Introduction to the Sport
As background, rugby is a contact sport similar to football, played without pads, and using athletic skills similar to football, soccer, wrestling, and basketball.
Myth and Origins
The mythologized origins of rugby began in 1823 when William Webb Ellis, "with fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time at Rugby school, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it."
Although often disputed and having very little evidence to substantiate, this legendary story remains the popular view today and even the Rugby World Cup prize is named the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
Early Rules at Rugby School
The rules at Rugby School initially forbade handling the ball on the field of play, unless the ball was airborne, in which case it could be caught. The catcher stood still, as did all other players.
The catcher could then retreat from where he had caught the ball and either kick it wherever he wished or place it on the ground and try to kick it over the crossbar and between the posts, which counted as a goal.
Until he had passed the spot where he had originally caught the ball, no one could move.
Running with the Ball
In the mid-1820s the boys started to catch the ball and, instead of standing still, run with the ball in their arms towards the opponents' goal line. By the 1840s, this practice had become the norm.
The Spread of Rugby
When the boys of Rugby School left, they took the game with them. Clubs sprang up all over England and in the colonies where they worked, either as service personnel or administrators. By 1870 it became clear that the game was being played to a variety of rules.
The Birth of the first Union
In December 1870 Edwin Ash, Secretary of Richmond Club, and B.H. Burns, the Honorary Secretary of Blackheath, put a letter in the papers which read,"Those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play."
On January 26, 1871, a meeting was held in London attended by more than 30 people from 22 clubs and schools. As a result of this meeting, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded.
A committee was formed and three former Rugby School pupils were invited to write a set of laws. The writers were all lawyers and the task was completed and approved by June of that year.
Formation of other Home Unions
At the same time, the Scottish members of the new Rugby Football Union challenged the English members to a match and the first international match between Scotland and England was played at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh on March 27, 1871. Scotland won by 1 goal and 1 try to 1 try.
The Scots formed their own Rugby Union in 1873; the Irish Rugby Football Union was formed in 1879 and the Welsh Rugby Union in 1880.
Learn more about the game of rugby.