When the game of Rugby Football was still slowly evolving at Rugby School, it was almost impossible to cross the opposition’s goal line with the ball in hand. There were too many players on the pitch and the match resembled an enormous, slowly moving scrum.
On the rare occasion that a player took the ball in his arms, he would be immediately attacked (hacked, knocked over, throttled, etc.) by numerous opponents.
The games were won by moving the ball as near as possible to the opposition’s goal and then kicking a goal out of hand (what today we would call a ‘punt’) or while it was rolling or bouncing on the floor.
Goals – kicks through the uprights – were very hard to score and the rules allowed a game to be drawn if no one had scored a goal after three days’ play! The first team to score two goals won. All undecided games were drawn after five days’ play.
Jem Mackie was the first great ‘runner in’ [try scorer] during the late 1830s. This was an individual effort (without passing the ball) and was only possible because Mackie was exceedingly strong and there were (we believe) fewer boys playing during that period.
No one knew what he should do when he crossed the try line, which was guarded by junior boys who were acting as ‘goal keepers’ while the senior boys played the game. There is a lovely reference to Tom Brown being knocked unconscious while acting as one of these ‘goal keepers’ in ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’.
A law was introduced by the boys that once a ball had been ‘run in’, it was kicked back to another player who could then ‘try’ and score a goal. This continued until well after the RFU was formed (in 1871) to govern the game.
The early RFU laws talked of having a ‘try at goal’ by a kick, having touched the ball down behind the goal line.
By 1875 unconverted tries at goal (i.e. tries) were first used to decide the winner of a match. The unconverted tries were counted up if the number of goals (converted tries) scored was equal.
In 1877 it was called a ‘try’ for the first time in the laws, but also still referred to as a ‘run in’ (until the 1880s).
In 1886 the first point-scoring system was introduced. A goal (converted try) was awarded three points and an unconverted try equalled one point.
1891: try = two points (converted try = five in total)
1893: try = three points (converted try = five in total)
1971: try = four points (converted try = six in total)
1992: try = five points (converted try = seven in total)