Rugby has been one of the world’s most beloved sports ever since it came into existence just shy of two centuries ago. The sport is truly a global phenomenon and boasts of the full membership (member unions) of 108 countries and associate membership of another 18. It also has a fan base of over 400 million followers on six continents and has been part of the list of the top 10 world’s fastest-growing sports for a while now. Like many other sports, its emergence and subsequent development have been heavily documented and are largely credited to one individual whose spontaneous creativity gifted the world one of its most cherished treasures.
Who invented rugby? Rugby was invented in 1823 by William Webb Ellis – a student at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England – who is said to have, at the age of 16, picked up the ball during a football match and proceeded to run towards the opposite goal. The action, which was contrary to the rules of football at the time, inadvertently gave “Rugby Football” its distinctive feature – advancing while handling the ball.
While a considerable number of historians credit William Webb Ellis with inventing rugby, a section of analysts argue that the Englishman cannot take full credit since the sport existed in various other forms in different communities across history.
The forms include Australia’s marn grook – a game that was said to have Aboriginal ties and would even involve upwards of 100 players. Marn grook predated Australian rules football by almost two decades and is credited with having played a part in its formation.
New Zealand equally had its own antecedent in the form of Kī-o-rahi, which involved two teams of seven play each competing on a field that was segmented into zones. Though rules differed from one geographical area to another, the objective was the same – to score a goal by hitting a central target or touching a boundary marker.
Another interestingly similar sport was lelo burti, which originated in Georgia. Teams traditionally involved a few dozen players each playing on a field between two bodies of water. Members of the two teams were often drawn from opposing villages with the objective being to carry a large heavy ball that was placed in the middle of the said field across the river to the opponents’ half of the field in order to make a lelo (try). The matches were highly competitive as it was believed that the village that won would have a better harvest.
Other forms include Greek Harpastum, South Wales’ cnapan, Ireland’s caid, Italy’s Calcio Fiorentino, France’s La Soule, and Japanese Kemari, which is one of the earliest sports to ever been played and is also believed to have been an early form of soccer.
Rugby School alumnus William Webb Ellis deserves the title of “the godfather of rugby” for a single action he committed in the latter half of 1823 that many credit as having birthed the sport of rugby. The only account of the story was given by a former student over half a century later.
According to the student, one Matthew Bloxam, Ellis “caught the ball in his arms” while playing football, and rather than retiring as far back as he pleased as the rules allowed, opted to rush forward towards the opposite goal with the ball in his hands.
In order to understand the significance of Ellis’ actions, one needs to take a closer look at the above-mentioned rules. Upon catching the ball, a player was allowed to retreat as far back as possible without forfeiting possession while the opposing team was only allowed to advance until the spot where the ball had been caught.
The restriction would apply until the player who caught the ball placed it for one of their teammates to kick or punted it. Ellis’ action of disregarding the rule is believed to have unintentionally opened up the possibility of playing a sport in that manner.
Though a number of scholars and historians have challenged the validity of the account since there was no first-hand account of the incident and the primary one was published four years after his death, a subsequent inquiry in 1895 could not dismiss the supposition.
Two pieces of evidence serve in Ellis’ favor. The first being that the former Foundationer was known to take an “unfair advantage at football”, The second was that though running with the ball was not strictly forbidden, it was greatly discouraged due to the rough nature of the sport at the time, which may have resulted in a fatal injury to a player.
Another supporting piece of evidence is the fact that Rugby School itself credits Ellis with having invented the sport. The school erected a statue of Ellis on its property and put up a commemorative plaque in 1895 partially detailing the account. Having been founded in 1567 and being an institution known to keep records to date, it is highly probable that their account of Ellis’ exploits is indeed authentic.
The First and Second Schism
A question that is often asked is which of the two – rugby or soccer – came first. As many historians would agree, answering this question beyond the defining events of the 19th century would be a tall order since many communities around the world claim to have had a form of the sport that predated both.
Rugby or rugby football was one of the codes of football that were played in England in the early 1800s. The first recognized attempt at codifying the rules of the sport was done in Rugby School 1845, which many credit as being the original rules of rugby.
It’s also important to note that such rules differed from one school to another and that former students who transitioned into higher institutions of learning like universities often carried the rules with them creating further misunderstandings with students who were not from their former school.
These events led to the formation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863 and the creation of its first set of rules which ousted elements like handling and tackling that prompted the famous exit of Blackheath Football Club. Blackheath’s defiance sparked the creation of other rugby clubs in the region culminating in the creation of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) in June 1871. These events are what many historians dub the first schism.
The second schism occurred in 1895 when clubs from the north of England ceded from the RFU to form the Rugby League over the RFU’s insistence on players maintaining an amateur status. Rugby had for a time been reserved for the upper class who could afford to take time away from work to play and travel, which was not the case for the largely middle-class players of the northern clubs.