Last weekend saw the Rugby World Cup final. Nowadays rugby and association football are viewed as entirely separate games. In fact they share a common ancestor, which we should just call ‘football’. In the middle of the 1800s football was played at the public schools as well as by more working-class communities up and down the British Isles. The schools had evolved rules, but each was different.
The earliest organised football clubs were formed by ex-pupils of these schools. This was so even in Cornwall. For example, Redruth R.F.C. was founded in 1875 by men from Clifton School and from Marlborough. Incidentally, the oldest club in Cornwall is claimed to be Penryn, formed in 1872 by a return migrant who had come across the Rugby version of the game when he played for Blackheath in London.
The Rugby school code dominated in the 1860s with most clubs playing by its rules. Association football, an amalgam of various other sets of rules, only challenged the Rugby code in the mid-1870s when its FA Cup became a popular spectator sport.
In those early days the rules of the game were still remarkably fluid. In 1873 at a match between St Austell and Bodmin, ‘St Austell generously altered several of their rules for the benefit of Bodmin, or the result might not have been quite the same.’ In November 1872 teams from Truro and St Austell fought out a draw. It was reported that there were two touchdowns each but ‘the tries were unsuccessful’.
As touchdowns were abolished under association rules in 1867 the teams were clearly playing rugby. However, at that time the word ‘try’ referred to an attempted shot at goal, or a conversion in modern terms. A try (or conversion) required a touchdown first, but games were decided on the tries or goals, not the touchdowns. Thus, the return match between the same two clubs at St Austell was described as a draw as no tries were scored. This was despite St Austell scoring three touchdowns and Truro none. The earlier formation of permanent football clubs in the west probably explains why rugby became the dominant code in the district between Truro and Penzance. East of this there was a gradual drift from Rugby to Association rules. In 1877 at a meeting at Liskeard for example, it was decided to start a football club, to play ‘by association rules’.