The origin of rugby football is often credited to a young man named William Webb Ellis who “took the ball in his arms [i.e. caught the ball] and ran” while playing a form of football at Rugby school in 1823.
However historians have questioned the authenticity of this story, beginning with an official investigation by the Old Rugbeian Society in 1895. Nonetheless, the trophy for the Rugby 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 200 years before three boys published the first set of written rules in 1845. However, the game they presented resembled “Hurling to Goal”, described by Richard Carew in his 1602 work, ‘Survey of Cornwall’. Cornish hurlers traveled to London to play ‘demonstration matches’ of the sport several times in the seventeenth century.
Until the formation of the Football Association (FA) in October 1863 opposing football teams agreed on a set of rules before each match. Teams that competed against each other regularly tended to agree to play a similar style of football.
Rugby football has a claim to the world’s first “football clubs”; the Barnes Club (as it was known), formed in London in 1839, and Guy’s Hospital Football Club (1843). However the continuity of these two clubs has not been established by documentation. Dublin University Football Club is the world’s oldest documented football club in any code, having been formed in 1854; it currently plays rugby union in the All Ireland League Division Two. Likewise Edinburgh Academical Football Club was formed in Scotland in 1857-58. Blackheath Rugby Club was founded in 1858 and is the oldest documented rugby club in England. It was a founding member of The Football Association. When it became clear that the FA would not allow running with the ball in hand and to “charge, hold, trip or hack him, or to wrest the ball from him” (‘hack’ meaning to kick opposing players’ legs, a feature of the rugby game at the time), 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 on 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 sizeable 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 into New Zealand was by Charles John Monro, son of Sir David Monro, 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 enthusiastic 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. However a form of rugby was being played at Christ’s College, Canterbury in 1853.. 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 predominantly middle-class southern clubs, a dispute revolving around the nature of professionalism within the game. Several clubs had made payments to their players to compensate for loss of working time, when either playing or training. These “broken time” payments were seen as an affront to the Corinthian ideal by the gentlemen who administered the game. On August 29, 1895 22 clubs split from the RFU and met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to form the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU), commonly called the Northern Union (NU). 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 (RFL) dates from 1922. A similar schism opened 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 organizations which were members of the IRB became known as “rugby union”. The code played by those teams which played “open” rugby and allowed professionals as well as amateurs became known as “rugby league”.
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. It did this because of a committee conclusion that to do so was the only way to end the hypocrisy of shamateurism and to keep control of rugby union (there were rumours that Rupert Murdoch was planning to finance a Southern Hemisphere professional league). The move from amateurism to professionalism has arguably 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. Increasing popularity in recent years has led to diversification; women’s rugby is increasingly popular in the US and Canada.
The professionalisation of rugby union has created a larger and more international supporter base than before and very large crowds in international competitions. Sponsorship and club attendance is also increasing in rugby union, with many English premiership clubs seeking to expand their existing ground capacity. Attendances for major international rugby union matches are generally sell-outs. As rugby union has grown, the increased funds generated have allowed the opportunity for big money deals bringing top-level rugby league players over to rugby union.