The Eton Field Game is a bit of football mixed with a bit of rugby, and yet is somehow like neither. A good deal less nakedly aggressive than the Eton Wall Game, it can be extremely enjoyable, in an esoteric sort of way. The game is the main sport played in Lent half (the term that runs from January onwards), and, as no-one else in the world whatsoever plays the game, is mostly restricted to inter-house leagues and cups, with a champion of champions cup awarded to the house that performs the best in all competitions overall. The four school teams play against the beaks or scratch teams put together by Old Etonians. When playing a team of Old Etonians, generally speaking you want to be playing against recent Old Boys. They may be stronger, and quite fit, but at least they play by the same rules as you. Playing anyone over about the age of 40 will usually involve at least one argument about the legality or otherwise of gouging, stamping, and various other inhumane acts to the person, and discussion afterwards of how the game has 'softened up since I played it'.

The game has elements in common (in other words, it's a bit odd) with Winchester College Football and Harrow Football

To play, you'll need:

Each team of 11 comprises 7 forwards (two side-posts, one post, one back-up post (BUP), and three corners), one fly, and three behinds. The behinds can be any combination of short, long, or goals. Generally two shorts and a long are used, but if the wind is against, you will probably want to play double-long. Obviously.

The game begins with a 'bully'. The bully is much the same as a rugby scrum, and is contested between the forwards. It's a good idea, then, to make sure you have managed to get hold of 7 relatively hard rugby players to be your forwards. They don't need to be particularly skillful, but stamina is a useful asset in your forwards, as their game can involve a lot of running. To form a bully, the front rows line up against each other, with the side-posts either side of the post, as their name might suggest, and the BUP behind, playing the role of rugby union's number 8. The corners are similar to flankers, although two play on the open side, and one on the blind side. Their job is to protect the ball from their opposite numbers if their own side is controlling it in the bully, and to force their way through and steal it when the opposition has control over the ball.

Whichever team has had the bully awarded in their favour 'has heads'. This means that they get the not very slight advantage of being able to properly form their half of the bully, like a front row should, while the opposing front row forwards have to stand upright (about the only advantage of being in this position is that your knees are relatively close to the heads of your opponents, and even with two umpires, it's surprising what you can get away with). The ball is then rolled into the centre of the bully by a corner from the side that doesn't have heads.

Once the forwards have done enough illegal damage to each other, the ball usually exits the bully. Assuming it exits legally (illegal ways are legion, and too lengthy to discuss here), whoever has possession will try to make their way to their opponent's goal. They generally don't get far, as the rules on tackling are fairly loose. If an offence is committed, either another bully takes place, or a free-kick is awarded.

If, somehow, no offence is committed, the ball will eventually find its way out to one of the behinds, whose job it is to kick it over all the forwards, towards the opposing behinds. This part of the game gives the behinds the chance to show their poncy football skills by kicking the ball back and forth, trying to gain ground. While they are doing this, the forwards have to leg it up and down the pitch, in an effort to force the opposing behind into making a mistake of some sort, such as kicking the ball out of play (which gives a bully to the other side at the point the ball was kicked from), or, if they're not sharp enough, getting trampled. Behinds can protect each other by blocking any forwards who look like getting through, but since the behinds are generally soft and precious, and the forwards hard and, well, hard, efforts are usually half-hearted.

The sequence of bullys and kicks is broken when someone scores. You get points by scoring:

  • a goal, by kicking the ball between the posts, and under the crossbar. A goal is worth 3 points.
  • a Rouge, which is scored when the ball is kicked by an attacker, hits a defender, travels past any point of the goal line and is touched down by an attacker. A rouge is worth 5 points. If a defender touches the ball down, the attacking team can choose to score one point, or to take a bully on the three-yard line. You can also score a rouge if the ball is in a 'tightly-formed bully' which crosses the goal-line.
  • a point, if you chose to take the point instead of the bully when given the option.
  • a conversion, which is taken after a rouge is scored. The attacking team can elect to have a bully in front of the goal, and try to force the ball into the goal, or can elect to have a 'ram', which is fun to be in, and less fun to defend. A ram consists of three attackers, lined up behind one another. They will usually chant something to get in rhythm with each other, and then charge at the defending team, who will line up on the goal line (although sensible players tend to hang around at the back, in the positions of least danger). Again, the attackers have to force the ball into the goal line to score.

Various offences, which you will probably commit without knowing it in your first few games, include:

  • Playing on the ground: You cannot play the ball if any part of your body above the knee is in contact with the ground.
  • Furking: The ball cannot leave the bully backwards. You have to wait for the bully to move forwards enough so the ball is released, or so that your first kick will take it forwards.
  • Cornering: The bully must stick together as a group when the fancy kicking show is going on between the behinds. If you are on your own and you play the ball, you will be cornering.
  • Cornering in the behinds: As well as getting to volley the ball back and forth, the behinds sometimes get to show off their dribbling skills as well. However, they can only run with the ball if they start off behind the bully, or run across so that they are behind the bully before heading for goal.
  • Sneaking: complicated rule designed to make forwards earn their paychecks. Before you can run forwards after the ball, you have to run back and reach at least one opposing bully member. Generally you shout "last man!" when you reach him (so the umpire knows you're playing by the rules this time) before turning and running back up the pitch after the ball. By this time of course, the opposing behinds will probably have kicked it back, so you have to turn round and head back towards your own goal. And so on and so forth. After a short while you begin to pray that someone kicks the ball out before you pass out...

The truly amazing thing about the Field Game is that it can be tremendous fun to play. It mixes the aggression and brawn (and, it has to be said, cunning) of the forwards' play with the sometimes tremendous skill shown by the behinds in kicking the ball about (not to mention their tremendous cowardice), trying to place it so their forwards can get to it before the opposition behind can clear it. Skillful and subtle play from both forwards and behinds is particularly important when the ball is anywhere near the goal-line, a part of the game which is practically worthy of a node in itself.

The rules are available from the Eton web site, at http://www.etoncollege.com

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