How To Understand the History of Rugby

Rugby is a tough, competitive contact sport widely accepted as very similar to football.  It had its roots in the United Kingdom, a country which has a long history of football games, some dating to as early as the 5th century.  Rugby, however, wasn’t formed until the early 19th century in England.

  1. Origins.  The distinct characteristic of rugby football, which sets it apart from other games of similar impressions, is that players are allowed to touch and run with the ball using their hands.  The first documented occurrence of this “deviation” from the usual football rules happened in 1823, when William Webb Ellis, a student at Rugby School (in Rugby, England), allegedly caught the ball with his hands and ran towards the goal with it.  However, even if this is the widely held popular view of the origins of the game, it is widely contested for lack of documentary evidence.  Regardless, the international committee on rugby eventually named the World Cup the “William Webb Ellis trophy.”
  2. Development of Rules.  Still, others believe that one can only trace the origins of rugby to a time when people started the codification of its rules, which eventually permitted the handling of and running with the ball in 1845.  The development of such rules led to the many distinctions of rugby from football, which allowed the game to develop worldwide and spread internationally.
  3. Unions.  The first rugby union was formed on January 26, 1871 in a meeting held in London attended by 21 rugby clubs from across the UK.  The primary objective of their meeting, which was published in a letter to The Times by Edwin Ash and Benjamin Burns a month prior, was to establish a set of codified rules, which different clubs in the area could adopt.  Ash and Burns stressed that there are many clubs in the country but these clubs play with rules that differ from each of the others.  After the meeting the Rugby Football Union was formed, electing Algernon Rutter as its first president and approving a set of rules of the game in June 1871.
  4. Further developments.  The first international rugby game was played in 1871 in Edinburgh.  In 1886 Scotland, Ireland, and Wales formed the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), the recognized lawmaker of the game.  At first, England’s RFU refused to join the board, saying that they should have better representation since they have more clubs.  In 1890, England eventually joined the board. 

Rugby was first introduced as an Olympic sport during the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris.  Over the next several years many rugby unions were formed around the world, including Australia, New Zealand and the USA.  The first Rugby World Cup, with the participation of rugby unions around the world, was played in 1987.

Rugby continues to evolve as the years go by, and many developing countries in Asia and Africa have started playing the game, proving its worldwide appeal and popularity.  Currently, rugby can be played professionally in a number of countries, much like other sports such as football and basketball.


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