Where Did Rugby Football Begin?
The Greeks and Romans are known to have played many ball games, some of which involved the use of the feet. The Roman game harpastum is believed to have been adapted from a Greek team game known as “Episkyros”, which is mentioned by a Greek playwright, Antiphanes (388–311 BC) and later referred to by the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria(c.150-c.215 AD). These games appear to have resembled rugby football.
The Roman politician Cicero (106–42 BC) describes the case of a man who was killed whilst having a shave when a ball was kicked into a barber’s shop. Roman ball games already knew the air-filled ball, the follies. Episkyros is recognised as an early form of football by FIFA. The highly organized rugby football games of today developed from the crowd game of ancient and medieval Britain in which a round or oval object—usually the inflated bladder of an animal—was kicked, punched or driven towards a goal.
In 1871, English clubs met to form the Rugby Football Union (RFU). In 1892, after charges of professionalism (compensation of team members) were made against some clubs for paying players for missing work, the Northern Rugby Football Union, usually called the Northern Union (NU), was formed. The existing rugby union authorities responded by issuing sanctions against the clubs, players, and officials involved in the new organization. After the schism, the separate clubs were named “rugby league” and “rugby union”.
The origins of games between two teams, which attempt to kick, carry or otherwise force a ball through a goal or across a goal line defended by their opponents, are lost in antiquity. When football was taken up by the English public schools, all agreed that the ball must never be carried or passed by hand in the direction of the opponents’ goal.
It was a violation of this rule by William Webb Ellis at Rugby School in 1823, which led to the division of modern footballers into those who want to play only with their feet and those who wish to use both feet and hands. At first Ellis’s behavior was condemned even at Rugby. But the school soon decided to permit running with the ball by players who received it by a fair catch. Then it was permitted if the ball was caught on the bound. Later other restrictions on running with it were abolished.
Ellis became a great hero and a tablet on one of the boundary walls of Rugby School bears this inscription: “This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game. A.D. 1823.”
It was some time before rugby football was accepted as a game in its own right, but on January 26, 1871 representatives of 17 clubs and three schools met at the Pall Mall restaurant, Regent Street, London. They formed the Rugby Football Union, drafted by-laws, appointed officers and instructed a committee of 13 to draw up the basis of the code in use at Rugby School.
In England, rugby union is widely regarded as an “establishment” sport, played mostly by members of the upper and middle classes. For example, many pupils at public schools and grammar schools play rugby union, although the game (which had a long history of being played at state schools until the 1980s) is becoming increasingly popular in comprehensive schools.
Despite this stereotype, the game, particularly in the West Country is popular amongst all classes. In contrast, rugby league has traditionally been seen as a working class pursuit. Another exception to rugby union’s upper class stereotype is in Wales, where it has been traditionally associated with small village teams made up of coal miners and other industrial workers who played on their days off. In Ireland, both rugby union and rugby league are unifying forces across the national and sectarian divide, with the Ireland international teams representing both political entities.
In Australia, support for both codes is concentrated in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. The same perceived class barrier as exists between the two games in England also occurs in these states, fostered by rugby union’s prominence and support at private schools.
Exceptions to the above include New Zealand (although rugby league is still considered to be a lower class game by many or a game for ‘westies’ referring to lower class western suburbs of Auckland and more recently, southern Auckland where the game is also popular), Wales, France (except Paris), Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Scottish Borders, County Limerick and the Pacific Islands, where rugby union is popular in working class communities. Nevertheless, rugby league is perceived as the game of the working-class people in northern England and in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland.
In the United Kingdom, rugby union fans sometimes used the term “rugger” as an alternative name for the sport, although this archaic expression has not had currency since the 1950s or earlier. New Zealanders refer to rugby union simply as either “rugby” or “union”, or even simply “football”, and to rugby league as “rugby league” or “league”. In the U.S., people who play rugby are sometimes called “ruggers”, a term little used elsewhere except facetiously.
In France, rugby is widely played and has a strong tradition in the Basque, Occitan and Catalan areas along the border regions between Spain and France. The game is very popular in South Africa, having been introduced by English-speaking settlers in the 19th century. British colonists also brought the game with them to Australia and New Zealand, where the game is widely played. It has spread thence to much of Polynesia, having particularly strong followings in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Rugby union continues to grow in the Americas and parts of Asia as well.