Moving the goalposts: Should the Rugby codes look to the USA for a new type of upright?


Over fifty years ago, the NFL changed its uprights to the slingshot shaped ones we know today. Are the rugby codes in need of an update?

We all know that a ball grounded against the posts is a try in union, no try in league and usually don’t care why.

But otherwise, why would we want to change our beloved H shaped goalposts?

For those followers of either codes but not the gridiron, it was 50 years ago since the NFL switched to the “slingshot” model. Two Americans, retired sports writer/editor Joel Rottman came up with it while staring at his fork along with colleague coach Jim Trimble while having lunch in Canada.

Why? Because it would make the game safer and would prevent players from gaining advantage by using the posts to set a pick.

From 1966 onward, the Canadian Football League has used the new shape and from 1967, the NFL has as well. After all, the two were having that fateful lunch in Montreal so why wouldn’t the CFL get it onto the field first?

South Africa’s Handre Pollard kicks at goal against England. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

But more importantly, the history of how these came to be requires some explaining.

Unlike in most countries where professional sport dwarfs that of all others, college football still reigns supreme in America. This was even more so the case in 1920, when the NFL was founded. It used the classic H shaped goalposts and placed them on the goal-line just like in both rugby codes. This is because that was what college football did, and college football did it because the origins of the sport are in pre-split rugby.

Still, this was a long time after the most influential event that split the North American games from their English counterpart. In 1879/1880 the scrimmage/scrummage ceased to be contested and, as a result of ball hogging and boring games, a three down restriction was brought in two years later.

But still, it was not long after that in 1927 when the NFL followed suit with college football and retreated the goalposts to the back of the end zone as a way of reducing kicking attempts. This was not to last and in 1933, the NFL decided to make its own rules and moved the posts back up to encourage more kicking due to ties.

But the next step was not entirely linear to the “gooseneck” shape we have today. Until 1967, exemplified in the AFL-NFL Championship Game (in hindsight referred to as Super Bowl I), the design was changed to that the bottom half of the H was recessed but the top crossbar and top half protruded forward to sit over the goal line.

For those that say the Y shaped NFL style is just too much, maybe this is something rugby folks should be looking at.

No, they are not the prettiest but they are; 1) safer in reducing collisions at the line, 2) prevent players from using them to their advantage and 3) do so without changing the distance needed to be kicked. We see that this is the case in the CFL, which just had their Grand Final, the 110th Grey Cup.

However, if the goal is to reduce the amount of goals kicked, we could simply move the current H or even the broken H shaped design to the dead ball line.

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The NFL did move the goal posts to the back of the endzone (dead ball line) in 1974 but this was after the gooseneck was adopted. Giving this a bit of thought, this means the goal line in the NFL has actually been the dead ball line since 1974 given that this is where the goalposts are now; maybe it is time to stop calling the try line/touchdown line the goal line, but vestigial organs do not go away easily in the body or culture.

It is hard to find someone that follows rugby union to say that a game of aerial ping pong that is then won entirely by penalty goals is more exciting than hard fought tries scored.

Nathan Cleary kicks the winning field goal in golden point to beat Newcastle. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The National Rugby Championship (NRC) has attempted to change the strategy of coaches in Australia by assigning different values to the goal after try (usually two but now three) and penalty kick (usually three but now two).

In the NRL’s rugby league matches, this means there would be at least eight more metres to kick when trying to break that tie to win in the final seconds of the game. Some find the status quo exhilarating, others would argue it is 80 hard fought minutes reduced down to who is arbitrarily lucky enough to have the ball in their hands as the buzzer sounds or gains a favourable flip of a coin.

With a ten-metre retreat, and just two markers off the ruck, it is understandably frustrating since, unlike union, this provides a major advantage to the kicking side.

But what about the Y shaped goal? If we are so keen to keep the goal over the goal line, would it serve a purpose? It provides only one post to come in contact with or to use for advantage and, by design, it is recessed into the in-goal area, which would allow defenders to line up in front of it.

Rugby’s goalposts have been this way for a long time… Matt Burke lines up for a shot during the 1999 Rugby World Cup final. (Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Since we are this far down the rabbithole, there is always the option of suspending the uprights as they do in the Arena Football League (also AFL) though, even with tethers strapping them to the ground, it is likely they will sway in the wind!

It is unlikely that any of the above ideas will ever be put into practice unless a game is being played on a field designed for American football but it is important to note that, though its intended design and use in the CFL is still being felt today as they still sit on the goal line, Rottman and Trimble’s slingshot only maintained its purpose for eight years in the NFL.

For all the eight seasons from Super Bowl II through to Super Bowl IX, the wishbone sat up front like its Canadian cousin. After that season, the NFL decided there was too much kicking and decided to move them back behind the dead ball line.

The idea of halving the number of posts for safety, while maintaining a goal line stance, were no longer needed. As such, if we in the rugby codes are serious about reevaluating the goalposts, it is crucial we establish what we would like to achieve by any sort of changes and as such, should keep this final piece of the puzzle in mind as it has remained unchanged for more than half a century on the gridiron.

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