Rugby is a sport known for its physicality, strategy, and deep-rooted traditions. From its humble origins on the playing fields of Rugby School in 1823 when William Webb Ellis famously picked up the ball and ran with it, 200 years later, rugby has evolved into one of the world’s most popular sports.
But was that famous moment really when the game was invented? Here we take a look at the evolution of the sport, from its earliest versions, to the global phenomenon it is today.
Rugby’s origins can actually be traced back over 2,000 years to the Roman game of harpastum, derived from the Greek word ‘seize’, which involved handling a ball. This game may have been played during the Roman occupation of Britain in the 1st century BC.
Although codified at Rugby School, throughout medieval Europe and beyond, various forms of traditional football games with ball handling and scrummaging formations were played. Different regions had their own variations, including New Zealand’s Ki-o-rahi, Australia’s marn grook, Central Italy’s Calcio Fiorentino, and Japan’s kemari among others.
Various early ball games were played during the Middle Ages (5th to 16th century). In England during the 14th and 15th centuries, documents record young men leaving work early to compete for their village or town in football games, which could be fairly violent. Shrove Tuesday football matches in particular became annual traditions, and there were many regional variations, often taking place over a wide area, across towns, villages, fields, and streams.
These local games continued well into the 19th century until football for the common man was gradually suppressed, notably by the 1835 Highways Act which forbade the playing of football on highways and public land. However, the sport did find a home in English public schools, where it was modified into two main forms: a dribbling game primarily played with the feet (promoted at Eton and Harrow), and a handling game (favoured by Rugby, Marlborough, and Cheltenham).
The legend of William Webb Ellis
The roots of modern rugby can be traced to Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. In 1749, the boy’s school moved from the town centre to a new 8 acre site on the edge of the town known as the Close, providing more space for the boys to exercise.
The football played there between 1749-1823 had few rules. Although touchlines had been introduced to demarcate the playing area, the game was still fairly hectic, with teams often consisting of around 200 boys. The ball could be handled, but running with the ball was not allowed; progress towards the opposition’s goal was made by kicking.
While there is some debate and legend surrounding the exact moment and individual responsible for the game’s inception, the story of William Webb Ellis is perhaps the most enduring. According to legend, in autumn 1823, a young William Webb Ellis disregarded the established rules of football and, during a game on the Close, picked up the ball and ran with it.
According to the rules of the day, the opposing team could only advance to the spot where the ball had been caught, and Ellis should have moved backwards to give himself enough room to either kick the ball up the field or place it for a kick at goal. Instead, Ellis’ impulsive act is said to have laid the foundation for the game of rugby as we know it today.
However, the veracity of this tale is debated. While it is known that Webb Ellis was a student at Rugby School at the time, there is no direct evidence aside from a citation by the Old Rugbeian Society in an 1897 report on rugby’s origins by Matthew Bloxam. Nevertheless, the symbolism of Webb Ellis’s actions has persisted, and he remains an iconic figure in the sport, with the Rugby World Cup trophy named after him.
Public school influence
Rugby’s lack of standardised rules resulted in a variety of playing styles, and a somewhat chaotic playing field.
Rugby School, which gave its name to the sport, played a pivotal role in rugby’s development. Encouraged by Rugby School’s influential headmaster Thomas Arnold (headmaster from 1828-1842), many pupils from this time were instrumental in the game’s expansion. By 1841, the rules and fame of ‘rugby’ had spread fast as Rugby School’s pupils moved on to university, (mostly to Oxford and Cambridge), prompting a need for standardisation.
In 1845, the first rugby rules – the ‘Cambridge Rules’ – were established by members of Cambridge University. These introduced the concept of the ‘scrummage’ (the precursor to the modern scrum), and prohibited handling the ball forward, shaping ‘Rugby Union’. These laid the groundwork for the Rugby School rules established in 1845, which played a significant role in shaping the modern sport.
By 1863, boarding schools and clubs had developed further rule sets. Increasingly, rugby was seen as a sport of British imperial ‘manliness’, associated with the education of young gentlemen in public schools and universities.
After graduation, many young men wanted to continue playing. Following the formation of the first football clubs in the mid-19th century, rugby gradually became institutionalised. Blackheath and the Edinburgh Academicals were some of the first rugby clubs to form in 1858, and club matches began in England when Blackheath played Richmond in 1863.
The spread of rugby
In 1863, representatives of leading football clubs met to attempt to establish a common set of rules, but disputes arose over issues like handling the ball and ‘hacking’ (a tactic of tripping opponents and kicking their shins). Both were allowed under rugby’s rules but prohibited in other forms of football.
Advocates for rugby, led by F.W. Campbell of Blackheath, staunchly defended hacking, considering it character-building and its abolition ‘unmanly’. Consequently, rugby did not adopt the rules established for the newly formed Football Association (FA), leaving rugby outside the FA’s jurisdiction. (Hacking was later abolished during the late 1860s).
However, the death of a player in a practice match in 1871 prompted members of leading rugby clubs to organise an official meeting. That same year, Rugby saw its first international match when Scotland faced England in Edinburgh, resulting in victory for Scotland. This historic game marked the beginning of international rugby and, combined with the official rugby club meeting, led to the formation of the Rugby Football Union (RFU).
(Hacking remained a part of the game at Rugby School, causing the school to delay its entry into the RFU until 1890.)
The first official university match was played in 1872, and graduates from these universities introduced rugby to other British schools. Former pupils, ‘Old Rugbeians’, who had joined the army officer class helped expand the game internationally. By 1886, the International Rugby Board (now ‘World Rugby’) was established, and rugby began to gain popularity among middle and working-class men.
As rugby became more standardised, it became renowned for strict adherence to the rules and the spirit of the game, with a strong emphasis on discipline, self-control, mutual respect, and fair play. By the late 19th century, rugby, along with cricket, was seen as a sport that cultivated the ‘civilised’ manly behaviour of the elite, instilling values of unselfishness, fearlessness, teamwork, and self-control.
The split: Rugby Union and Rugby League
In 1895, a significant split occurred in rugby when clubs in Northern England formed the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU). This stemmed from a dispute over player compensation and working-class participation. The NRFU allowed player payments, which were prohibited by the Rugby Football Union (RFU), rugby union’s governing body.
The NRFU’s establishment led to the creation of Rugby League in 1922. This introduced distinct rules, including a six-tackle rule and a focus on speed and agility. Rugby League gained popularity in England’s northern regions and parts of Australia, while Rugby Union continued to dominate in the south and expanded globally.
The division between Rugby Union and Rugby League persisted for decades, with each developing its own distinct culture, traditions, and following. It was only in the late 20th century that Rugby League began to regain ground, especially in Australia and New Zealand.
The International Stage
Over the years, more nations embraced rugby, leading to the establishment of international competitions like the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship. In 1900, Rugby Union became an Olympic sport, and by 1908, three major Southern Hemisphere nations – New Zealand, Australia and South Africa – played international matches against Northern Hemisphere nations.
While rugby was later dropped from the Olympics in 1924, the inaugural Rugby World Cup was held in 1987. Additionally, Rugby Sevens (played with smaller teams in matches lasting 14 minutes) has been featured in the Olympics since the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
In the late 20th century, commercialism and television’s growing influence led to the professionalisation of rugby, allowing players to earn a living from the sport, and raising its standards and global appeal. While historically a sport for men (despite women’s games being played as early as the 1880s), Rugby Union has made progress in promoting women’s rugby, with the Women’s Rugby World Cup, beginning in 1991, instrumental in advancing the women’s game.
Rugby continues to evolve, with new nations emerging as competitive forces on the international stage. Japan’s impressive performance in the 2019 Rugby World Cup generated interest in Asia, contributing to rugby’s fast-growing global reach. However, concerns over player welfare, particularly regarding concussion management, have prompted changes in the laws of the game once more, highlighting rugby’s ongoing evolution.