Rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen.

Winston Churchill

With the Rugby World Cup starting this weekend, it’s about time we discussed the sport which is undoubtedly a British Classic.

Rugby History

At Rugby School, Warwickshire, a commemorative stone reads that in 1823 William Webb Ellis, “with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game.” This has been dispelled by many as a myth, as running with the ball only became commonly accepted play in 1830. This legend is honoured in the form of the Webb Ellis Cup, the trophy awarded to the winner of the Rugby World Cup. 

Rugby School Rugby Kit
Source: Rugby School

Rugby School adopted the first written code of rules in 1845. At this time, a try gained no points and would only count if it was converted!  The word ‘try’ was derived from the days when a touch-down did not score points but allowed a player one attempt to kick at goal. The ball itself is oval because the pig bladders originally used for the lining of the ball naturally form an oval shape when inflated. 

Rugby spread rapidly across the UK. The University of Dublin team formed in 1854 and Edinburgh Academicals Rugby Football Club formed in 1858.

International Rugby

Founded in 1871, the English RFU wrote the laws of the game and other countries soon formed their own unions, the Scottish in 1873, the Irish in 1879 and the Welsh in 1880. The first recognised international match took place in 1871 when England played against Scotland. Scotland won 1-0, an impossible scoreline in today’s game!

Calcutta Cup Trophy.
Source: Rugby Network

The English-Scottish rivalry continued, with players representing the countries playing one another in Calcutta on Christmas Day in 1872. The match was a success and players established the Calcutta Football Club in 1873. The club was a success despite the Indian climate, but when the free bar closed, membership rates dropped. Members commissioned the Calcutta Cup so that their club would be remembered; the club’s 270 Silver Rupees were melted and reformed to make the trophy which is approximately 45cm high. England and Scotland have since competed over 100 times for the cup. As of 2019, Scotland has won the cup 40 times and England 70. 

Union or League?

Charges were laid against clubs in Yorkshire for compensating their players for missing work in 1892; this went against the agreement that players within the RFU would be unpaid and, therefore, amateur. As a result of this, 22 clubs in the North of England resigned from the English RFU in 1895 and formed the Northern Union. Exactly 100 years later, in 1995, World Rugby declared that the previously amateur would become a professional sport.

The Northern Union later became Rugby League which remains more popular in Lancashire and Yorkshire than elsewhere in the UK. The first International Rugby League match took place nine years later in Wigan. England played against an ‘Other Nationalities‘ side, which had primarily Welsh and Scottish players; England lost 3-9 in this friendly.

The primary differences between the games are as follows:

  • League has 13 active players whilst Union has 15.
  • In League, a try is worth 4 points, a goal 2 points and a drop goal 1 point. In Union, a try is worth 5 points, a penalty kick or a drop goal is 3 points, and conversion kick 2 points.
  • After 6 consecutive tackles on the attacking team in League, the defending team receives the ball. No such rule exists in Union.
  • In League, scrums consist of 6 players per team and are uncontested; the players do not push against one another. In Union, the scrum has 8 players from each team who push against one another to win the ball; the attacking team places the ball on the ground in the middle of the scrum to begin the scrum.
  • In League, a tackled player must drop the ball and roll it behind them using their foot to give it to their teammate. In Union, the tackled player must remain on the ground and push the ball behind them to their teammate. This created a ruck, meaning that the opposing players can contest for the ball as long as they remain on their feet and are onside.

The Rugby World Cup

Established in 1987, Australia and New Zealand hosted the first Rugby World Cup. France defeated favourites Australia in the semi-final but lost to New Zealand’s All Blacks in the final. England became the first Northern Hemisphere team to win the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 as Southern Hemisphere teams have dominated international competitions. Rumour has it, the whistle which was used in the opening the game of each World Cup since 1987. The Welsh referee, Gil Evans, used the whistle in international games as early as 1905.

Gil Evans Whistle.
Source: ESPN

Today, the British Classic places the values of integrity, passion, solidarity, respect and discipline as central to the fabric of the game, a far cry from the 16-year-old who broke the rules by picking up a football in 1823!

Search YouK to discover the brands still producing rugby equipment and clothing in the UK!

Rugby School: A History of Football
Rugby World Cup: Rugby World Cup History
World Rugby: About the Game
Scottish Rugby: History
Rugby League