How much do you know about the origins of your favorite sport?
Rugby is said to have been invented by William Webb Ellis, a seventeen-year-old school student in 1823. Webb Ellis was studying at Rugby School, in the town of Rugby, England. According to reports by Matthew Bloxam, who was a student at the school at that time, when William was at school playing a football match (which is what English people call soccer), on a rainy day, he picked up the football and ran with it, breaking the rules, but creating a new sport in the process. This is why rugby is sometimes called ‘rugby football’. There is some debate about how much of this story is true and how much is just legend, but there can be no doubt that it’s an interesting creation myth nonetheless.
Others say that rugby’s creator was more likely to have been Jem Mackie, who attended Rugby School in the late 1830s. He popularized the try scoring play which became a fundamental part of rugby as we know it today. Jem was a good rugby player, but was a bad student, his misbehavior leading him to being expelled. Some say that – because of his bad reputation – people at the school chose to promote the story of William Webb Ellis inventing rugby instead, as he had a better reputation than Jem did.
The game we know and love has changed so much since its early days, when it was a local variation on the typical football rules of the time. Some people say that it was actually quite common to catch and run with the ball in football games at this time, after all, standard Football Association rules did not begin until 1863. Until a later split, rugby was not considered to be a separate sport, as much as it was simply a local twist on football.
Early rugby games were full of scrummaging; most of the game centered around scrummaging and kicking to set up scrums. In fact, in some school games there could be up to sixty forwards! They would stand in the scrum, push, and kick the ball or the shins of their opponents. Clearly, rugby has become less chaotic and crowded as time has gone on.
In 1871 a meeting was held at London’s Pall Mall Restaurant. The Wasps Rugby Club representative turned up at the wrong restaurant but twenty-one other rugby clubs were represented. Thus, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded and three former Rugby School pupils, all lawyers, sat down to write the rules of the game that we know today.
Once the sport became popular at the school, some local shoe makers began to make special rugby balls. The original rugby balls were made from leather and pigs’ bladders, which is where they got their shape from. The leather would become wet and very heavy during games on rainy days, so eventually balls made of synthetic materials, such as those used today, became standard.