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The origins of Rugby

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How did the game of Rugby begin? The popular belief is that in 1823, a pupil at Rugby school in England, William Webb Ellis, picked up the ball and ran with it during a school soccer match. The problem with this belief is that soccer did not exist at that stage either. So how did the game come about! Rugby was just not born, it is a game that developed through the centuries, its origins can be traced back nearly two thousand years when China and Japan were playing an early form of the sport. The Greeks who were also very keen games players played a similar game. When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they brought back to Italy this game called ‘harpastum’, and the Romans then spread it throughout the western sector of their Empire. The French and Flemish nations took a particularly keen interest, but each country called the sport a different name.

In Britain, the Roman soldiers stationed there introduced the game to the locals, who called it football, although the spelling was somewhat different. There is mention of it as far back as 1175 in the book ‘History of London’, and in those days it was a contest between two villages. Up to two thousand people used to take part, there being no age restriction nor was it limited to the male population. There is evidence that matches took place between married woman and spinsters.

The teams would meet at noon at a point decided upon by the leaders of the two villages, usually a point midway between the two, and a ball would be thrown in the air. The object being to take the ball back to one’s own village where the goalposts were situated; these could be anything from a pool of water to the town square. The actual ball also varied from a piece of animal hide to a bundle of rags and signified either an item of warfare or of hunting. The most popular thought is that the ball represented an enemy King’s head or possibly that of an animal. The means of getting the ball back to the goals were not specified but carrying it, kicking it and hitting it with sticks and clubs were the most popular. Some of the players were on horseback whilst others, carried swords in addition to their clubs and staves. The field of play was not restricted in any way and normally was anywhere between the two villages - up and down the hills, across valleys, through the farming fields and across rivers. Many people were maimed for life, some killed and others drowned when the mob went through a river or stream. It was an ideal way of settling family and other feuds. In many cases a game took place within a game with ambushes being set to enable private duels to be settled. Play for the day was only abandoned at sunset.

When a village were successful in getting the ball back to their own goal they symbolically killed it. The usual method was by drowning in the village fountain or rubbing it into the dirt at the local market. Afterwards the ‘ball’ would be cut up and shared amongst the leaders. It is thought likely that the sporting terms we know as ‘dead ball’ and ‘killing the ball’ date from this time.

The effect that these games had on business and other national requirements was disastrous. Archery at that time was the backbone of Britains military success but the villagers were neglecting their responsibilities preferring to play ‘foote balle’. The result being that it was banned by Royal decree thirty one times in three hundred years by seven kings. In 1314 Edward II spoke out against the noise it created. Edward III blew the whistle because of the injuries caused to the yeomen of the realm, but the King who came on the heaviest of all was Henry VIII, a keen athlete in his youth until immobilised by ‘boozing, gluttony and womanising’. His 1531 Royal Decree spake ‘foote balle is nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence, whereof proceedeth hurte and consequently rancour and malice do remayne with thym that be wounded, wherefore it is to be put in perpetual silence’.

This did not stop the games popularity and it continued to flourish in its different forms. The damage done to villages and farms caused problems for the players with the landowners and the fact that matches were played on religious holidays and Sundays lost them the sympathy of the church. One of the most popular venues for many years was the match on Shrove Tuesday which was played in the town of Derby in the English Midlands and from it the modern sporting expression ‘local Derby’ is derived. The critical comment by the writers of the day on the sport also did not have any effect. Amongst their writings one finds the comments such as ‘rather be called a friendle kind of fyghte than a play or recreation’ and ‘a bloody and murthering practice’. Another writer wrote of foote balle ‘a devilish pastime and hereof groweth envy, rancour and malice, and sometimes brawling, murther, homicide and great effusion of blood, as experience daily teacheth’. Shakespeare even included comment on the sport in one of his plays when one of the characters commented ‘I shall not believe thee dead until I can play football with thy head’.

The coming of the Industrial revolution in Britain saw the change in occupation of the population from that of a rural community to that of an industrialised nation. The responsibility of holding down a job saw it change to a street game of catch, carry and scrag but it was beginning to die a slow but certain death. The public schools of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were responsible for the revival of the sport. When these schools were first started many were founded to take care of the education of the poor but by 1800 they had come a long way from their original foundations to that of the education of the sons of gentry. The standard of teaching however had not kept pace with the developments nor had the school conditions been improved. At Eton the boys slept five to a bed and were flogged for not smoking or drinking beer as this was thought to be the way of avoiding typhoid fever.

At nearly all the public schools the boys objected to being ordered around by socially inferior teachers and rebelled on a regular basis arming themselves with guns, swords and explosives. At two of the well known schools, Winchester and Rugby it was necessary to call in the army to restore peace. To help the boys release their aggressive tendencies several schools tried adapting the street game to school sports. Three schools persevered. They were to change the face of world sport. All three started with the same basic catch, carry and scrag traditional street game but two of the schools, Charterhouse and Westminster had hard quadrangles. Tackled participants got abrasions and broken limbs, so it was decided to leave the ball on the ground and just kick it. A fair question would be why did Rugby School stay with their modified version of the street game. Because they were the only school with big green open playing fields. It was playing surfaces not personal preference which dictated the evolution of the two games - rugby and soccer.

Rugby School also formulated and documented a set of rules. When William Webb Ellis was a pupil there if a player caught the ball directly from an opponents kick he was allowed to kick at goal. The opposition players were allowed to stand on the mark where the ball was caught and attempt to charge down the kicker. To gain space the catcher could run back to allow sufficient room before kicking; if the catcher wanted to go forward he could do so only as a follow up to his kick ahead. What Webb Ellis did was to add a new dimension to a handling game already in existence by picking up the ball and running forward with it in his hands. What was the reaction to Webb Ellis’s action? Nothing. It was written off as a typical ‘Ellis’ show-off. The game at that stage at Rugby School was dominated by forward play and being a back was a lonely occupation. The maul was the dominant feature even to the extent of spectators having their watches out to time the length of the scummage. The longer the better the game. The main idea was for a forward to gain possession by wedging the ball between his knees, and around him the forwards of both sides packed, still erect. Scrumming down was illegal and punishable with an uppercut.

The development of the game accelerated when the players left school and moved on to Universities thereafter forming clubs. In 1863 a meeting was held, attended by delegates from both schools and clubs to establish a uniform set of rules. This was achieved although it was a completely different game to what we know today. Teams consisted of twenty players a side, scoring was done soccer style, purely by goals, valued at a single point and most importantly hacking was allowed. The meeting formed the Football Association to govern the sport and it is this association, which based the game on the rules of the Cambridge University club, which led to the birth of soccer. It was not the handless game we know today.

Unity was not to last as disputes quickly arose regarding some of the rules, the main area of disagreement being whether to allow ‘hacking’ which the original meeting had wanted to exclude. In those days hacking was considered very manly and you were allowed to kick an opponent between the ankle and the knee provided it was face to face and that your opponent was not being held at the time. Another variation of hacking was called ‘Halleluja’. This happened after the game when players were paired off with opponents and lined up facing each other. When the whistle went they hacked away at each other until the referee called a halt. It was considered cowardly to retreat or flinch and in order to make hacking more effective players wore special boots with metal toe-caps. The proponents of the carrying code were adamant that this ‘art’ be allowed to continue as well as tripping, much to the disgust of the adherents of the kicking game. Area’s of common cause on both sides were that attempts to strangle or throttle players would not be allowed. Another issue that caused dissension was the matter of scoring and whether points should be allowed over the crossbar as well as under.

In 1871 it was the turn of the Blackheath club, which is still in existence, to call a meeting inviting all clubs who wanted to play the carrying game to join together to ensure that they were playing to the same rules. It had become obvious that the two games, carrying and kicking, had such radical differences that they could not go forward under the same banner. The adherents to the carrying code broke away from the Football Association and formed another body calling it a Union and embracing the rules applying to the game at Rugby School thereby giving the sport its present name. The union became the Rugby Football Union and the rules became the Laws. The clubs then found that their playing strength was continually being depleted by injuries through hacking and tripping, so much so, that these ‘arts’ were banned as well as that of bringing down a player with a lusty kick to the body which until then was an accepted form of tackling. These decisions created a storm of protest from the veterans of the day who were most indignant of the developments and flooded the letter pages of London’s leading newspaper ‘The Times’ denouncing the ‘milksops’ (effeminate fellows) who had succeeded in abolishing this practice.

Up until the introduction of these new laws the maul or scrummage had continued to be the cornerstone of the game taking up to twenty minutes for the ball to emerge from the scrum. There was resistance to letting the backs have the ball and their duties were to stop the opponents efforts to hack. They were to run with or kick the ball. At that time passing was not common and was considered a somewhat sharp practice. The new laws introduced a number of factors which changed the nature of the scrumming. First was the art of wheeling the scrum which reduced the pushing contest and made the skill of breaking away from the scrum and of dribbling the ball at the forward’s feet an important part of the game. Then came the emergence of the practice of heeling the ball back for the backs to use and finally a further change in the law which introduced the scrum at the place where any breach of the laws was not otherwise dealt with.

The new body was quick to organise the first International match, which took place within six months of formation of the Rugby Union. England played Scotland in Edinburgh. The difference in the approach to the game is highlighted by England having developed their backs and wanting to run the ball whilst Scotland strongly held the view that passing the ball out from the forwards was an act of cowardice. The Scots were crafty in their approach for when they laid out the field they restricted the width by nearly a third which put paid to the English idea of running the ball.

Within twenty five years after the formation of the Rugby Union radical developments had taken place in the style of play and there was a need to regularly update the laws. The game spread rapidly with separate controlling bodies being established in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, New South Wales, Rhodesia and South Africa were seven provincial bodies had also been formed.

The first international matches in the United Kingdom were not without incident. Reverting to the England vs Scotland game at Edinburgh, the umpire, as the referee was then called, who was a local school teacher, awarded a try to the home side which was hotly disputed by the English visitors. When he later defended his actions in writing he said ‘I must say, however, that when an umpire is in doubt. I think he is justified in deciding against the side which makes the most noise’. By the end of the 1880’s none of the home unions would play against England as a result of dissatisfaction with the Rugby Football Union which the English controlled. It became necessary to refer the whole matter to the Lord Chief Justice of Scotland and to the President of the Rugby Football Union. The outcome of this development was the formation of a new body, the International Rugby Board, in 1890, which was to govern the game right throughout the world.

And now what of William Webb Ellis. It was nearly twenty years after his running the ball that anyone thought of limiting playing numbers in the game and it would take decades before anyone thought there was more to the game than just a forward push and shove. There is no record of him ever attending a rugby match. Why did he run the ball forward ? A contemporary assessment was that ‘he was someone who wants to be thought something of’. Another contemporary wrote ‘an admirable cricketer, but generally inclined to take unfair advantage at football’. Leaving Rugby School he went up to Oxford University where he obtained a cricketing ‘blue’ and then entered the church serving at one stage as the minister of St Clement Danes, of which the old nursery rhyme about oranges and lemons still survives. Little else is known of his life, he never married and died in 1872 and was buried in the South of France. He did have a sermon published but all tributes to him have been posthumous. Nobody bothered to find out where he was buried ... until 1959. Perhaps the biggest contribution that William Webb Ellis made towards the game of rugby was, for after the match, for he wrote and published a poem on beer!


1.History of South African Rugby. - Paul Dobson. 2.History of Rugby. - Wallace Reyburn. 3.World of Rugby. - John Reason and Carwyn Jones. 4.Rugby - A Way of Life. - Edited by Nigel Starmer-Smith. 5.Up Front: The Story of the New Zealand Scrum. - Graeme Barrow. 6.1953 South African Rugby Annual. 7.The New Zealand Rugby Museum Newsletter No 4( May 1990 ) - Edited by John Sinclair.

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