Rugby Football
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Rugby Football in Medieval Times

Rugby Football has its historical roots in medieval times. King George II’s proclamation in April 1314 highlights the existence of a generic ball game in the 14th century. Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.”  Even in the 12th century William Fitzstephen reported that “football” was a popular pastime. During a visit to London he noted that the city’s youths went to the fields to play a game of ball after dinner. He also noted that every trade had its own football team. This was essentially folk football, It bore only a passing resemblance to the current game of rugby football. Games were characterized by extreme violence, large numbers of players and very few rules. Holidays in particular, allowed rival villages to indulge in such huge mob football matches. Even now Ashbourne in Derbyshire pays homage to the tradition. It still holds The Royal Shrovetide Football Match annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.

Rugby School and William Webb Ellis

Mob football continued into the nineteenth century. However a more formalised version of the game we now call rugby began to be played. The influence of Rugby School in the development of the game cannot be underestimated. Their influential headmaster Thomas Arnold believed that strong Christian values and teamwork were enhanced by taking part in strong physical exercise. Later this cult of manliness via rugby and cricket were adopted by Oxford and Cambridge Universities and many public schools.

Rugby School pupil  William Webb Ellis has been credited with “inventing” the game of rugby football when he picked up the ball and ran with it. In reality, this probably never happened, at least in the way it was described. The story was only recounted some fifty years after the alleged event by a local scribe Matthew Bloxham. Most rugby historians have now dismissed this as a myth. The Webb Ellis legend does however highlight the key role of Rugby School in the development of the game that bears its name. Indeed it was three pupils from Rugby School who, in 1845, devised the first set of rules for the game that eventually became rugby union.

Rugby Football Within the British Empire

Rugby, in various forms flourished throughout the British Empire in the nineteenth century. In Australia a basic form of rugby was being played from the early nineteenth century. The first formal team, Sydney University Football Club, were set up in 1864. It is a similar story in New Zealand. Whilst the introduction of the game happened later than in Australia, the game was formalised at much the same time. Rugby football’s introduction is credited to Charles John Monro in around 1870. He had played the game whilst studying at Christ’s College Finchley in London. On his return to New Zealand he introduced rugby to Nelson College who played their first game against Nelson Football Club. Within five years the game had spread across the whole colony. Elsewhere in South Africa, Canon George Ogilvie passed on a form of football that he had seen at Winchester College. The rules of the game included handling of the ball. This is widely seen as the forerunner of modern rugby in South Africa. Canadian rugby too, in its early forms, owes much to the influence of British settlers and the British Army and Navy. They were responsible for the game being adopted in Nova Scotia and British Columbia from the 1860s.

Key Dates in the History of Rugby Football

As we have seen, the first formal set of rules were produced at Rugby School in 1845. Just three years later, in 1848, the so-called Cambridge Rules were published at Cambridge University. These are acknowledged as being the forerunner of modern association football. Elements of the modern game, such as goal kicks, were included. Handling of the ball was still allowed but players were not permitted to run with the ball. New rules from Cambridge in 1856 and 1863 and Uppingham in 1862 included the offside rule, free kicks and the changing of ends at half-time. Once the Football Association was formed in 1863 their final set of rules excluded running with the ball in hand and obstruction by hacking (kicking in the shins), tripping and holding. The Blackheath Club felt that the omission of these rules would ruin the game and they withdrew from The Football Association. A number of clubs followed their lead.

The First Rugby Union is Formed

Representatives from the Richmond and Blackheath clubs published a letter in The Times in December 1870. They suggested that “those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play”. The following month, 21 clubs met at London’s Pall Mall Restaurant. This resulted in the formation of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), who still administer the game of rugby union to this day. Here began the story of the modern game.

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