The new American football or NFL season is just four weeks old but it has already caught many people’s attention with some exciting games and outrageous plays. The highlights section on the nfl.com website is a great way of catching up on all of the best action over each weekend for those who have yet to be fully initiated into the game. American football matches are generally exciting to watch but I am sure for a person who hasn’t seen a game before they can be difficult to follow. In describing the NFL to a novice, most people would probably start with the line that it is similar to rugby and the origins of American football is interlinked to an extent with Rugby. In both games the objective is to get the ball from one end of the pitch to the other end of the pitch into either the oppositions in goal area (rugby) or end zone (in NFL). You can also score by kicking the ball through the goal posts either with a conversion, drop goal or penalty goal in Rugby or a point after touchdown or field goal in the NFL.
There are many other facets of the game however that make American football quite different to Rugby. One is the goal posts. In Rugby the goal posts are H-shaped but in American football they are shaped like a fork with just two prongs. The other difference is that the goal posts in Rugby are on the try line or at the front of the in goal area whereas in the NFL they are at the back of the end zone. What is interesting about this is that there was a time when the goal posts in American football were H-shaped and positioned in the same spot as they are now for Rugby.
The following Sports Illustrated article (here) provides a quick history of NFL Goal Posts. When the NFL was founded in 1920 it originally had H-shaped goal posts at the back of end zone to follow the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) rules. But in 1933 the NFL wrote its own rules and positioned the goal posts at the goal line. Interestingly the article states that this was to increase field goal attempts because there was too many tied games. In 1967 a proposal to change the shape of the goalposts to a fork was put forward mainly because of safety concerns but also because teams were using the goalposts in offensive strategies, e.g. an extra blocker. Initially the fork shaped goalposts were placed on the goal line but by 1974 every team had placed them at the back of the end zone to remove their influence (almost) completely.
Why the quick history lesson? In researching the history of NFL goalposts it made me wonder if the Rugby law makers have ever thought about making a similar change to their goalposts. What would be the costs and benefits to such as change? The benefits for changing would be broadly similar to what happened in the NFL and would particularly remove the awkward rule where a player can score a try by grounding the ball at the base of the goal posts (which is the case in rugby union but not interestingly in rugby league). It should make it easier to score a try although there is an argument that the additional benefit of removing H-shaped goal posts is much greater in American football given that the ball can be thrown into the end zone, a play which is not permissible is rugby.
The costs of changing would probably be reflected in a decrease in penalty goals and drop goals (conversions wouldn’t be affected as they can be taken from any point perpendicular to where the try was scored). This might not be that significant in rugby league where penalty goals and particularly drop goals are less important (drop goals are only worth 1 point in rugby league) but it would have major implications for rugby union. An allowance could be made for penalty goals by automatically bringing the ball forward to compensate for the extra distance but the same could not be done for drop goals. Whether penalty goals and drop goals are still important in rugby union is another matter and I suspect (although I haven’t checked the stats) they are less frequent. So we will see American football style goal posts in either rugby code at some stage in the future? Probably not given the costs (which would also include monetary costs) and benefits outlined. Tradition would also be a strong motivating factor against any such change..