When Rugby World Cup 2015 kicks off in England this autumn, it will write the latest chapter in a history of the Game that dates as far back as the early 19th century. What began almost by accident has grown to be one of the most popular sports on the planet. Its history can be summarised in 12 key events…
1823 - The Accidental Invention
The precise origins of Rugby Union are argued to this day, but the most widely accepted theory has it that the Game was born in 1823, on the playing fields of Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. On that day a 16-year-old pupil named William Webb Ellis showed blatant disregard for the rules of a playground ball game by catching the ball (which was allowed) and running forwards with it (which was not). As a result, Webb Ellis is credited in most quarters as being the inventor of the earliest form of Rugby.
1845 - Rules Are Rules
As the popularity of this new ball game spread, the first set of Rugby rules were established. Devised by three senior Rugby School pupils and totalling 37 points in all, many of them related to the methods of point scoring and the position and role of specific trees within the school’s grounds. But Rule 20 was interesting, outlining that Games could last for up to five days – with breaks for sleep naturally factored in. And as those Rugby School students graduated and moved on, the Game’s reputation spread across the country and further afield.
1871 - A Common Code of Conduct
Up until 1871, there were just too many variations on the rules of Rugby. The Rugby Football Union was formed that year to unify the rules, not to mention clamp down on some of the more aggressive approaches to Rugby taking place around the country. Twenty-one clubs attended the meeting at Regent Street’s Pall Mall Restaurant to formalise proceedings, including Harlequins and the now defunct Flamingoes, Mohicans and Queen’s House. London outfit Wasps were notably absent, having sent their representative to the wrong venue on the wrong day. Soon after, the world’s first international took place at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh. Before a crowd of 4,000, Scotland beat England by one goal. At that time matches could only be decided by kicking; each try led to a conversion and the chance to ‘try’ to kick at goal for a point.
1873 - Establishing The Establishment
With the RFU in place, the remaining home unions were swiftly established – first with the Scottish Football Union in 1873, then the Irish Rugby Football Union in 1874 and the South Wales Football Union in 1875. An International Championship between the four nations was the next logical step and was duly introduced in 1882. But the lack of a formal points system early on led to frequent disputes over who had won and who had lost. France joined to form the Five Nations in 1910.
1874 - The Game Spreads
The Game was swiftly carried across the globe to many far-flung parts of the British Empire and its colonies, often by ball-carrying British troops stationed overseas. As the Game grew, Australia’s Southern Rugby Union was established in 1874, followed by the South African Rugby Football Board in 1889 and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 1892. A year later the New Zealand RFU formally adopted the all-black playing strip that terrifies opponents to this day.
1893 - The Great Schism
After decades of rapid growth, the Game was spectacularly torn in two in 1893, when players from Rugby’s northern clubs pushed to be compensated for the loss of working hours and income incurred by representing their teams. They wanted to be paid to play, in other words. The Rugby Football Union took a very dim view of this, considering payment to be a grave violation of the Game’s strict amateur code, so a 22 club-strong Northern Rugby Union was formed in 1895, which eventually became Rugby League in 1922.
1931 - Kicked Into Touch
France were banned from the Five Nations in 1931 for paying players, some of whom were suspected of carrying knives in their socks (though this may be an apocryphal tale). They were readmitted in 1947, minus any knives, and the Five Nations remained until 2000, when Italy joined to form the annual Six Nations Championship we have today.
1938 - TV Times
Rugby Union’s first televised encounter took place on March 19, 1938 – with Scotland again beating England, this time 21-16 at Twickenham.
1987 - A Global Game
After almost a century of steady evolution, the Game embraced another major change in 1987 when New Zealand and Australia co-hosted the inaugural Rugby World Cup. A 16-team, 32-game affair played out in the British summer of 1987, New Zealand overpowered France in the Final to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time. The first Women’s Rugby World Cup arrived four years later, in 1991, when Wales hosted a 12-team Tournament won by the USA.
1992 - Pointing The Way Forward
In the most recent alteration to Rugby’s scoring, tries were increased from four to five points in 1992, in an attempt to promote a more attractive brand of running Rugby and dissuade teams from simply kicking their way to victory.
1995 - The Dawn of Professionalism
Having resisted calls to embrace professionalism for more than a century, the International Rugby Board finally relented in 1995 by announcing that the Game was now “open”. This meant they were finally accepting professionalism, removing all restrictions on payments to players and embracing a brave new era for Rugby Union.
2015 - The World Awaits
Despite rival bids from Italy, Japan and South Africa, England were appointed hosts for Rugby World Cup 2015. The Tournament will feature 48 games spread across 44 days and played out in 13 stadia. And all 20 teams will have a single aim: to lift the Webb Ellis Cup at Twickenham on October 31.
This article was commissioned via NewsCred's NewsRoom and written by freelance contributor Nick Harper.