What is the history of Rugby as a sport?


Rugby is a contact sport enjoyed by millions of people throughout the world. Rugby is a sport with a long and illustrious history that dates back more than 150 years. Millions of people worldwide have enjoyed this game, even though it requires physical power, quickness, and stamina. The game’s rules are straightforward; like football, winning the games requires a mix of natural talent and hard work in the gym. Recalling rugby’s roots is essential to understand how and why it has become what it is now. Rugby’s fascinating history began with its folk roots and universal rules more than a thousand years ago, continuing through the time of William Webb Ellis and the split between Rugby Football Union and Rugby Football League, and culminating in the modern game played by schools, leagues, clubs, national teams, and the World Cup. This article will explore the origins of rugby and how it developed into today’s popular sport. 

Where It All Began

Rugby, like American football, can trace its roots back to soccer, played by numerous ancient and medieval states and kingdoms. Rugby was a soccer-like sport developed in England brought by the Romans. During the sport’s early days, before rules were established, there were many ways of playing the game; some players used their legs and feet to control the ball, while others picked up and carried it. These games stood out from others due to their extreme violence and lack of structure. 

Rugby’s earliest form was called folk football, which as forbade by King Edward III in 1336 which persisted until 1667, because he believed it to be a diversion from the required archery drills. Folk football was also used at that time to cover violent protests and generated noise complaints from city businesses. However, despite the ban, people continued to play, ignoring the possibility of punishment. 

Football games evolved into a yearly ritual in small communities throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Many of these games thrived well into the 19th. The different regional variations of folk football gradually gained popularity in English public schools, where they were altered and transformed into one of two styles: a dribbling game, primarily played with the feet, that was promoted at Eton and Harrow, or a handling game that Rugby, Marlborough, and Cheltenham preferred.

Promoting English and then British imperial manliness made rugby football one of the most significant sports in a short period. Boys were sent to public schools and universities to study how to become young gentlemen. Sports like rugby and cricket became the top sports that helped shape the “civilized” macho behavior of the elite by the late 19th century. Rugby football was thought to have taught the “muscular Christian” gentleman the virtues of selflessness, bravery, cooperation, and self-control.

The Early Developments of Rugby as a Sport

The Last Scrimmage

Rugby is said to have officially started in 1823 when a young man named William Webb Ellis stole the ball from a soccer game and tried to score against his team. As a result of this spur-of-the-moment creative spark, rugby’s original rules were codified in 1845. The earliest recorded games of rugby were played in the early 19th century in the town of Rugby in Warwickshire, England. 

By the end of the 19th century, rugby had become a widely played sport across the United Kingdom and worldwide. In 1895 the first formal rugby union was established, quickly gaining acceptance as the sport’s supreme regulating body. However, prior to the establishment of the first rugby union, the first official rugby match was played in 1871, between Scotland and England, which marked the commencement of international competition in rugby. The game was played by wealthy elites in the South and by the working class in the North, which was a critical issue that led to a divide in the sport.

Rugby Union and Rugby League

By the middle of the 1880s, many working-class men participated in the game, which expanded from Yorkshire to Cumbria and specific areas of Lancashire. Northern clubs fought for “broken time” payments for working-class players who missed work to play. The issue reached the RFU general assembly in 1893, where southern clubs had the most votes. It defeated the authorization of broken time payments.  

 Although international rugby between England and Scotland started immediately, the RFU steadfastly opposed professionalism, cup tournaments, and league play. Clubs in the North desired to compensate their working-class players for lost time at the office due to travel and injuries sustained while playing for the team. However, the Rugby Football Union authorities responded that if the players couldn’t afford to play, they shouldn’t.  

The clubs in Northern England were disappointed by this response and left the Rugby Football Union; 22 of the top clubs in the NorthNorth of England left the RFU on August 29, 1895. They founded the Rugby Football League in 1922. They established their own Northern Union, eventually known as Rugby League, with distinct rules from those of the Rugby Union. Since the establishment of the RFL, civic pride centered on teams and league and cup tournaments quickly developed in Yorkshire. Still, most northern clubs formed, and the Northern Union could not spread its influence throughout much of Britain.

The Growth of Rugby Around the World


Many other nations were captured by the British Empire and adopted much British culture, including sports. These nations immediately adopted sports like football, cricket, and rugby as their favorites. Rugby quickly grew from its elitist roots in England, Scotland, and Ireland to middle- and working-class males in Wales, the northern part of England, and the British colonies in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Additionally, it reached North America, where it evolved into a brand-new kind of football.

Rugby had separated itself from its upper-class affiliation in other parts of the British Isles by the early 1880s in south Wales, where it had become an integral element of working-class culture. At this time, rugby emerged as the center of a new modern Welsh nationalism. The Welsh Rugby Union was established in 1881 and soon joined England, Ireland, and Scotland in the Home Championship. In 1893, Wales won their first championship. Wales solidified their position as the only side to defeat the strong New Zealand team during the latter’s maiden tour of the British Isles in 1905. However, many coal mines were shut down in the 1980s, which caused the mining valley settlements that had been the birthplace of Welsh rugby for a century to decline. Since then, Wales has fought to reclaim its status as a significant rugby power.

Rugby union football took longer to catch on outside the British Empire, despite being played in France as early as 1870. However, the game quickly spread to southwestern cities like Bordeaux, Lyon, and Perpignon, instantly becoming the most well-liked team activity. 

Moreover, rugby became popular in Italy in the 1920s, especially in the nation’s northwest, which led to the establishment of the Italian Rugby Federation. Leading international players like Naas Botha of South Africa, David Campese of Australia, and John Kirwin of New Zealand to play with the rugby union in Italy in the 1980s when clubs funded by giant corporations started coordinating payment of players in their club tournaments. Due to this strategy, Italian rugby had significantly progressed by the 1990s. In 2000, Italy joined the Five Nations League, later renamed Six Nations.

Furthermore, rugby rules were quickly modified in the US and Canada to create the different gridiron football rules played in North America. Although association football and rugby had been primarily replaced by gridiron football in the United States by the late 19th century, rugby experienced a comeback on the Pacific Coast in 1905 after gridiron football was outlawed there following a public outcry over violence, player deaths, and injuries. 

Although rugby was discontinued as an Olympic sport, the game continued to grow in Canada’s British Columbia. It attained higher levels of cultural significance and originality in the Southern Hemisphere. The game took on particular importance in South Africa and New Zealand, where it occasionally served as a focal point for social and political issues. The game also flourished in Australia’s eastern coastal area, which paved the way for establishing the Southern Rugby Football Union in 1874. In 1900, there were 79 clubs in Sydney. To oversee league competitions in Sydney and to drew in more spectators, the Metropolitan Rugby Union was established. It later became the New South Wales Rugby Union (NSWRU). In 1949, the Australian Rugby Union was officially launched.

In New Zealand, Governor Earl Ranfurly gave the Ranfurly Shield as a prize for a challenge match between regional rugby teams in 1902. He became an official part of the domestic rugby competitions. Rugby in New Zealand was supported by successful domestic teams and intense international competition, making it the nation’s top sport. Few countries have a national identity as closely associated with a single sport as rugby is with New Zealand. 

In South Africa the first rugby games was played 1862, and in Cape Town in 1875. Just like the other countries, South Africa has leagues for clubs and a national competition Rugby, a staple of white South African culture, attracted the ire of international anti-apartheid activists and black South Africans, who demanded boycotts of South Africa and its national rugby team. The national rugby union team of South Africa could debatably lay claim to being the unofficial world champions from the 1930s through the 1960s.  

However, the team’s reputation and international rugby started to suffer after 1960 due to the apartheid issue, which saw South Africa legalize racial segregation and discrimination against nonwhites. Throughout the 20th century, Black South Africans had to participate in separate tournaments rather than the South African Rugby Board’s whites-only rugby competitions. The controversial Danie Craven, a legendary player who also served as coach of the national team and president of the Rugby Board, was essential to South African rugby’s success and its continued segregation.

When the NZRFU refused to select Maori players for the 1960 tour of South Africa to abide by apartheid restrictions, significant protests surfaced in New Zealand in 1959–1960. South Africa had been expelled from the Olympic movement due to this apartheid issues, which gained more attention to South African rugby. 

The most dramatic events in the history of rugby took place in 1981 when South Africa visited New Zealand, they were faced by protesters which resulted for the second half of the tour to be called off. As the tour went on, police barricades were erected all over the nation, and during the final Test match, flour “bombs” were dropped from a plane. Due to this incident South African league was not allowed to participate in the 1987 and 1991 Rugby World Cups.

However, in 1991, apartheid’s demise began, and the global sports community once more welcomed South Africa. In 1995, the nation hosted the rugby union World Cup and won the competition with a nearly all-white team, which, with the open encouragement of the time’s president Nelson Mandela, briefly brought the nation together through transracial national identification.

Furthermore, rugby continued to be known in other parts of the world, for instance, Argentina and the Pacific Islands nations of Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga are two more nations where rugby has advanced to a high level. By the turn of the 20th century, the River Plate Rugby Football Union had been formed by four Buenos Aires-based clubs. The Pumas, the national team of Argentina, are known for being particularly aggressive in the scrum. Rugby had been played in Fiji since the 1880s but had not spread to the Pacific Islands nations of Samoa and Tonga until the 1920s. The region’s first Test match occurred in 1924 between Fiji and Samoa. Although all three nations still put their attention on their respective national teams, they started playing together as a single team representing the Pacific Islands in the early 21st century.

Rugby’s Continued Development through the Present Generation


After two centuries, rugby football has developed into one of the most well-liked sports in the world, with millions of players, spectators, and fans. Rugby was founded on a distinct philosophy that has endured through the years. Towards the end of the twentieth century, commercialism and television began impacting rugby union and rugby league. Television played a pivotal role in the growth of rugby league. Professional leagues and contests have also played an essential role in the sport’s expansion. The first professional rugby leagues were formed in the late 19th century. Since then, they have become some of the most watched and lucrative sporting events on the planet.  

In 1987, the International Rugby Board (IRB) successfully arranged and hosted the first Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and Australia. Four years after an unsuccessful attempt to establish a global “rebel” professional championship, this one went off without a hitch. As a result, rugby union started down a path toward professionalism and increased commercialization, all contributing to the sport’s eventual transition to full professional status in 1995. Australia’s victory at the 1991 World Cup, hosted in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and France, concretized the tournament’s status as a major international sporting event. In 1995, the Rugby World Cup received an estimated 2.7 billion viewers from 124 countries, making it the fourth-largest international televised sporting event.

New laws were implemented as the sport developed to make it more user-friendly and appealing to a broader audience. The introduction of the scrum encouraged a more physical and dynamic style of play by forcing players to contend for the possession of the ball physically. The ruck and maul also contributed to a more active and open style of play, making rugby one of the world’s most thrilling and engaging sports.

The phenomenal growth of rugby football in the decades preceding the turn of the 21st century was primarily fueled by the creation World Cup competitions. The game is played following the Laws and the player’s spirit. Rugby is defined as a game that fosters a sense of cooperation and fair play through discipline, self-control, and mutual respect. Rugby Union delivers a distinctive and profoundly fulfilling experience for everyone engaged in the game, from the schoolyard to the Rugby World Cup.

Furthermore, the rise of some of the game’s finest players has also contributed to the sport’s rising profile. Rugby has been graced by some of history’s most brilliant and dedicated athletes, from early pioneers like William Webb Ellis and William Forrester to modern legends like Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw, and Dan Carter. These athletes have motivated numerous more to take up their craft and break new ground on the playing field.

Rugby’s intense social and cultural atmosphere at the grassroots level has been preserved despite the sport’s increasing professionalization. Since rugby clubs and associations provide the backbone of substantial local, national, and worldwide social networks, success on the field generally transfers into success in professional life in rugby-playing countries. Rugby league, which has a club-based culture like rugby union, is considered “the greatest game” by its devotees. In contrast, rugby union is known as “the game they play in heaven.”


In conclusion, rugby’s history is far from being over as the game constantly develop with time, there will always be something new to add in the growing information of rugby’s history. It started as just a game of running around with a ball, but now it’s one of the most popular sports in the world. The sport’s ability to adapt and flourish in reaction to shifting cultural and societal norms is reflected in its millions of followers and players worldwide. Whether you’re just a spectator or an avid competitor, there’s a wealth of exciting information to be gleaned from the sport’s long and storied past. The future of rugby is yet to be told, especially at the grassroots level and seems promising. With so many tournaments happening worldwide, the level of competition in rugby is at an all-time high, and it will only get better as more countries adopt the sport.