The history of Rugby and all the facts on the origin of the game

The history of Rugby and all the facts on the origin of the game

Lenah Ann
updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:13 PM

Rugby is among the most popular sports worldwide, with an extensive global following of nearly 500 million fans. Even though rugby is quite violent, and significant injuries are frequently sustained, it is also a stunning sport that needs a high degree of athleticism and the ability to push oneself. And even while fans find the game fascinating, most have no idea how rich the history of rugby is.

History of Rugby
The history of Rugby and all the facts on the origin of the game. Photo: Lorado (Modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

This sport has a rich and fascinating history that stretches back over a thousand years to its folk origins and flexible rules, through William Webb Ellis. There was later a division of the game into Rugby Football Union and Rugby Football League, to the modern game as it is played in schools, leagues, clubs, national teams, and the World Cup.

Who invented the game of rugby?

Like American football, it is a game that originated from football. Football-like games are supposed to have been introduced in England, where it has its roots during the Roman era. However, throughout history, various soccer-like sports have been played in several medieval nations and kingdoms.

Without a doubt, variations of football that allowed players to carry the ball were popular and played for a long time before the said activities of rugby's legendary founder William Webb Ellis, who is said to have taken up the ball during a school soccer game in disobedience of authority.

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According to rugby history, a form of rugby football had been played for at least 200 years before William Webb Ellis' attendance at Rugby School in Warwickshire from 1816 to 1825. Of course, people have since tried to refute the story's authenticity over the years, but why let the facts stand in the way of a good tale? After all, the Webb Ellis Cup is the name of the Rugby World Cup trophy.

Who was the first person to play rugby?
Bailyn Sullivan of Waikato is tackled during the round nine Bunnings NPC match against Bay of Plenty at FMG Stadium, on 2 October 2022, in Hamilton, New Zealand. Photo: Michael Bradley
Source: Getty Images

The big split

Which country invented rugby? The sport originated in England. However, in 1895, a significant split took place, and teams from the north left the union, alleging problems related to mismanagement of funds and not paying the players. Consequently, they departed to create their organization, which took the name Rugby League.

Before this division, however, a former student, Matthew Bloxam, refused to acknowledge that the game's roots did not originate at his school and began spreading rumours that his classmate, William Webb Ellis, was the game's founder.

The sport's league continues to be more popular among working-class people, particularly in the north of England. In fact, today, the sport is played all over the continent, and it is no longer just a man's sport like in the past decades.

Trans-continental play

The British Empire's most remote regions saw the growth of the sport. Rugby was first played in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in the 1860s. However, it was logistically impossible for these nations to play each other in international games; as a result, international rugby did not start to be played often between teams from different continents until commercial flights were made accessible.

How did rugby spread around the world?

The sport rapidly spread from its elitist origins in England, Scotland, and Ireland to middle and working-class men in the north of England, Wales, to the British colonies in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

In fact, by the time the legend died, the sport had already been noticed, and different countries were already participating in it.

Who was the first person to play rugby?

Aside from the legend of finding the sport, William Webb Ellis was the first man to play it. In fact, to date, there is a stone plaque commemorating the exploit of William Webb which is still embedded in the red brick wall by the front gate of his school.

This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who, with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game.

When were the rugby rules established?

The set sport's rules were established in 1846, and then afterwards, in 1851, a ball was made by two renowned shoemakers, Richard Lindon and William Gilbert. Later, the sport became popular in New Zealand, with Richard Lindon inventing stuff after stuff.

When was the first rugby match played?

Even though the sport's founder, William Webb, died in 1872, the game did not end, as the committee involved went further and held the first match ever in 1877. Webb's legacy has since been restored, and not even once has it deteriorated.

Today, the history of rugby enriches daily. Even more interesting, women in the athletic world have now taken keen interest on the sport. Even though the sport's founder died centuries ago, it did not deter the game from prospering worldwide.

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Lenah Ann
Lenah Ann is a Kenyan-based content creator with 2 years of experience. She graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Media and Communication from Dedan Kimathi, Kenya in 2021.