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History Of Rugby


Playing field at Rugby School - this image is copyright free


The Football Association was formed in 1863 during a meeting at the Freemasons Arms pub in Long Acre, London. At the meeting were representatives from British public schools, each of which had its own tradition of violent ball games. As boys moved on to university and adult life they wanted to keep playing their games. But different sets of rules made playing against each other difficult or impossible. Some schools played kicking games - Harrow, Eton, Charterhouse and Winchester - while others favoured kicking and running with the ball - Rugby and Marlborough. The Freemasons Arms meeting was an attempt to find a compromise. But there was still a basic divide between those old boys who played a kicking game and those who played a carrying game. Loyalty to the old school caused each side to entrench their positions. Then in 1871 the FA abolished "hacking" which was a polite term for kicking an opponent in the shins. One section of the FA thought that hacking was a manly and worthy activity, and so broke away to form their own carrying game. This was rugby, and the break away group became the Rugby Football Union. Clubs were formed all round the country, often by cricket clubs wanting a game to play through the winter months. Bradford (1868), Wigan (1876) and Oldham (1876) came into being in this way. Other clubs grew up around schools, work places and churches. In Leeds every church had its own rugby club. But within twenty years the Rugby Football Union faced a split when the aristocratic rugby authorities had to face the distasteful situation of a large working class interest in the game. A crisis ensued, which culminated in a break away of clubs based in northern England, to form the Northern Union, which began to develop as a professional league. Meanwhile the southern clubs, what was left of the Rugby Football Union, decided to fight back with that most powerful of weapons - history. A bizarre creation myth was dreamt up, involving a boy named William Webb Ellis who was supposed to have picked up a ball during a game of football at Rugby school. The run that Webb Ellis then made with the ball was supposed to have changed sporting history, creating the game named after Rugby school. The only problem being it was complete nonsense. Rugby did not come into being with one act of a wayward school boy. The aristocratic authorities of rugby were reacting against a working class influence in their game by placing its creation myth firmly in a public school. They were also reacting against a society which was beginning to reject the inherited demarcations of an old religious world view. This of course was important to a game played by members of the establishment, and frequently based around churches. Rugby historian W.J. Baker writes that the myth of William Webb Ellis was dreamt up "to perpetuate an act of creationism, reassuring to an age that found a Carlylean 'great man' theory of history more to its taste than Darwinian evolution" (see William Webb Ellis And The Origins Of Rugby Football by W.J. Baker). The subsequent history of rugby is a story of a conflict between people hanging onto a vision of the past, and those who wanted to move towards a professional game.


Rugy Statue

Sculpture of a rugby line out by Gerald Laing at the Rugy Museum (photo courtesy of Jane Barron at the Museum of Rugby)


From the date of the breakup of the Rugby Football Union in August 1895, twenty two northern clubs allowed payments to players, while southern clubs continued with strict amateurism. In England the southern clubs quickly fell behind the northern clubs, with top players moving north to make money. The English national team, weakened by these losses, won no national championships between 1892 and 1910. Unlikely as it may seem amateur rugby was saved by Wales, where the game was seeing huge growth. At this time the native population of Wales was unable to meet demand for workers in the south Wales coal fields. This led to high wages in the mines as mine owners tried to attract workers. Massive immigration into Wales followed. Between 1871 and 1911 the population of Wales increased by one million. This was a young, tough industrial population used to working in teams. Rugby flourished, with many clubs based around pubs. The game was violent, both on and off the pitch. In 1897 a game between Dowlais and Merthyr was so violent that according to a local paper "most of the Merthyr players were maimed" (quoted in Sport In Britain, A Social History ed Tony Mason). Wales was booming economically, and was also seeking a clear national identity within Britain. This cause was served by rugby. But it could only be served by sticking to the amateur code, since the Welsh wanted to play widely against other national teams within Britain. So in the interests of Welsh nationalistic feeling Welsh rugby remained an amateur game. The rewards of this position were not slow in coming. By the turn of the century the Welsh team was a major force. A great Welsh national moment came in 1905 during a tour of Britain by the New Zealand All Blacks team. The All Blacks had destroyed all opposition in England, Scotland and Ireland, amassing eight hundred points to twenty seven for the combined opposition. Then on 16th December 1905 the All Blacks came up against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. The match was a closely fought battle, won with a single Welsh try, scored by Dr Edward Morgan. This was a significant event in the cultural history of Wales, and Edward Morgan is commemorated by that great medal for figures deemed historical, a blue plaque, placed near his birthplace in Agents Row, Abernant. In this sense the history of rugby is not confined to quirky interest in sport. 16th December 1905 is a date in Welsh, as well as rugby, history.



Twickenham Stadium from Richmond Hill

Following World War One the Welsh economy declined, and Welsh rugby declined with it. Seemingly without the great energy of a successful Welsh team, it is difficult to see how amateur rugby in the English style could survive. But while football had accepted professionalism, rugby's amateur ethos actually grew stronger. This was mainly due to a snobbery in the educational system. Football may have started out like rugby, as an aristocratic game played by the old boys of public schools, but it had developed into a professional working class game. This caused many schools to stop playing football and move over to rugby, since it had smarter social connotations. Even in the 1970s I recall on my first day at a Kent grammar school the headmaster standing on the stage in the hall, informing us that this was a rugby school. Another factor in the rise of English rugby was the exodus of young Welshmen from the south Wales coal field, now a scene of economic disaster, to jobs in England. Welsh rugby was not to recover until after the Second World War when capital investment in Wales coincided with a resurrection of the Welsh rugby team, which went on to become the world's best side during the 1970s. Once again rugby was in the Welsh national interest and great resources were put into it. In 1967 Wales became the first country to adopt a national coaching and squad system. But even with the help given to amateur rugby by Wales, and schools wanting to appeal to snobby parents, the time was coming when rugby like other British sports would have to accept professionalism. The 1970s saw increasing commercial sponsorship, reflecting huge television audiences for major games. An international match could generate half a million pounds. Players naturally began to feel that generous expenses weren't enough. Rugby became fully professional following the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. And yet the trophy that all the national teams played for in 1995 was called the William Webb Ellis trophy. The creation myth of a boy picking up a ball on a playing field at an English public school is perpetuated in the sport's most prestigious trophy. Evolution is complicated, creationism is simple, and history, often out of necessity, tries to keep things simple.