Rugby Football is an internationally played team sport which has it's origins in games played at the Rugby School.



Like Association Football, or 'Soccer', Rugby Football is derived from an older English game in which two neighbouring communities would compete to get a ball into each other's village. Traditional Medieval football games were violent affairs, in which a large scrum would usually develop. People would not just kick the ball, but could carry it or throw it. Local variations on the rules were common, but games were localised, so this didn't usually result in a problem (and the rules were largely informal anyway).

In the later centuries, as the public school system developed, team sports were adopted as a way to keep the students healthy and introduce them to gentlemanly concepts such as 'fair play' and 'teamwork'. Football has long been played at schools, with early forms being recorded at Winchester and Eton during Tudor times. However, many mentions are in the context of banning the sport, or of injuries and deaths related to it.

By the 18th century, football was well established as a team sport in schools up and down Britain, although there were still variations in the rules played, and it is likely that few if any games were played between schools. Some schools had highly ideosyncratic football games - for example the Eton Wall game was developed to play against a particular wall in the grounds of the school.

The earliest known formal rules for variants of football were laid down at Eton in 1815, followed by Aldenham in 1825.

Rugby School and William Webb Ellis

It is known that Rugby School codified it's version of the football game in the 1845. This was shortly after the period when Thomas Arnold was headmaster. Arnold is credited with encouraging team sports such as football and cricket, although they were certainly played before he arrived in 1828.

William Webb Ellis attended Rugby School between 1816 and 1825. He was known as a cricket player, and one who would at times bend the rules in order to win. It is legend that during a game in late 1823 he took a similar liberty with the rule of football at Rugby, by picking the ball up and running with it to score.

The stone under his statue outside the school reads:


However, it is not clear whether he actually did this as there are no contemporary accounts. The first tales arose after his death. It is also likely that using the hands was allowed in the Rugby version of football at the time, as it was in many variations - indeed in some places using the feet to kick the ball was frowned on - although carrying the ball while moving forward may have been against the rules. As the rules were not actually written down for another 22 years, and as there is no first hand account of the incident, it remains apocryphal.

Whatever the facts, Webb Ellis is regarded as the spiritual founder of the game, and the cup handed to the international team that wins the Rugby Union World Championship is named for him.

Outside the Schools

However, it is clear that soon after the game was established at Rugby, it spread beyond the school system. Football clubs were started in around 1840 at Barnes and Guys Hospital in London, and it seems that football in the rugby style was played rather than any other school's version.

By the time that the Football Association was formed in 1863 to regulate and codify what became 'soccer' or modern football, rugby football was a well established club sport and several regular fixtures between schools had been set up. Some clubs joined the FA, and followed rules that outlawed the use of the hands. Others scorned the innovation, and later formed the Rugby Football Union in 1871.

The Two Codes

As in Association Football, and in Cricket, there was a conscious difference between those who played sport for money and those who played as amateurs. By 1890, the Rugby Union had barred professionalism, following pressure from the Yorkshire and Lancashire representatives. Ironically, the clubs based in the north were the most keen on allowing professional players, being based in areas where most people were not wealthy enough to devote time to playing organised sport for nothing, and would need to hold a full time job at the same time.

In 1895, twenty northern clubs broke away to form what would become the Rugby League. Since then, the general pattern was that Southern and Middle England played Union, and Northern England played League. Public schools remained loyal to the Union code, for the most part. Over the next few decades, the rules for the two codes diverged to the point that they even have different numbers of players. This was mainly a result of the Rugby League needing to make changes in order to attract paying crowds to games, resulting in a more dynamic game.

Over time, both codes of the sport became popular across the British Isles and in other parts of the world. As well as to commonwealth nations, notably the 'Tri-Nations' of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the game was exported to France and to Argentina. There are World Cups for both codes, with the Rugby Union World Cup being one of the most watched sporting events in the world (only behind the Olympics and the Football World Cup).

In 1995, almost a hundred years to the day after the schism, the Rugby Union revoked its rules on amateurism, ushering in the period of professionalism. There was talk of unifying the two codes at the time, but both have so far managed to remain vital enough to flourish. Several players have moved between the codes, and there are a growing number of clubs in England that have teams in both codes.

In the town of Rugby

As well as Rugby School, the town has several clubs devoted to Rugby Union. The most prominent of these is Rugby Lions who play at the Webb Ellis Road ground.

In 1923, on the 100th anniversary of the legendary birth of the game, a commemorative match was planned between an England-Wales team and a Scotland-Ireland team. It was suggested that the game be played at Twickenham, which had a large capacity for spectators. However, the game was instead played out at The Close of Rugby School, as a fitting tribute to the place where the game was born.