History of Rugby Union


Rugby union, a physical and fast-paced sport played with an oval-shaped ball, has a rich and fascinating history. The origins of rugby can be traced back to ancient games played in Greece, Rome, China and other regions, which had elements of running with the ball and kicking it through a target. The sport took shape in its modern form in the early 19th century at the Rugby School in England, where the handling of the ball was allowed but running with it in hand was not. Legend has it that a student named William Webb Ellis changed this by catching the ball and charging forward with it, but there is still some controversy over the extent of his role. The sport then spread to other schools and institutions through former Rugby pupils. The formation of the Football Association in 1863 marked a pivotal moment in the history of football and rugby, with the latter splitting off and forming its own set of rules after the Football Association banned running with the ball and hacking. Our article here at Talk Rugby Union will dive deep into the history of rugby union, so read on to get yourself acquainted.

Ancestors of the sport

The very earliest forerunners of rugby are intertwined with those of football. Ancient games such as those of Shang Dynasty China in the 5th century BC, where the objective was to kick a leather ball through a hole in a piece of cloth between two 30 foot poles, were notable in this regard. The Greek and Roman games of Episkyros and Harpastum respectively have also garnered some interest in tracing the roots of rugby, with the latter played on a rectangular grass surface with a ball equivalent to a softball today.

rugby scrum

The advent of mob football in medieval England and elsewhere in Europe additionally provides some insight into later developments. However, more direct progenitors in the period can be found elsewhere. The Celtic game of Caid (or Cad) is one notable example, which may well have been connected to the Welsh sport of Cnapan. Both of these pastimes placed emphasis on running with the ball, and there are other regional games which may have informed the later rugby union such as ‘La Soule’ in France, ‘Campball’ in East Anglia and ‘hurling to goales’ in Cornwall. There is even evidence of similar games in antiquity courtesy of tribes like the Maori, the Eskimos and even the Polynesians.

The unique history of rugby union

Early developments in rugby essentially followed the same path as that of football - hence the still used moniker of ‘rugby football’. However, the real story of the sport begins in the early 19th century at the private Rugby School in Rugby, England. Although the basic principles of football were instituted, certain conventions existed in the sport which would be considered illegal today. Of chief concern for rugby historians was the fact that the handling of the ball was tolerated, but not running with it in-hand.

With this in mind, the key moment came courtesy of the-then 17 year old pupil William Webb Ellis, reported by just one source, another former pupil of Rugby, Matthew Bloxam. Writing to the school magazine many years later in 1876 and detailed further four years later, Bloxam described how, while playing football in 1823, Webb Ellis ‘caught the ball in his arms… and on catching the ball, instead of retiring backwards, rushed forwards with the ball in his hands towards the opposite goal’.

Although this image of Webb Ellis charging ball in-hand has been retained as the foundation myth of rugby union, there is still some controversy over the 17 year old’s role. An investigation by the Rugbeian Society in 1895 appeared to largely dismiss Bloxam’s account which, in actuality, came from an unnamed source (he was not a contemporary of Webb Ellis). That said, Webb Ellis’ official status as a founding father of sorts remains intact today, and a plaque at the school commemorates him for having ‘a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time’ and ‘originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game’ in 1823.

Ironically, while the precedent set by Webb Ellis may have been significant, the actual popularisation of carrying the ball was due largely to another pupil, Jem Mackie, in the late 1830s. Indeed, legislation of the handling came later still, thanks firstly to Bigsie Levee in 1841, and finally enshrined in the written rules on August 28th 1845. This form of football originating from Rugby spread quickly to many other schools and institutions, predominantly due to the efforts of former Rugby pupils. Arthur Pell, for example, set up a club at Cambridge University in 1839 and, of significance to football historians per se, the 1848 meeting which led to the ‘Cambridge Rules’ in 1848 was the result of a game between the Old Rugbeians and the Old Etonians - the latter growing exasperated at the Rugby players’ use of hands. The oldest ‘football club’ was also the product of former Rugbeians, when Guy’s Hospital FC was founded in 1843, soon followed by others such as Dublin University FC in 1854 and Blackheath Rugby Club in 1858.

Football and rugby go their separate ways

The formation of the Football Association at Freemason’s Tavern on Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London on October 26th 1863 was a pivotal moment in the history of football and rugby. The creation of the governing body was part of a series of meetings that would codify the rules of football. When it came to the code itself, the Cambridge Rules, concocted as a result of the controversy over the Rugby style, were largely used but two issues emerged during the discussions - ‘running with the ball’ and ‘hacking’. It was the decision to expunge both at the end of the fifth meeting that proved the catalyst for a divergence between rugby and football, with the Blackheath protesting on the grounds that, according to FM Campbell, it would ‘do away with all the courage and pluck from the game’ to remove both. By the sixth meeting, a schism had clearly arisen and the 11 Rugby clubs, led by Blackheath, declined to join the Football Association.

Initially living as pariah sporting figures, the second pivotal moment for the creation of rugby proper came in late 1870, when the Secretary of Richmond FC proposed a meeting to codify a separate set of rules for the Rugby clubs. This took place shortly after on January 26th 1871 and was attended by 21 clubs at the Pall Mall Restaurant in London’s Regent Street. Some of the represented clubs still play today, most notably Harlequins and Blackheath, and London Wasps should be in that list as well but, although they planned to attend the meeting, their representative purportedly received incorrect information on the time and place (although it has been suggested that the man in question was simply too drunk to find the restaurant).

The chief consequence of the meeting was the foundation of the Rugby Football Union. A committee was founded in turn and three ex-Rugbeians (Rutter, L.J. Maton and Holmes) were given the task of drawing up a set of laws, which they completed and had approved by June 1871. The great irony of this code was that it did not permit hacking, which had been attacked by the breakaway clubs progressively during the 1860s. For the privilege of being involved in what would prove a massive moment in the history of sport, each club was charged an annual subscription fee of 5 shillings.

Things progressively rapidly from then on, national boards were set up in Scotland, Ireland and Wales over the course of the 1870s and 1880s, which laid the groundwork for competitive international fixtures. The first game actually took place in 1871 between England and Scotland in Edinburgh on March 27th, where a crowd of approximately 4,000 saw Scotland win by 1 try. A return match in 1872 at The Oval in London saw England get their revenge though and, in 1878, a true rivalry was born with the introduction of the Calcutta Cup, presented to the winner of every match courtesy of Calcutta FC. Reflecting the continued influence of Rugby school on the nascent sport, Calcutta FC was founded by ex-Rugbeians and 10 of the English side to play in the 1871 fixture were former Rugby pupils. Moreover, certain facets of the game bore no resemblance to the modern incarnation, with the teams each containing 20 players and the match lasting 100 minutes.

Rugby had spread to the continent by 1872, with the first French rugby club founded by British residents. With the game therefore reaching out beyond its roots, the International Rugby Football Board was established in 1886 by the boards of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Faced with this pre-eminent threat to its sovereignty, the RFU refused to join initially due to demands for greater representation on the board and an unwillingness to accept the IRFB as lawmakers. Indeed, England only joined in 1890 after a Home Nations embargo on games against England. This move saw the IRFB - later changed simply to the International Rugby Board (IRB) - enshrined as the supreme organisation in the game and, over the course of the late 19th century, changes to the laws came into play, pushing rugby closer to its modern form. For example, 1877 saw a shift from 20-a-side to 15-a-side matches, changes in 1889 meant the introduction of a points system (although a try only became 5 points in 1992) and the trademark leather oval ball only took over from the spherical ball in 1892.

Divide between League and Union

The issue of professionalism saw raging debates and some serious soul-searching among the governing bodies of all sports during the 19th century, but no sport suffered more than rugby. To a large extent, this was due to the insistence on the principles of amateurism in rugby. While this arrangement appeared a harmonious one in the early years, the realities of a rapidly expanding sport led to the second major schism in the history of rugby, this time between north and south.

It is ironic then that the first set of rules on amateurism transpired as a result of discussions between the Yorkshire and Lancashire rugby bodies in 1879. Later taken on by the IRB in 1886, these northern clubs were vehemently opposed to professionalism initially. However, attitudes shifted with the realisation that a large number of their players came from working-class backgrounds and thus risked their livelihood by playing rugby.

Allegations in 1892 against clubs in Bradford and Leeds over payments to players meant professionalism reared its ugly head again and, this time, it was the RFU in the south of the country who responded with concern at a move to professionalism. The incipient problems were exacerbated further when the Cumberland County Union complained that one of their players had been lured away by monetary benefits. The RFU’s tough talking in response saw a threat to leave the Union by the main clubs in Yorkshire and Lancashire - an incredible u-turn from their previous stance.

Further proof of changing attitudes was provided at a meeting on September 20th 1893, where Yorkshire County proposed compensation to players if injured and unable to work. Supported by northern governing bodies, it was opposed by the Secretary of the Union, defeated by vote and professionalism clamped down on during a follow-up meeting.

The northern clubs’ response was dramatic. At a meeting on August 29th 1895 at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, 20 clubs from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire resigned from the RFU and formed the Northern RFU (later changed to the Rugby Football League in 1922). Establishing their own code, these clubs - many of whom are doyens of modern Rugby League in the UK - instigated the split between Union and League which was finalised when a meeting of the RFU on September 19th 1895 definitively rejected professionalism.

The impact on rugby worldwide was equally marked. In 1908, eight clubs in Sydney broke away from the Australian Union to form the New South Wales Rugby League and, in 1931, when the French Rugby Union was suspended from playing against other nations due to suspicions that the French Rugby Federation (FFR) had permitted breaking rules on amateurism, Rugby League blossomed in the southwest. Amidst all the chaos, one thing was for certain - rugby would never be the same again.

Creating a global sport and providing a living

Considering the acrimonious nature of the split between League and Union, the future for both has proved surprisingly rosy. Union, in particular, has expanded massively in terms of popularity over the course of the 20th century. The crowning glory was the establishment of the Rugby World Cup, first held in 1987 and supplementing international competition beyond the Six Nations and tours of other participating countries.

With so much money flowing into the sport, the question of professionalism was again a major concern. The breaking point finally came on August 26th 1995, when the IRB announced rugby union was an ‘open game’, thus putting an end to the sanctions that had lasted for over a century. In some respects though, the move was a fait accompli, as rugby unions had persistently offered financial rewards to players for participation and there had been rumours in the aftermath of the World Cup’s success of a breakaway league. The phenomenon known as ‘shamateurism’ was later highlighted by a Select Committee of the House of Commons, which found shamateurism rife over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere. This was hardly a modern development either, as an Australian rugby union touring party to Britain in 1908 was paid 21 shillings a week.

The transition from shamateurism to professionalism was, as a result, not quite as profound as expected, despite some problems for the smaller unions at club level. Moreover, it has also seen a merging of the two forms of rugby football, with a number of players switching ‘codes’. Some of these have even been established stars like England’s Andy Farrell, who moved from rugby league’s Wigan to rugby union’s Saracens in 2005.

To write a history of rugby union is, therefore, something of an oxymoron. With professionalism introduced just over a decade ago, the sport is still very much in transition. The continuing evolution is illustrated further by trials for the Stellenbosch Universty laws - first in South Africain 2006 and Scotland and Australia in 2007 - as well as the expansion of the Five Nations to the Six Nations in 2000. Simply put, despite Webb Ellis’ contribution coming over 180 years ago, rugby union can still be considered very much an evolving sport.