December 12 - 1924 Imperial Rugby Conference, London

Though not the most spectacular item the Rugby Museum has received the above report is one of the most interesting. It is a 90 page verbatim record of the discussion on various remits submitted to the Conference by New Zealand and/or New South Wales. In some cases the remits were attempting to make universal rules that New Zealand had played under dispensation for some years. What is so surprising is that the remits are in 1924 advocating changes that did not in some cases become rugby law until after World War II, years after in some instances.

A Prime Example.

Remit No. 9, described by Chairman Rowland Hill of England as “rather a controversial one”, was “That if a player knocks the ball on and recovers it before it reaches the ground the Referee shall not blow for a knock-on”. Hardly the most drastic of rule changes, yet it took over 50 years, until 1973, before it was adopted.

The discussion concerning the remit was rather confused, with some delegates appearing to have some sympathy with the intent of the remit. But the Welsh delegate “hoped Mr Wilson (of New Zealand) will not press this matter” and the Chairman pronounced “I do not see how you are going to alter the rule” before moving on to the next business.

Those attending the Conference were:

Chairman: G Rowland Hill (England).

England: A Prescott, W S Donne, E T Gurdon.

Wales: H S Lynne, T Schofield.

Scotland: J D Dallas, J A Smith.

New Zealand: S F Wilson, S S Dean.

New South Wales: Dr L Brown, A C Wallace.

South Africa: R Fitzgerald, V H Cartwright.

Ireland: J B Moore.

Hon. Secretary: R G Warren (Ireland).

Note. England seems to have had additional representation because the three Colonial Rugby Unions were in 1924 affiliated to the Rugby Football Union rather than to the IRB.

Stan Dean was in Britain as Manager of the 1924-25 All Blacks but was also Chairman of the NZRFU Management Committee, a position he held for quarter of a century, 1922-47. Wilson was president of the Canterbury RFU at the time, had been a New Zealand selector 1908,10,13,14 and NZRFU president in 1923.

Of the other delegates Rowland Hill was by far the best known. President of the RFU 1904-07 he was an ardent supporter of the amateur code and the outstanding official figure in the game. At the start of the Conference he took a hard line in refusing to allow discussion of a New Zealand remit re professionalism, despite New Zealand protests that when remits were called for there was no suggestion of some matters being off limits. Rowland Hill justified his stance It is not a decision of mine, it is the decision of the whole International Board, and they decline to consider any question connected with professional misconduct. Which prompts the question: Where, if the International Board won’t consider professionalism and don’t allow the Imperial Conference to do so, can the matter be considered?

Hill it was who had refereed the 1889 match between the “Natives” and England. The New Zealanders were unhappy with some of his decisions and three walked of the field in disgust after, from what is recorded by the New Zealanders, the quite incorrect award of a hotly disputed try. They returned but the Rugby Football Union insisted that the New Zealanders formally apologise for their conduct.

A C “Johnnie” Wallace from New South Wales provided the youthful face. He had toured New Zealand with New South Wales in 1921, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, won Blues in 1922-23-24-25 and represented Scotland 1923-26. He was part of a remarkable Oxford threequarter line of himself, Ian Smith, Phil MacPherson and 1921 All Black G G Aitken, all of whom represented Scotland. Wallace went on to captain New South Wales when they toured Britain and France in 1927-28 and was also a successful coach of both New South Wales and Australia against the 1937 Springboks.

The recorded remarks of the South African delegates Fitzgerald & Cartwright, suggest them to be more British than the British. Fitzgerald acknowledged that the majority of our young players are Dutchmenand thought any proposition or alteration might have come from people not of the same blood as yourselves, but they have wholeheartedly adopted the game. There is no movement in South Africa to do anything else but follow the lead of the Home unions. In fact the other South African delegate, V H Cartwright, became the President of the Rugby Football Union 1928-29, with his provincial designation shown as “South Africa”.

Though the discussion at the Conference is recorded in full the wording of the remits that were discussed is mostly not given, which is a pity, and a reflection on the foresight of those preparing the booklet.

Some Other Remits.

Kicking out on the full. (This seems to have been to introduce the rule that now applies universally, i e the ball has to be bounced into touch between the 22s or the lineout takes place where the ball was kicked. At the time of the Conference New Zealand and New South Wales were playing this rule under dispensation from the International Board because of the threat of rugby league).

New Zealand and New South Wales argued strongly in favour of this change, without success. But there seems to have been a problem with the wording of the remit, which the Welsh and South Africans apparently misunderstood. The arguments in favour included the contention that if the ball was kicked out less there would be fewer lineouts and therefore fewer scrums which often arose out of lineout infringements. The Scottish delegate felt passing the remit could make the game too fast for schoolboys and did not favour reducing the number of scrums for the somewhat dubious reason the squeezing of these little boys in the scrum is of very great value to their health.

Chairman Rowland Hill stated We have learnt a great deal from our friends in New Zealand and New South Wales on this particular point. I am sure we shall all now consider it.

The kick into touch law now played finally became universal in 1970.

That the advantage rule apply to every phase of the lineout.

There was no agreement on this, the arguments against what seems a quite minor change seeming to focus on difficulties referees would have with the law.

It was 1964 before the advantage rule applied to throwing into the lineout.

That the 5 yards throw in from touch be universally adopted.

The discussion was mostly about clarifying how the law worked in practice, with Chairman Rowland Hill remarking We seem to agree with the principle of it.

The 5 yard rule was adopted in 1925

Injured Players.

As a dispensation from international rules New Zealand allowed the replacement of injured players at this time and wanted this to become the norm. It did not as there does not seem to be general agreement on this. During the discussion on the remit W S Donne (RFU President 1924/5) made what seems a remarkable statement I have discussed this matter with Mr Dean, Mr Chairman, and he assures me that so far as New Zealand is concerned the thing has not been abused in the slightest degree. I can only say that I congratulate him most heartily on that, but I cannot hold out hopes even in this country, or even beyond the Tweed, that it would not be open to abuse. At face value Donne seems to be saying that whilst New Zealand had abided by the spirit of the dispensation the Home Countries would probably cheat.

The replacement of players in test matches was finally approved in 1968. Ian Kirkpatrick became the first All Black replacement when he came on for Brian Lochore in the first test against Australia in 1968.

Note. Replacements had been made in New Zealand v Australia tests until 1947 (and in the 1913 N Z v All America international). Presumably after becoming members of the IRB in 1949 New Zealand v Australia matches had to be played under international rules.

International Board.

The New Zealand and New South Wales delegates argued strongly for representation on the International Board, though what they were asking for, a voice in the management of the Board as a junior partner, was for a status less than that enjoyed by the Home Unions. South Africa’s delegates on the other hand were quite happy with the status quo.

The issue was clouded by the position of France, the only significant rugby nation not a member of the British Empire. All delegates seemed in favour of rugby remaining a “British” game, which was perhaps not surprising in the 1920s when Britain and its Empire were much bigger players on the world scene than they are now. Which makes it marginally understandable why there was a reluctance to extend the International Board.

The Irish delegate introduced a classic red herring by pointing out that the International Board (he acknowledged that the name might be wrongly chosen) which exists is for disputes between our Home Countries. Our powers are only to make laws for the playing of matches between the four countries. Which it could be argued contradicts Rowland Hill’s above reason for not allowing discussion of professionalism.

The meeting seemed to come to some form of consensus that an Imperial Board or a series of Conferences whenever one of the Colonies was touring Britain was the solution.

Turned to Custard.

Lock forward Read Master wrote a book about the “Invincibles” tour with the rather uninspired title With the All Blacks in Great Britain, France, & Australia 1924-25. It included S F Wilson’s two page report on the Imperial Conference, including However, after a great deal of discussion, it was unanimously decided (editor’s emphasis) that ‘an Imperial Advisory Board be established.’ The objects of the Board to act in an advisory capacity to the International Board…………. Mr Dean and I left the meeting feeling that at last …………………… the Dominions were to be given some little say in the management of a game that they claim to be their National winter game.

Our disappointment can be imagined, therefore, when we learned that shortly after our departure from England, the International Board had again met, and some of the men who had been at the Conference and supported the proposal, had now somersaulted and thrown the Advisory Board proposal overboard. We are indebted to members of the English Rugby Union, Mr Rowland Hill in particular, for their loyalty to the Dominions, but the attitude of some of the other members was not in keeping with the high traditions of Rugby-at least as we understand them. The Conference, therefore, could not be called a great success.

New Zealand, Australia and South Africa finally became full members of the IRB in 1949, France not until 1978.

Colonial Candour.

During the discussions Stan Dean, perhaps becoming a little frustrated, observed in a rather cutting comment: In 20 years New Zealand has sent forward exactly 20 remits, these remits have been sent forward for suggested alterations: when we have sent these alterations forward they have been turned down without exception, and it is a fact that 17 of these original suggestions which have come from New Zealand are in the laws of the game today, and we have never got them when we have asked for them. We have never got them when we have asked for them, yet you have come two or three years afterwards and said: ‘Yes, these are good suggestions,’ and you have seen that they are adopted.


The content of the Conference Report does seem to suggest that at that time the Home Unions and South Africa were quite conservative and not receptive to outside ideas. Whilst the attitudes of those at the Conference were shaped by the beliefs and values of 1924 and have to be judged in that light it remains a pity that so many improvements to the game were delayed as long as they were.

The Rugby Museum is very grateful to Don Sutherland and Lindsay Knight for their respective roles in making the report available to us.

Stan Dean