The Origins of Rugby

Rugby is a game played with an oval ball by two teams, each consisting of 15 players (in rugby union) or 13 players (in rugby league). From humble origins, rugby has risen to become one of the most popular sports with over 10 million players based in 128 countries and 500 million fans spread all over the globe.  Clubs and national teams are found in places as diverse as Japan, Georgia and Uruguay. In fact, rugby among women is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. At the turn of the 21st century, the International Rugby Board whose headquarters are located in Ireland, boasted more than 100 affiliated national unions.

So where did rugby originate? The actual origins of the game can be traced back well over 2,000 years. The Romans played a ball game called harpastum, a word derived from the Greek word “seize”, the implication of the name being that somebody actually carried or handled the ball. It seems that different forms of this football game existed for centuries, and it is documented that in Britain, these games may have been played as early as the time of Roman occupation in the 1st century. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Shrove Tuesday matches became a popular annual tradition in local communities. It is believed that these games were extremely ferocious and distinctive for its large teams and lack of rules.

Rugby has its origins in this style of football. According to the sport’s lore, in 1823 a young man by the name of William Webb Ellis, whose name is now synonymous with the  Rugby World Cup trophy, was a pupil at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, defied the conventions of the day (that the ball may only be kicked forward) to pick up the ball and run with it in a game. This created the distinct handling game of rugby football. There are two distinct types of rugby played today, Union and League. Union has 15 players on each team, League has only 13. The number of substitutions allowed in League is 10 with Union allowing only 8. The scoring also differs. A Try in Union is worth 5 points and only 4 in League. Although a conversion in either code will earn you an extra two points.
Rugby School, whose name has been given to the sport, was pivotal in the development of rugby football, and the first rules of the game that became rugby union football were established there in 1845.  Rugby’s popularity quickly grew and rapidly spread from its elitist origins in England to Scotland and Ireland to middle- and working-class men in the north of England and in Wales and to the British colonies of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. It is believed that it also spread to North America, where it was eventually transformed into a new style of game, called American Football.

Though traditionally always played as an amateur sport, Rugby entered the professional era in 1995.  The last ever Rugby World Cup that was contested by amateur’s was played on the 24th of June 1995 in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, where the hosts South Africa took on the mighty All Black’s and ran out 15-12 winners. That day will forever be remembered for not only the end of rugby as an amateur sport but also for Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok rugby shirt and cricket cap, presenting the William Webb Ellis cup to the South African captain, Francois Pienaar in front of over 59,000 people in the stadium and millions of television viewers throughout the globe.

Rugby has come a long way from its humble origins to establish itself as one of the greatest sports on the planet. Although the format of the game may have changed over the centuries, the core values of integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect still remain as the defining characteristics of the game, played and loved by millions of people through the world. It is these core values will ensure that Rugby will remain a force and inspiration for generations to come.