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A History of Rugby Football

By John Phillips
September 1 2019

Do you know how rugby Union and Rugby League were created?


The legendary story about the origin of Rugby football, whereby a young man named William Webb Ellis "took the ball in his arms (ie caught the ball) and ran" while playing football at Rugby School is almost certainly a complete fiction. Sports historians have dismissed the story as unlikely since an official investigation by the OldRugbeian Society in 1895. However, the trophy for the Rugby Union World Cup bears the name of "Webb Ellis" in his honour, and a plaque at the school 'commemorates' the 'achievement'.

Playing football has a long tradition in England and football games had probably taken place at Rugby School for two hundred years before three boys published the first set of written rules in 1845. Until the formation of the Football Association (FA) in October 1863 each football team would agree on a set of rules with opponents before a match. Teams that competed against each other regularly would tend to agree to play a similar style of football.

Rugby football has a claim to the world's first "football club", formed as Guy's Hospital Football Club, London in 1843, by Rugby School old boys. A number of other clubs formed to play games based on the Rugby School rules with Dublin University Football Club being the world's oldest surviving football club having been formed in 1854 and currently playing rugby in the All Ireland League Division One.

Blackheath Rugby Club was founded in 1858 and is the oldest continuously-existing rugby club in England. It was a founding member of the The Football Association. When it became clear that the FA would not agree to rules which allowed 'hacking' and 'hacking over' (fundamental parts of the rugby game), Blackheath withdrew from the FA just over a month after the initial meeting. Other rugby clubs followed this lead and did not join the FA.

For the next few years rugby clubs continued to agree rules before the start of each game as they had always done, but on January 26, 1871, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) formed, leading to the standardisation of the rules for all clubs in England that played a variety of the Rugby School laws. Soon most countries with a sizable rugby community had formed their own national unions. In 1886, the International Rugby Board (IRB) become the world governing and law-making body for rugby. The RFU recognised it as such in 1890.

The introduction of Rugby Football Union into New Zealand was by Charles John Monro, son of Sir David Monro, who was then speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives. The younger Monro had been sent to Christ's College,East Finchley in north London, England. That school had adopted rugby rules and Monro became an enthusiatic convert. He brought the game back to his native Nelson, and arranged the first rugby match between Nelson College and Nelson Football Club on May 14, 1870

In North America, rugby developed into American football and into Canadian football.

The 1890s saw a clash of cultures within the game, between working men's rugby clubs of northern England and the southern clubs of gentleman, a dispute revolving around the nature of professionalism within the game. On August 29, 1895 22 clubs split from the RFU and met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to form the Northern RugbyFootball Union, commonly called the Northern Union. NRFU rules gradually diverged from those of rugby union, although the name rugby league did not become official until the Northern Rugby League formed in 1901. The name Rugby Football League dates from 1922.

England v Wales 1890A similar schism open up in Australia and other rugby playing nations. Initially rugby league in Australia operated under the same rules as rugby union. But after a tour by a professional New Zealand team in 1907 of Australia and Great Britain; and an Australian Rugby League tour of Great Britain the next year; rugby league teams in the southern hemisphere adopted rugby league rules.

For clarity and convenience it became necessary to differentiate the two codes of rugby. The code played by those teams who remained in national organisations which were members of the IRB became known as "rugby union". The code played by those teams which played "open" rugby and allowed professionals became known as "rugby league". Although the IRB claimed to be enforcing the amateur status of rugby union, many referred to the situation as "shamateurism".

On August 26, 1995 the IRB declared rugby union an "open" game and removed all restrictions on payments or benefits to those connected with the game. ". The move from amateurism to professionalism has been one of great success and has undoubtedly increased the quality of rugby being played. However, professionalism has meant a huge increase in the gap between the top nations and the second tier. Alongside the success stories there have been some famous rugby clubs which have not coped well with the new era.


Women’s rugby has been played in England since the late 1970s, although it did not see a really rapid expansion until the formation of the Rugby Football Union for Women in 1983. In 1983, the Union consisted of 12 teams based in England and Wales. Now the RFUW represents over 200 clubs in England alone and has seen an impressive growth in the women’s game not only at the senior level but also amongst the under 16 age group. 

The first representative side involving English players ran out as Great Britain against France in 1986. In 1987 England formed it’s own national side, which took on Wales in what has since become an annual fixture. They won that match and maintained an unbeaten record in all international competition until they met the USA in the final of the 1991 World Cup, which they lost 19-6. Revenge came when England defeted the USA, along with Canada and Wales, to take the Canada Cup in 1993. They then bested the USA again in the final of the 1994 World Cup, 38-23. By 1998, however, the opposition had become much tougher overall and England were beaten in the semi-finals of the World Cup by New Zealand.


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A History of Rugby Football
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