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A Brief History of Rugby

by Leana Kell

Rugby is one of the most popular sports within the UK, and as a nation, we're proud of its heritage. Last month, England and Wales hosted the Rugby World Cup 2015, a momentous occasion in the sporting calendar and a great opportunity to show case the world's best players in the sport.

This month, Centurion takes a look at the history of Rugby and why it has continued to grow in popularity throughout the past century to become what it is today - one of the greatest games in the world.

William Webb Ellis

The game of Rugby has been evolving ever since 16 year old William Webb Ellis reputedly picked up a ball and began to run with it during a school football match in 1823, thus creating the rugby-style of play. Despite the story lacking firm evidence, it has become firmly entrenched in the sport's folklore and there is a statue erected in his honour within the grounds of Rugby School in Warwickshire.

The balls

In order for the game of rugby to develop, the presence of a ball was essential, and thankfully, a local shoemaker named Gilbert who lived in Rugby, had been making balls long before William Webb Ellis came along and supplying them to local schools in Rugby. The first balls were much larger and rounder than today's rugby ball and the insides were made out of a pig's bladder which was then covered in leather. Gilbert established his company in 1823 and in the 1860s it was his business partner's idea to replace the bladder inner tubes with rubber. He also claimed to design the unique oval shape, but failed to patent the idea. Today Gilbert is the official brand of the 2015 Rugby World Cup ball.

The rules

The rules of Rugby were first written in 1845 and distributed to schools and other countries. The rules were created at Rugby School and recorded for the first time by the then football captain and head schoolboy, Isaac Gregory Smith who asked three of the current senior players to write down the previously unwritten rules. The rules were illustrated to produce the first ever images of the game of rugby football. Around the same time, the concept of the all-important 'offside' rule was documented, which became such a significant rule that in 1871 the Rugby Union stated: "No rules in the rugby code require to be more strictly observed. Disregard of these fundamental rules will completely nullify all the science and spoil all the spirit of the rugby game."

The game

The game took some years to develop - originally there were no formal positions and anyone could join in and play, but by 1847, a fixed number of players was agreed, starting with 17 forwards and three full-backs. Later on, this developed into teams of 8 forwards, 2 half-backs and 4 three-quarters and a full back. Soon, the tackle was developed whereby holding and grappling with an opposing player became the core activity of the game, but this activity could go on for more than 15 minutes without the ball being put down, which led to the RFU officially introducing the tackle in 1874. .


The RFU, rugby's first governing body, was formed on January 26th in 1871 by representatives from 21 of the local rugby clubs, and shortly after this, a set of codes or laws were created by a lawyer known as Leonard Maton who wrote the first draft whilst laid up with a broken leg - from playing rugby! Unions continued to form in other countries and on 27th March 1871, the first international rugby match was played between England and Scotland. International tours became incredibly important in the development of the game worldwide and in 1882, the first ever Rugby Union tour occurred when an Australian team visited New Zealand.

The Rugby World Cup

Another century of Rugby was played before the introduction of the Rugby World Cup. During the century that passed, various significant rules were added to the game such as drop goals, listed as a form of kicking by the RFU in 1887, the introduction of umpires and a referee in 1885 and the scrum which developed in 1905. In 1985, the first ever Rugby World Cup was launched and in 1987 it was hosted in New Zealand and Australia. The trophy, named the William Webb Ellis cup, was chosen by the then chairman John Kendall-Carpenter.

The great split

The great split between Rugby Union and Rugby League occurred back in 1895. At the time, Rugby fever had hit Britain hard and more and more clubs were developing in some of the largest cities and counties in the north of England. With the development of the new leagues came the demand for more control and autonomy to include payment of players for loss of earnings, but the RFU was keen to retain its amateur status. This led to the Northern clubs forming the Northern Rugby Union, formally known as Rugby League from 1922. It wasn't until the summer of 1995 when rugby union finally agreed to became professional having held on to its amateur status for 150 years.

An inspiration

Rugby continues to be an inspiration to modern day practices. In 2016, rugby union, represented by its short version seven-a-side rugby, will return to the Olympic fold. In addition, the government has recently announced a new initiative to take professional rugby coaching into schools to help teach inner-city children discipline, teamwork and resilience.

The game of Rugby continues to develop new initiatives and practices, and as such, it continues to be enjoyed by millions across the globe.