Oxford rugby to Marshall that is frustratingly reticent about one of the major influences on the university game - himself.
Marlborough and Oxford were followed by his third significant educational institution - Repton School. Joining as a master in 1885, he stayed for the rest of his life, dying in his 21st year as Bursar in January 1926.
Player, official, innovator, pioneering author. It adds up to quite a contribution to rugby, one best expressed by W John Morgan and Geoffrey Nicholson's verdict that he and Rotherham 'Were the men who knew the path away from the game's stone age'.
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