Rugby is the finest game in the world, with a long, proud, and incident-packed history. The world's oldest club, (Guy's Hospital in London) has already celebrated its 150th anniversary, and the first international match (Scotland v. England) took place as long ago as 1871. Since then rugby has thrived and spread so that the game is now played in at least 100 countries worldwide. And new competitions and developments continue to take place. In the international arena, 1996 saw the first Tri-Nations competition between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand result in an All Black triumph, while at the other end of the spectrum Mexico played their first international, drawing 10-10 away to Columbia.
Rugby fans have good reason to be happy with the state of the modern game. At every level of play, from the very highest down through the lowly ranks of junior club rugby, playing standards are rising and games are faster, more skillful and more exciting. The newly introduced Super 12 competition (which features provincial and state sides from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) and the Tri-Nations series proved that recent changes in the laws of the game have encouraged a fresh and dynamic style of play and will reward the teams that play this style well. And in the United States, the USA Rugby Super League has brought exciting competition among the top clubs to the domestic audience.
How the game has evolved from its European roots is a fascinating and somewhat convoluted tale. Games with some similarities to both modern soccer and rugby have existed for over 2000 years. Most of these games seem to have involved great crowds of players wrestling, shoving and kicking to propel or carry a stuffed animal stomach from one end of town to the other. There were usually few rules, and any number could play. Games often took place on some annual holiday to settle a local rivalry.
The authorities usually did not approve. Kings and princes commanded their subjects not to waste time with football but spend it more profitably in military training. Football matches were regarded as a public nuisance, with violence, vandalism and disorder of every kind often accompanying the heaving mass of players. England, Scotland and France all had laws banning football in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Football survived nonetheless. Indeed, a few of the traditional village-against-village matches still take place in various places in the British Isles, with members of local rugby clubs frequently among the enthusiastic participants. Football survived because people, usually men, enjoyed it and because some in authority thought it had good qualities. Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of a school in London, published a book in 1581 that decried the violence of the game but argued that it might promote fitness and well being if more carefully regulated. Around the same time, a book originally published in Italy described the game of calcio, which was played in Florence, as 'very good to breed up youth to run, leap and wrastle [sic]'.
There is no doubt that the changes that transformed these various types of free-for-all into a regulated sport began in the English public schools of the 1800s. School matches in those days were always internal affairs, with different groupings of boys from within the school making up the teams. In many schools, every boy on the roll was expected to attend and play in some way, whatever his age or size. Any organization required was created by the boys themselves, entirely unsupervised by the masters, and each school developed its own method of how the game should be played. There were no written rules, and any necessary procedures would follow from established custom, as enforced, and on occasion modified, by the oldest and biggest boys at the particular time.
At Rugby School in 1823 there were only a few boys in the senior class. One seemingly rather unpopular senior boy took advantage of this situation to put his own mark on the game. Quite simply, he cheated and was big enough to get away with it, although his official memorial at the school puts things rather differently. Commemorating this event is a plaque at Rugby School, which reads:
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. A.D. 1823
No one actually knows if the traditional story of how rugby began is true. It came to be told in the 1880s and 1890s, after rugby had become formally established, when former pupils of Rugby School tried to research how the game had developed. Of course, by then, few of Webb Ellis's contemporaries were still alive and Webb Ellis himself had died in France in 1872. What certainly is true is that running with the ball in hand was accepted in the first written set of laws produced by the Rugby boys in 1845.
By that time, former pupils and teachers of Rugby School had helped begin the spread of the game elsewhere. One former pupil, Arthur Pell, tried to establish a football club at Cambridge University in 1839 but did not get very far at first because the Cambridge men came from such a variety of schools that they could not agree on which playing rules to adopt. A club was successfully formed among the students at Guy's Hospital in London in 1843, making it the world's oldest. Matches using the Rugby School rules also began to take place regularly elsewhere, including Oxford University.
Some Rugby old boys found their way to university in Ireland. The world's second rugby club, at Trinity College, was formed in Dublin in 1854. The first matches were again internal ones, contested by teams from among the club's membership. Towns in the Scottish borders also had a long tradition of football-type games, and similar games to those held in the English public schools were also being played in some Edinburgh schools in the early 1800s. The first adult club in Scotland, Edinburgh Academicals, was founded in 1858. The longest running fixture in the history of the game, which was first played in 1858 and still takes place, is between two of the Edinburgh area schools, Edinburgh Academy and Merchiston Castle. The Merchiston captain in the first game against Edinburgh Academy also featured in the first recorded match in the British territory of South Africa, which took place in 1862. The player's name was A. van der Bijl, and the teams involved were Civilians versus Military. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the British Empire was at its height, and old boys of Rugby School and others who knew the game soon spread it throughout the empire and elsewhere as they took up careers in business, public service or the military.
The game arrived in America from overseas, and various American universities played rough-and-ready football-type games as far back as about 1840, but they must have been violent affairs, for the game was banned at Harvard in 1860. Rutgers and Princeton Colleges played a 25-a-side game in 1869 that has been described as America's first rugby match, but it would be more accurate to regard it as the first-ever game of American football. Harvard did play Canada's McGill University in a genuine rugby match in 1874, while the Canadians were on what was perhaps the first overseas rugby tour. In 1880, American football rules were formalized, and the two games began to diverge.
Aspects of the rules of American football made serious injuries and even fatalities quite common in the early days, however, and President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the game in 1905 unless rule changes were made. The rules were duly modified, but in California, football was still forbidden for some years. Colleges took to rugby instead. From 1905 to 1913 there were regular domestic matches as well as tours both to and from Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand sent a full-strength All Blacks squad to California in 1913, and they were unbeaten in 13 games. These one-sided matches are said to have helped turn the Californians back towards American football.
Some American rugby was played after World War I, however, especially in the Olympic Games. The United States took the Olympic gold in 1920, beating the only other entrant, 'France', in reality a Paris select team, 8-0 in Antwerp. In 1924 Stanford University formed the US team to defend the title in France. There were only three entrants, and the Americans beat Romania 39-0 and then France 17-3 in the final. Rugby then ceased to be an Olympic sport, and as reigning champions and two-time winners the United States is the current and top Olympic rugby nation. Rugby makes it’s re-entrance into the Olympic Games in 2016 but instead takes the form of the 7 a-side version of the game.
These were one-off successes, though, and rugby remained a minor sport. Nonetheless, enthusiasts kept the game going and in 1975 formed a national union. Since then, rugby has grown in popularity. A national club competition was set up in 1983 and was first won by Old Blues of California. With the domestic game on a solid footing the United States is slowly becoming a regular competitor on the international stage, including IRB Rugby World Cup appearances and participating in the annual IRB International 7’s circuit.