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The History and Origins of Rugby Union

Updated on January 1, 2015

William Webb Ellis's Tombstone

The Myth of William Webb Ellis and the Origins of Rugby

In 1823, during a game of soccer at Rugby School in England, 16 year old William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it towards his opponents' goal line. The reaction of his fellow players or any officials is not recorded; but the advantages of playing the game in this natural fashion were obvious to Ellis's schoolmates who followed his example. And so the game of rugby was born.

Or so, at least, goes the popular story. Unfortunately, many argue that the legend is probably apocryphal, pointing out that games that involved running with the ball had existed centuries earlier. This is true. But it is also true, at least, that the earliest form of football with much similarity to rugby as we know it today, did originate at Rugby School around Ellis's time.

An Introduction to Rugby

The Reality

Probably closer to the truth is the somewhat different version of the tale that appears on the English Rugby Union site.

The type of football played at Rugby School in Ellis's time was not soccer, but a game with a mixture of both soccer and rugby rules.

Handling the ball was prohibited unless the ball was airborne, when a player was permitted to catch it. After catching the ball the player would stand still, as would all the other players. Then the player had the option of punting the ball wherever he chose, or placing it on the ground and kicking for goal.

It is also a fact that in those days at English Public Schools the pupils often made up their own rules as it suited them for the games of football they played. Given the experimentation and different rules used at different times it is unlikely that Ellis, or any other specific player, could be individually and solely responsible for the the development of rugby.

Whatever the case, the story of William Webb Ellis was too good to be abandoned; and he even has an official headstone (see picture above) in the grounds of Rugby School. with this inscription:

A.D. 1823

Image of the plaque at Rugby School


Running With the Ball Becomes the Norm and the Rugby Football Union is Founded

While the myth of William Webb Ellis, and his supposedly picking up the ball during a soccer match and running with it is not taken seriously by historians, or by anyone else with much knowledge of the subject, by the 1840s running with the ball had become the norm, and by the 1870s rugby clubs had sprung up all over England and in the colonies.

But different rules were being used by different clubs, and a meeting was arranged in January 1871, attended by representatives of 22 clubs, to resolve the situation and agree on a standard set of rules.

It was at this meeting that the Rugby Football Union was founded.

The meeting -- which took place on the 26 of January 1871 -- was initiated by Edwin Ash, Secretary of the Richmond Club.

Ash submitted a letter to the newspapers which read: "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".

Along with the founding of the Rugby Football Union, a committee was chosen to formulate a set of rules that all clubs would abide by. The committee comprised three ex-Rugby School pupils, all lawyers, and the task was completed and approved by June 1871.

And about the same time the Scottish members of the Union challenged the English to a match. This -- the first international match between England and Scotland -- took place at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh on 27 March 1871, resulting in a win to Scotland by one goal and one try to one goal.

Books about Rugby and its History

The "Great Schism"

A commitment of the union was a strict adherence to the principles of amateurism. However, in 1893 reports of some players in the north of England receiving payments for playing reached the committee, and it attempted to obtain evidence. This came through a complaint from the Cumberland County Union that another club had lured one of their players away with monetary incentives. The Union set up an inquiry, but was warned that if the club involved was punished, all the chief clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire -- from which a large proportion of international players were drawn -- would secede from the Union.

Nevertheless, the inquiry went ahead and the club concerned was suspended. Two general meetings resulted at which the Northern Unions attempted a compromise resolution that would allow payment for players when playing football instead of working ("broken time"). But the resolution was defeated, and, true to their word, in August 1895, twenty-two northern clubs seceded from the Union and formed the Northern Union, later to become known as the Rugby League.

It was a very bitter severance of rugby into two rival camps and acrimony continued for something like a hundred years. At first - and until 1995 in fact -- a major distinguishing feature of the two codes was that rugby league was a professional sport, and rugby union strictly amateur. This though has tended to obscure the fact that, despite their common origins, the two games have evolved into two quite different sports. Since the split in 1895, both codes have made their own distinct rules, and a game of rugby league is almost immediately distinguishable from a game of union.

Rugby Union Becomes Professional

Apart from this rugby union is no longer an amateur sport. The process by which it became professional is a story in itself. Essentially the IRB The International Rugby Board -- the governing body of rugby union -- has been dominated by worthy English gentlemen who adhered implacably to their cherished amateur principles. But as the demands on top players grew -- increased media attention, the amount of training required, and so on -- increasing pressure was applied, by the Southern Hemisphere unions in particular, to allow player payments.

Along with this was an ever-increasing degree of sham-amateurism. While straight payments may not have been openly accepted, it was obvious that top players in some countries received various benefits and perks from playing the game -- through player trust funds, other roundabout methods, or even through direct under-the-table cash payments.

The IRB finally capitulated to the inevitable, and in August 1995 rugby union became fully professional.

Victor Matfield of South Africa Wins a Lineout Against New Zealand in a 2006 Tri Nations Series Test Match


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      and a bit more I don't know why I'm on an education kick, but there is an inidcreble book which, sadly, is out of print. I liberated it from Abe and Anna's elementary school back in the day, It's called in the Early World by Elwyn S. Richardson.He was from Auckland and taught for 12 years at a small school in Oruaiti. I feel this book should be required reading for everyone who teaches young children. It's really beautiful. Maybe it's still available over there.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      cheers for the actual article i've recently been on the lookout with regard to this kind of advice on the net for sum time proper now so numerous thanks kefeeeadeegd

    • StuartJ profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      I hope to post a few Hubs about the rules of the game eventually. But I'm afraid that you are right and rugby players don't have a monopoly on drugs, booze, and sex. It seems to go with top level sports of all types.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      7 years ago from Texas

      Sorry Aunt Jimi, I know less than nothing about rugby except it involves running with a ball and goals.

      Maybe Stuart could tell us the rules of the game, how it is scored and won.

      As for as drugs, booze, and sex are concerned, I don't think rugby players have a monolopy on that behavior, though I never met a rugby player, but read about our sportsmen who have participated in that behavior.

    • Aunt Jimi profile image

      Aunt Jimi 

      7 years ago from The reddest of the Red states!

      Have to be honest; except for the spelling, I know nothing about rugby. This seems like a very well written and informative article and I thought I would share it with my followers in case they know more about this sport than I do.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      stop arguig

    • profile image

      Gregory Mccoy 

      10 years ago

      You actually make it seem so easy together with your presentation however I in finding this matter to be actually one thing which I think I would by no means understand. It sort of feels too complex and very broad for me. I am taking a look forward for your subsequent post, I will attempt to get the dangle of it!

    • profile image

      Rugby Betting  

      10 years ago

      Hi Stuart,

      It's interesting to see a debate ensuing about rugby and its history. There still is a massive debate that exists and plays out here between the northern and southern hemisphere. For my money (an englishmen) the refereeing in the southern hemisphere is too lenient around the rooks and mauls. For my housemate's money (a kiwi) Northern hemisphere rugby is boring and all kicks.

      Lets hope NZ don't choke in 2011 and finally be rightfully crowned the best team in the world.

    • PeggyW profile image


      10 years ago

      awesome article thanks for the good read :)

    • Dangazzm profile image


      11 years ago

      I enjoyed the story... I have always liked Rugby and thought that there was no one originating source, well there wasn't for sure according to your article. But one thing I can say for sure is that I would love to have a headstone like him, its funny and yet admirable at the same time :P

    • adorababy profile image


      11 years ago from Syracuse, NY

      If basketball is for the USA, soccer for the Europeans and South Americans, rugby is also catching up on all these regions as well.

    • tonyhubb profile image


      11 years ago

      William Webb Ellis is often credited with the invention of running with the ball in hand when, in 1823, at Rugby School he caught the ball while playing football, and ran towards the opposition goal. Ellis was immortalised at the school with a plaque commemorating his innovation. 25 years later the first rules were written by pupils - this was one of recognized events in the early development of rugby; others include the Blackheath Club's decision to leave The Football Association in 1863, and in 1895, the split between rugby union and rugby league.

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      hi how you doing?

    • profile image

      Hine is a slut 

      12 years ago

      Rugby is the undeniable creme de la creme of sport in NZ. It defines us.

    • profile image

      hinerangi petersen 

      12 years ago

      i think rugby is a fun sport to watch and that its a world wide popular sport.

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      Ah so thats where Aussie rules football (1852) came from, it is Older than both Rugby (The Greatest Game) and Soccer (1862)

    • profile image

      derek copland 

      12 years ago

      sorry 2b a pain folks.i worked at murryfield rugby ground as a groundsman 84..86..i know there was a book made while i was there{history of the sru}?my name is in it..does anybody no where i can get a copy.many thanx

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      manu is a tosser, good chat stuart!

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      yeah rugby is the best sport in the world

    • mcarolyn profile image


      13 years ago from Philippines

      It's great to know the origin of rugby. Today, it is now a popular game in the world.

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      hahahaha that manu guy needs to get a life he didnt even really try to justify his own points he just used your article as a way to put his two cents in about totally different issues.. good article

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      stuart mate..that manu .. is a tosser...clearly

    • gunsock profile image


      13 years ago from South Coast of England

      Thanks for a very informative article about a great sport.

    • profile image

      u know it  

      13 years ago

      rugby union is cool

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      There was a great program on tele about how racist and corrupt rugby is. It focused on the using of Maori and Pasifika peoples to showcase the game to the world, yet the administration is locked up with pakeha.

      Look at this years world cup, the 'dark' countries eg Fiji, Tonga, Samoa given stuff all ops to prepare and play matches to harden into test mode, yet still doing remarkably well despite being hobbled by directives from white administrators.

      Nothing has happened since 1987 to assist 'dark' countries to succeed. Their players are used and abused while the administrators grow rich.

    • profile image

      Ben Labu 

      13 years ago

      I mean its just a bunch of gay brits playin with eachother

      by the way my name is ben labu not laub that is a typo

    • profile image

      Ben Laub 

      13 years ago

      rugby is stupid when you think about it

    • profile image

      14 years ago

      me 2

    • profile image


      14 years ago

      i think paul has a point

    • profile image


      14 years ago

      that is not true

    • profile image

      Rattus Norvegus 

      14 years ago

      What a great article


      And that has been the culture of folk who play rugby

      With a fine disregard for anyone.

    • profile image

      Paul Henderson 

      14 years ago

      ok obviously there is a lot of truth to the rugby counter culture thing but if we weren't smashing into each other every weekend wouldn't there be more violence out on the street? think about it

    • profile image

      Mason Drurie 

      14 years ago

      I’m intrigued by this discussion and offer my take on rugby. Rugby is responsible for the drunk culture here and for the macho image/expectation of manhood which has led to the very high suicide rates here in Godszone. The carefree attitude to violence depicted in rugby, a legacy of the values of early NZ settlers, has been a huge influence in the high rates of child assaults and deaths, the highest rates in the world. Stuarts ideal role models? Richard Low? Colin Meads? ….. In recent decades the macho rugby attitude has been criticised as dangerous both to men who embody it and those around them. It has been blamed for New Zealand's culture of heavy drinking and its high male suicide rate. New Zealand men have often been stereotyped as strong, unemotional and prone to violence. For many years this was seen as a good thing, and was best embodied by All Black Colin Meads. Voted 'New Zealand player of the century' by New Zealand Rugby Monthly magazine, Although he was known to assault other players during games, this was generally approved of as 'enforcement' of the 'spirit of the game'. The All Blacks simply don’t dominate rugby the way they used to because of the extra refs on the sidelines who lookout specifically for thuggery and cheating and to stamp out violence. Evil Triumphs When Good People Do Nothing…another words the normalised culture of rugby will dominate our society for many more generations to come unless brave souls are willing to standup to the rugby gangs.

    • StuartJ profile imageAUTHOR


      14 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      "You can't keep going on offloading the woes that rugby causes in our society to other sports codes. that really is the ostrich syndrome you displayed earlier on if you recollect. Its time you fellas take responsibility for what you perpetuate in our society."

      I did nothing of the sort. Nothing of the sort. It is becoming tiresome the way you seem to twist what I say. Even when I agree with you, you somehow manage to pretend that I don't.

      You mentioned the 'drugs, booze, and sex culture of rugby'. I'm saying that that culture is not confined to rugby and to say that rugby -- or anyother sport -- is the cause of it, is naïve. Whether skiing is a body contact sport involving violence is neither here nor there.

      You are simply ignoring the point I'm making. You, I believe, are the one with your head in the sand. Do you seriouly believe that without rugby there would be no drugs, booze, and sex culture in New Zealand?

      I am saying that sport doesn't cause these matters -- sport just reflects what ills there are already there in society. This is quite plain and easily understandable. Twisting my words to suggest that the ills are caused by sport, but by sports other than rugby is misrepresenting me.

      Sports are not the CAUSE of colonialist oppression. They may reflect it and be an INSTRUMENT of colonial oppression, but they are not the cause of it.

      If there had been no rugby there still would have been oppression. If there had been no rugby there still would have been racism.

      I'm looking forward to the film starring Anna Paquin that I believe will be shown here within a few months. It details the oppression and outright slaughter, in many cases, that the American Red Indians suffered at the hands of the colonialist oppressors. And I don't think there was a single rugby player in the US congress. Ok, I have put that in a jesting fashion. The point is valid, I believe. Racism and oppression are not CAUSED by sport.

      Racism and the oppression of minorities is embedded in many cultures, but to change it you need to change society itself at a more fundamental level than I believe you seem to think. Changing rugby won't change our societies ills. Changing our societies ills would alter rugby.

    • profile image


      14 years ago

      I have never heard of a skier putting the boot in to another, or of stomping another, eye gouging or even head high tackling another???? have you? or are you just putting up a smoke screen and delving into disinformation? I work on the ski fields and they are pristine compared to your paddocks of shame.

      Fair enough that youth risk take with involvement around booze, violence, sex and drugs...but have a look at the age groups playing rugby..take off your rose tinted glasses around your rugger mates at your rugby hangouts. Many are far older than the youth you refer to and many have families and are role modelling their rugby culture behaviour, on and off the field, to their kids and condoning the sick rugby culture ...the one you praise so much.

      Your right many Maori do play rugby...if you knew your history they had no choice about playing contact sports because ALL of their ball sports, such as ki-o-rahi, were banned by your ancestors! and the socially acceptable sport to prove your manhood in NZ was/ guessed it rugby! What has rugby done for Maori? know anything about the processes of socialisation? or about the white supremist South African regime? were Maori backed then? You and I know that racist values don't just disappear, they go underground. What are Maori players now, simply entertainers/gladiators guessed it a largely white middleclass/upperclass willing to shell out the $s to watch Maori bash themselves about - gee they've been trained well alright!

      Try asking your local coppers, the ones not in your chummy rugby club ;-) about the huge numbers of rapes and assaults that occur as a result of your "normal" rugby culture behaviour.

      You can't keep going on offloading the woes that rugby causes in our society to other sports codes. that really is the ostrich syndrome you displayed earlier on if you recollect. Its time you fellas take responsibility for what you perpetuate in our society.

      If you want to consider an alternate view to your biased one checkout the blog on here, under the title:


      Your arguments remind me of drunk drivers, always minimising the real dangers of their behaviour.

    • profile image


      14 years ago

      Just reading your post it is easy to see that you are looking through rose tinted glasses. Have a good look and reflect on how biased you are to promoting what is essentially an evil and unhealthy culture.

      Its been a while since I have seen a skier smashing another one to pieces on purpose, or putting the boot in or eye gouge. How many skiers have to deceive the tax man, in fact how many sports have introduced such corrupt practices into our society where it is encouraged to lie and cheat?

      Fair enough that violence, booze, sex & drugs etc are part of risk taking in youth...however have a look at the age groups playing rugby and their behaviour afterwards, you hang out with them you tell us!

      Any other sport so racist in NZ? love the Maori to play the game but back them up...?when? against South African regime? you might argue that was a long time ago, but you know as well as us all that two faced values don't disappear that quickly.

      Look up

      and see what the other half think.

    • StuartJ profile imageAUTHOR


      14 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      When you talk of the belief system Maori hold you really mean the beliefs and attitudes that some Maori hold. Many Maori are avid supporters of rugby, and there are many Pakeha who are not.

      But I think the real issue here is whether rugby causes these ills that have been described, or merely reflects the macho Eurocentric culture we have. Would our society really have been any different if our national sport had been soccer or basketball, or whatever? I doubt it.

      Graft, corruption and these other ills are not matters that are confined to rugby, and are not matters that were unknown before the advent of rugby, or matters that are altogether unheard of in other areas of life.

      A lot of the matters raised here seem to relate more to the love of money than to the love of rugby. And the love of money, described in the Good Book as the root of all evil, is not a sin confined to Pakeha.

      As far as the drugs, booze, and sex culture is concerned, you could describe, say, skiing, in that fashion, or teenage culture in general, even.

      But there are a very wide variety of people in New Zealand who play or support rugby. By no means all of them are into drugs, booze, and promiscuous sex.


    • profile image


      14 years ago

      Jenna, I do not deny that rugby, like many things in our society that are essentially detrimental, does not have "good" points.

      However your eurocentric referral to young Will, even if a humourous connotation, again displays ignorance and a belief system far from the one Maori hold.

      The mongrel mob could easily parrot your shallow thoughts. Mob members also refer to their gang in positive terms and that they are family. They too get into the booze, sex and drug culture that proliferates in rugby, the only difference is because rugby carries all the 'sought after' British (white) ways of thinking and acting, a.k.a Pakeha NZ culture, it has been legalised.

      Maori ball games, in fact all games, were made illegal centuries ago and the European ones were permitted.

    • StuartJ profile imageAUTHOR


      14 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Well, William is given more credit than is due him, but what you say about the family atomosphere of rugby is true. More so at the lower levels these days. I'm afraid that professionalism may be the process of causing some major changes at the top levels.

    • profile image

      Jenna Maio 

      14 years ago

      I think the game of rugby is amazing it is not only a sport but your team becomes a family. It is really amazing how the game originated thank god for William.

    • StuartJ profile imageAUTHOR


      14 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Oh, fair go, old mate ;-) Did I insinuate that it was only All Blacks who benefited? No, I did nothing of the sort. That was your inference and not a fair one. "Top Players" is not very specific, perhaps; but have I denied that Top Provincial (or even top club players) never got benefits? Whadda you want me to do mate: spell it all out in pages of detail naming names and giving specifics of payments and other "arrangements"? Even if I did, I suspect that if I so much as missed one tiny example you'd point to it as evidence that I was an ostrich.

      I get the feeling that you'd find fault with whatever I say. I have been intending to add to the article with some other stuff, but whether that would pacify you I don't know.

      Look what I wrote:

      "Unfortunately, many argue that the legend is probably apocryphal, pointing out that games that involved running with the ball had existed centuries earlier. This is true. But it is also true, at least, that the earliest form of football with much similarity to rugby as we know it today, did originate at Rugby School around Ellis's time. "

      Rugby type games -- running with the ball to force it in an opponents area -- have existed since Roman times and probably earlier. The first cave men probably played rugby like games.

      Rugby as we play it today originated -- was codified by -- the Brits.

      What do you want me to say? That it all started with some Maori kid who first picked up a Moa bladder and charged at his opponents' with it under his arm?

      I have read on a women's rugby site that the kid's name was actually Jane, and that she only picked up the ball because it belonged to her, and her mother was calling.

      I really don't understand what your gripe is. And I wish that if you think I have my facts wrong or missed something you focused on those matters rather than personal stuff.


      "if enough people lie, as you and your cohorts do, then that is reality."

      I may be an idiot who couldn't do proper research to save my

      soul; I may be misquided: But I am not lying (and I don't have any cohorts). For right or wrong, better or worse I believe what I'm saying is true.

      And I haven't even contradicted a lot of what you are saying. I said that sham-amateurism was rife and you attack me on the grounds that sham-amateurism was rife.... Geeeezzz

      The Union vs League business is another story too. I have said nothing to contradict your points about that. There have been whole books written about it -- was one called "The Forbidden Sport". The harshness towards League was not confined to New Zealand. That started with the Brits too. With the British class system, to be specific. Union, of course, was dominated by the upper class Brits from the Public Schools and league was the game of the Working Man. That League was ruthlessly supressed is not a great secret.

    • profile image

      Manu Wikaira 

      14 years ago

      huh? you must be an ostrich sorta person. Perhaps a rugby clonite. Paying players, arranging cushy jobs, accomodation, food and cars was rife in NZ before professionalism, not just the top players benefitted as you insinuate (as in All Blacks) but even provincial players and this was evident in the metropolitan areas in all senior divisions. Everyone knew how deceitful the rugby fraternity was yet the rugby culture blossomed in our wink wink society. Your comment from Lange typifies this.

      Hiding taxable incomes, the promotion of the 'black market' and deceitful monetary practices stemmed from NZs rugby culture. The rugby cultural legacy in this regard is still rife today across a broad spectrum of our society. It is endemic because so many people, millions over the years, have played rugby and been influenced by its unwritten moral code.

      Yet the rugby union were harsh with rugby players who played league, basically the players who went from rugby to league were those who didn't want to be receiving money for their rugby playing and having to be deceitful about it. Take Joe Karam, he had a family who he didn't want to pass deceitful role modelling onto his kids, so he openly switched to rugby league so that he could openly be paid for it - even though he would have received far more from underhand payments if he had stuck with rugby. Those were the honest rugby players with morals.

      The Rugby union fraternity tried to exterminate rugby league in our country. And going by all the waffle about rugby origins, with Cameron and co, still perpetuating how rugby started with the lily white boys in Blimey, particularly Will Ellis, the rugby fraternity, including you Stu, have no idea about researching sports history and continue to perpetuate that Anglicised origin stuff. The poms were blatant thieves who stole ideas and made them appear to be of their origin.

      It reminds me about the Americanisation of volleyball, it didn't start in the US as they promote. The returned US serviceman stole the Indonesian/Asian forms of volleyball which are very skillful and dumbed them down to create the form of volleyball common today. Similarly with basketball which was a rip-off of the Central/South American ball playing games. Naismith tried heaps of games in his gym which nobody liked playing. Then a fellow presbytarian doing her their stint in Central America sent a magazine article to him which featured the get-the-ball-thru-the-hoop game......the rest is history. So think carefully before you perpetuate the waffle about rugby which comes from a particularly old fashioned, eurocentric world view - all you are doing is perpetuating colonisation on Tuwharetoa here who know better, and by doing this colonist inspired crap you are role modelling to future white boys & girls that it is ok, white is always right, and that if enough people lie, as you and your cohorts do, then that is reality.

      Cordially Manu

    • StuartJ profile imageAUTHOR


      14 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      My article is about the history and origins of Rugby. Rugby didn't start with William Web Ellis, but it did start at the English Public schools.

      Isn't the history of New Zealand rugby something else again?

      Don't you think the following paragraph from my article is a fair assessment of the state of "amateur" rugby generally before real professionalism?

      "Along with this was an ever-increasing degree of sham-amateurism. While straight payments may not have been openly accepted, it was obvious that top players in some countries received various benefits and perks from playing the game -- through player trust funds, other roundabout methods, or even through direct under-the-table cash payments."

      Where is your disagreement with what I have said? How am I prefering a "euro" view of history?

      I'm not promoting the mythical kid as having begun rugby. We all agree that that story is apocryphal and I am trying to help debunk it. If it even needs debunking.

      I'm afraid I don't see any real point in which we disagree. I also made this point:

      "Apart from this rugby union is no longer an amateur sport. The process by which it became professional is a story in itself."

      It's not just a story in itself, it's several books. If you'd like to do an article or two about sham-amateurism in New Zealand and elsewhere, I'd be keen to read them. I recall a funny comment by David Lange who was raising questions about sham-amateurism in New Zealand rugby. An interviewer pointed out to Lange that Frank Bunce was a rubbish collector. "Yes", said Lange, without hesitation, "and I look forward to the day in the near future when Frank becomes a company rep."

    • profile image


      14 years ago


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