The history of rugby

Ahead of the 2017 Six Nations competition, Julian Humphrys looks at the origins and early history of the sport...

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

An illustration showing an early rugby union game in London, 1871. (© Getty)
An illustration showing an early rugby union game in London, 1871. (© Getty)

Did William Webb Ellis really invent the game at Rugby School?

The evidence for this story – that a schoolboy invented rugby by picking up and running with the ball during a football match – is sketchy to say the least. At the start of the 19th century a number of public schools (including Rugby) were playing a version of football, all with slightly different rules, though it was normally permissible to catch the ball to kick it. In the 1820s, boys at Rugby began running with ball in hand, and this gradually became an integral part of their game.

In 1863 the Football Association was formed to standardise the laws of the game. Running with the ball was outlawed but Rugby carried on with its own version of ‘rugby football’.

 

How did the game spread?

Mainly through the influence of former Rugby pupils who introduced it where they lived and worked. Soon ‘rugby clubs’ were being established throughout Britain and the colonies but, as with early football, there were considerable variations in the rules.

 

How was rugby standardised?

In 1871 a meeting was held at London’s Pall Mall Restaurant. The Wasps representative turned up at the wrong restaurant but 21 other rugby clubs were represented; the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded and three former Rugby pupils, all lawyers, deputed to write the laws of the game. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Disputes over the laws continued at an international level for some time.

 

Why did the game split into Rugby Union and Rugby League?

Money. When, in 1895, the RFU voted against the payment of players for ‘broken time’ (ie for lost earnings) while playing, 22 northern clubs broke away to form the Northern Union. Later renamed the Northern Rugby Football League, it would allow its players to be paid and introduced changes to the laws of the game.

The Union authorities determinedly defended the concept of amateurism, imposing draconian penalties – including life bans – on any player who had anything to do with the professional game. It wasn’t until 1995, a century after the original split, that the International Rugby Board bowed to the inevitable and accepted that Union players could be paid.

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