February 9 2009
I will mention William Webb Ellis, but this is an article not approved by the RFU or the IRB so it will only be in passing. To uncover the origins of Rugby Football you must first find the origins of football and then know about the great divorce between Association Football and Rugby Football.
Some have argued that football goes back to the Romans but that is speculation. However we do know that a game called football existed and was banned by Edward II and many kings thereafter. It was a violent game often resulting in injury and much disturbance of the peace hence the attempt to ban it. The game continued to be played despite the disapproval of authority through the centuries. In some ways the nearest modern equivalent to this medieval game is the once a year mayhem such as Royal Shrovetide Football at Ashbourne in Derbyshire or perhaps even bottle kicking (Hallaton, Leics.). In bottle kicking the ‘ball’ has been replaced by a small keg of beer.
The game of football seems to have been enjoyed by men and boys of all strata in society but there were few rules until the public school boys and their masters started to devise some more. However, this lead to each school having its own version of the game. This then caused confusion when the boys went up to Oxford and Cambridge and wanted to play football there. So an attempt was made at Cambridge to produce a single set of rules and these were then the basis of the rules adopted at a meeting in London in 1863 of what became the Football Association. Interestingly the Cambridge rules allowed catching the ball and then running with it, a rule favoured at Rugby School and possibly elsewhere, but that was one of the rules taken out at the London meeting. The other rule not adopted covers tackling using the arms. There were several London clubs represented at that meeting and one of them was Blackheath who argued strongly for the handling rule to be retained. Within a couple of years Blackheath had withdrawn from the FA. Shortly thereafter the Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871 from clubs, including Blackheath, that favoured the catching and running version of the game.
As for William Webb Ellis, there is very little evidence for the myth that he picked up the ball and ran with it. There is evidence for handling the ball in the medieval folk game. In the 1850s the school rules for football at both Rugby and Eton allowed the ball to be handled. It was the 1863 London (FA) rules that took handling out of football. Of course the FA had to bring handling back when the goalkeeper was added to their rules at a later date.
In case you still don’t believe me take a look at articles on the origins of American, Gaelic and Aussie Rules Football. The all probably pre-date the formation of the FA but have roots in folk and school football. They are all offshoots of the game of football taken with settlers across the seas. Consider the mark in Aussie Rules and the fair catch in American Football. The Aussies talk about the ruck and the Americans the scrimmage. These are all versions of football with a common origin that allowed the use of the hand but also the foot to propel a ball into a goal thus making a score or goal.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rugby_Union#Historyhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_association_football http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Footballhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_football http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bottle-kickinghttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Australian_rules_football_and_Gaelic_footballhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_American_footballhttp://www.rugbyfootballhistory.com/originsofrugby.htmhttp://www.icons.org.uk/theicons/collection/oxbridge/features/sport-at-oxbridgehttp://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/sport_02.shtml