Try and try again

Rugby is a great British treasure, with a long and rich history dating back to the 19th century, and has been evolving from the day William Webb Ellis reputedly picked up the ball and ran with it.

So how exactly did rugby get to be the game it is today? From chaotic giant mauls with no referees to the dawn of the professional era, here are 20 landmark moments that helped shape one of the greatest games in the world.


William Webb Ellis: Running with the ball


The inspiration A statue at Rugby School depicting the moment

Statue of William Webb Ellis situated in the grounds of Rugby School, Warwickshire, sculpted by Graham Ibbeson in 1997.

The claim that 16-year-old William Webb Ellis started the distinctive running feature of the rugby game was made in 1876, four years after his death.

The originator of the story was a respected local author and antiquarian, Matthew Bloxam, who was at Rugby School with Ellis. Bloxam’s father, Rev Richard Bloxham, was a master at Rugby School. His brother John also knew Ellis at both Rugby and Oxford. Although some scholars have dismissed Bloxam's account as unreliable, Rugby School historians are confident of its accuracy. The debate centred on the source of the account of the actual 1823 football incident, which Bloxam refused to reveal.

Rugby World Cup: The Webb Ellis trophyEarliest evidence of ball games in English schools

The source may have been Bloxam’s brother John, or their father Rev Richard Bloxam, a master at Rugby, which explains his reluctance to disclose it.

Chris Thau, World Rugby archivist


The fame of Gilbert's balls

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Harrow boy with armful of rugby balls circa 1935

A Harrow public school boy carrying rugby balls, circa 1935.

Long before William Webb Ellis picked up a football and ran with it, local shoemaker William Gilbert was supplying balls to Rugby School.

The first balls were much larger and rounder than today's. The insides were made of a pig's bladder which was then covered in leather. Gilbert established his company in 1823 and began working with Richard Lindon, a young shoemaker who lived next door. In the 1860s it was Lindon's idea to replace the bladder inner tubes with rubber. He also claimed to design the unique oval shape, but failed to patent the idea. Today Gilbert is the official brand of the 2015 Rugby World Cup ball.

Pioneers of the rugby ball


The first rules of rugby football are written

Kobal Pictures

The real origins of Rugby Union bear more resemblance to Tom Browns Schooldays

The 1950s drama Tom Brown's Schooldays was set in Rugby School in the 1830s. The novel became a handbook on how to bring up young middle class boys.

Arguably the most significant decision in rugby's evolution was to write and print the rules, securing distribution to other schools and lands.

The rules of football at Rugby School were recorded for the first time at the initiative of the then football captain and head schoolboy, Isaac Gregory Smith. He asked three senior players – Walter Waddington Shirley, Frederick Leigh Hutchins and William Delafield Arnold, the latter son of the late headmaster Thomas Arnold – to write down the previously unwritten rules. Another schoolboy, Charles Harcourt Chambers, illustrated the new rules – the first ever images of rugby football.

History of rugby football at Rugby School No class divide in rugby

The origins of rugby resemble Tom Brown's School Days, published in 1857.

Prof Tony Collins, author of A Social History of Rugby Union


The fundamental offside law


Rugby School artefact the original laws of football

Rugby School original laws of rugby football.

Arguably the oldest and most significant law, the offside rule has been key to the development of the modern game.

As early as 1846 the concept of offside entered the rules at Rugby School. The basic principle is that a player may not derive any advantage from being in front of the ball. Offside developed into such a core requirement of the game that in 1871 the Rugby Union stated: "No rules in the rugby code require to be more strictly observed. Disregard of these fundamental rules will completely nullify all the science and spoil all the spirit of the rugby game."

Laws of the game: Rugby Union


The shape of the game and the tackle

Rugby School archive

Rugby school drawing made in 1945 to accompany first written laws

Games at Rugby School could involve up to 300 boys. Drawing by a Rugby School pupil to accompany the first written rules of 1845.

Originally there were no formal positions and anyone could join in. For example, in 1839 Rugby School House (75 players) played ‘the rest’ (225).

Finally fixed number of players were agreed, starting with 17 forwards and three full-backs. It developed into teams of eight forwards, two half-backs, four three-quarters and a full-back. Another evolution was the tackle. Holding and grappling opposing players was the core activity of the game but it could take up to 15 minutes for the ball to reach the ground. Because of this, in 1874 the RFU introduced the tackle.

The tackle: Ball carrier is brought to the groundRugby Union law on dangerous/high tackles


Drop goal: The most celebrated scoring method

Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

Jonny Wilkinson winning kick 2003 RWC Getty 166165193 sized.jpg

Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop goal against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final in Sydney.

Two Rugby World Cups have been won by drop goals scored in extra time – South Africa's Joel Stransky in 1995 and England's Jonny Wilkinson in 2003.

In the early days scoring was a reflection of a side’s ability to kick, rather than score tries. With the field clogged up by 40 or more players, the preferred form of scoring was the drop goal, universally viewed as a supreme skill. It was listed first among the forms of kicking by both Rugby School in 1866 and by the RFU in 1887.

Jonny Wilkinson rugby legend BBC open letter to England's World Cup-winning legend

Letting the ball drop from your hands on to the ground and kicking it the very instant it rises.

1866 Rugby School Laws of Football definition of a drop kick


Rugby Football Union and the first international match

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Scotland who beat England 1871 in Rugby Union's first ever International match

The Scotland team who beat England by one try in the first international match in Edinburgh.

Rugby's first governing body was created on 26 January 1871 when representatives from 21 clubs met and formed the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

Shortly after the RFU's formation, three old Rugbeians – Algernon Rutter, Edward Holmes and Leonard Maton – devised a set of codes. As they were all lawyers they deemed them laws rather than rules. The first draft was written by Maton who was laid up with a broken leg from playing rugby. On 27 March 1871 the first international game was played between England and Scotland, and unions continued forming in other counties and countries to govern the game.

The first international rugby match

Those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others.

Edwin Ash, secretary of Richmond Rugby Club, who initiated the first RFU meeting


The movement of rugby worldwide

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First England rugby team to go on tour 1888

The England rugby team pictured on board a ship bound for Australia.

When the boys of Rugby School moved to universities such as Oxford and Cambridge or returned overseas, their passion for the game went with them.

Alongside the geographical movement of the pupils at Rugby School, international tours were hugely important in the development of the game into a worldwide sport. 1882 saw the first ever Rugby Union tour when an Australian team visited New Zealand. The first tour by the northern hemisphere was in 1888 when the British team visited both Australia and New Zealand. The tours enabled the unions to exchange know-how and innovation and to develop a uniform interpretation of the laws.

Redefining rugby's map

Most of the credit for the spread of rugby throughout the world goes to the imperial settlers from England who took the game abroad with them.

Sean Smith, author of The Union Game



Popperfoto/Getty Images

14th September 1949, London, London Society of Rugby Referee's course

The London Society of Rugby Referees' course with trainee referees, 14 September 1949.

In the very early days of rugby there were no referees – none whatsoever! Captains from both teams set the rules and would arbitrate together.

This changed in 1885 when the RFU stated that: “In all matches, 2 umpires shall be appointed and one referee." In 1892 the referee was made the sole judge of all matters of fact, making arbitration of the game far easier. Matches are now controlled by a team of match officials who comprise the referee and two touch judges or assistant referees. A television match official (TMO) may also be appointed in certain matches to adjudicate in disputes.

Rugby referees game management forum

Boys would wear sharpened boots with nails in them for extra hacking.

Rugby School history on how pupils continued to play by their own set of rules until the 1880s


The International Rugby Football Board

World Rugby

World Rugby Balls_3236474k.jpg

The IRFB is today called World Rugby.

In the 1880s rugby had no international governing body and rules varied in the four home unions, causing disagreements and arguments.

In the 1884 match between England and Scotland at Blackheath a disagreement occurred regarding the interpretation of the 'knock on' rule which led to England scoring a try. This antagonised Scotland, leading to the suspension of matches between the two nations. To enable all unions to play to a unified set of rules, the Irish, Scottish and Welsh unions formed the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB). Initially England refused to join. Today there are approximately one hundred members.

World Rugby


Evolution of scoring

National Library of New Zealand: 1905

The 1905 All Blacks originally called the Originals

New Zealand rugby team 1905-6 when British papers first named them the ‘All Blacks’. They won 31 of 32 matches, only losing one match to Wales 3-0.

Originally games could last for up to five days because it was very hard to score, particularly with up to 300 players taking part.

In the beginning an attacking touch-down had no value unless followed by a successful kick; it simply allowed the attacking team to 'try' for goal. This changed in 1886 when a try was given a value of one point. It went up to two points in 1892, three in 1893, four in 1971 and in 1992 reached five points. Conversions generally had a value of two points, penalty goals three points and a drop goal moved from three to four points in 1892 before reverting to three points in 1948.

New scoring trial in WalesThe very basics of rugby union rules

When the 1905 All Blacks beat Swansea 4-3 by a drop goal to a try, under modern scoring values they would have lost 5-3.

Gwyn Prescott, rugby historian


The great split: Rugby becomes union and league


The George Hotel in Huddersfield where on 29 August 1895 rugby league was formed

The George Hotel in Huddersfield, where 22 clubs met and agreed to break away from Rugby Union and set up the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU).

Rugby fever in Britain had spread. Places such as Liverpool, Manchester and Yorkshire, usually associated with football, had become hotbeds of rugby.

New clubs in northern England began forming leagues and along with with their new found success came the wish for more control and autonomy. This included payment to the players for any loss of earnings. The union, fearing the onset of professionalism, insisted it retain its traditional amateur status. Unable to reach agreement, on 29 August 1895, 22 of the leading Northern clubs formed the Northern Rugby Union, formally known as Rugby League from 1922.

Rugby Football History: The great schismThe sources of the split

The name of the society shall be called the 'Rugby Football Union' and only clubs comprised entirely of amateurs shall be eligible for membership.

To prevent professionalism in any form the RFU issued amended By-law #1


Rugby School helped inspire the modern Olympics


father-of-rugby-school-Thomas Arnold

The chapel grave at Rugby School of headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold, who helped inspire the modern Olympics.

Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator and founder of the modern Olympic Games, was 25 when he visited Rugby School in 1888.

He became a huge admirer of the work of headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold and his introduction of rugby to the curriculum. "De Coubertin admired the ethos of the game, its moral values as well as the physical and mental skills," says World Rugby. He later acknowledged that the school helped inspire the modern Olympics. Rugby featured four times in the Olympic programme from 1900-1924. In 2016 rugby union, represented by its short version seven-a-side rugby, returns to the Olympic fold.

History of rugby and the Olympics

The role played by one of Britain’s oldest schools - and arguably Britain’s most famous Head Master - in the modern Olympics is to be celebrated.

Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games 2012


The scrum: Strangling and throttling was common

Rugby School archive

Football as played at Rugby school in the mid 1800s

Football as played at Rugby School. The ball is round, but the goal posts are more reminiscent of rugby today.

As rugby emerged in the 1800s it was, in effect, just one big scrimmage, but strangling and throttling was outlawed in 1862.

Players from each team – and there could be scores of them – would stand upright, push and kick the ball as well as their opponents’ shins in a legitimate activity known as ‘hacking’. The object was to push the ball forward through the opposing pack, with heeling the ball often frowned upon. In 1905 the scrum developed into two distinct activities – the 'set' scrum and the 'loose' scrum which is now referred to as a ‘ruck’. Since then, scrum laws have constantly evolved.

What's the secret behind the perfect scrum?World Rugby scrum law

When first played some passers-by ran onto the pitch thinking they were breaking up a brawl!

Rugby School history on the scrum


Playing the advantage

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Seizing the advantage law in rugby union

The advantage law is a mechanism for dealing with infringements and irregularities.

In 1884 England won the Home Nations Championships and the Triple Crown.

One of the earliest mentions of 'advantage' was during the England v Scotland game of 1884. The English took 'advantage' of a Scottish error and scored a try, winning the match. The advantage law had yet to be formalised and so the Scots may have been right to object. It was only introduced in the rules in 1910 as a mechanism for dealing with infringements and irregularities. Its objective was to allow the game to continue, provided the non-offending side gained an advantage.

World Rugby on the advantage law Ref Steve Walsh on the advantage law


Rugby's great loss during WW1

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Rare footage of a WW1 match. New Zealand Division play the 38th (Welsh) Division. The spectators include several military officers (IWM).

Rugby Union did not take long to respond to the catastrophic news that war had broken out between Britain and Germany on 4 August 1914.

The RFU officially suspended all fixtures for the duration of the war and clubs actively encouraged their players to enlist, including their most talented internationals. Rugby was, however, played during the conflict by military divisional teams. This enabled countries torn apart by war to bring allies together. By the end of WW1, 127 of the world's greatest international rugby players had been killed. These talented men who had played for their country also died for their country.

Rugby at war


Replacements: Men played on with smashed faces and broken limbs

David Rogers, Getty Images

Neil Back the England flank forward ordered off by the ref with a head injury

Neil Back, the England flank forward, was ordered off with a head injury during the World Cup match between South Africa and England in 2003.

It took rugby union 130 years to introduce replacements. Even today players often carry on injured, not accepting the need to leave the pitch.

Replacements were happening, unofficially, in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia long before the law was passed. Mike Gibson became the first 'official' player to be used as a replacement in an international match when Barry John broke his collar bone in the Lions' first test against South Africa in 1968. In 1996 tactical substitutions were introduced allowing up to three replacements.

Replacements have an increased impact at Rugby World CupWorld Rugby laws

Get off, you look ugly!

Ref Peter Marshall to England's blood-spattered Neil Back after complaining about being ordered off

22 May 1987

First Rugby World Cup

Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

First ever Rugby World Cup is won by all blacks New Zealand 20 June 1987

All Blacks captain David Kirk kissing the Webb Ellis Cup after New Zealand's victory in the first every Rugby World Cup final, 20 June 1987.

In 1985 the IRFB announced the launch of the first ever Rugby World Cup (RWC), an invitation event with 16 participants.

It was held in New Zealand and Australia in 1987. The trophy, named the William Webb Ellis cup, was chosen by the then chairman John Kendall-Carpenter. The 108-ounce sterling silver trophy was a reproduction of a cup made in the 1740s by Paul de Lamerie, a Huguenot silversmith who took refuge in England. It became the ultimate symbol of rugby supremacy on 20 June 1987 when the winning New Zealand captain David Kirk hoisted it above his head at the end of the first RWC tournament.

Rugby Union 2015 World Cup schedule


Arrival of red and yellow cards

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Wales' Sam Warburton discusses the red card he received in the Rugby World Cup semi-final in Auckland, New Zealand, 2011.

It was football referee Ken Aston who first came up with the idea of coloured cards while waiting at traffic lights.

Since 1888 rugby union laws have stated that a player should be sent off for foul play, but it was 107 years later that cards were officially incorporated in the laws. The first official recipient was Ben Clarke, who in 1995, while playing for England against Ireland, stamped on Simon Geoghegan. He was shown a yellow card but played on. Temporary suspension of ten minutes wasn't introduced until 1999.

Coloured cards shown for the first time in rugby union

Rugby is a hooligans' game played by gentlemen.

Winston Churchill

23 June 1995

Dawn of a new age in rugby union

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David Campese - rugby unions' first millionaire

Australia's David Campese was regarded as the first professional when rugby union was strictly an amateur sport.

With origins in English public schools, rugby has always been a game steeped in noble tradition, and traditions take time to change.

During the summer of 1995 rugby union finally agreed to the inevitable and, like every other major sport, became professional. It had held on to its amateur status for 150 years until 1995 when the IRB announced in Paris that it would allow unions to enter into professional contracts with their players. This happened during a period where the increased use of under the table payments to star players – so-called ‘shamateurism’ – was making a mockery of the amateur status of the game.

Murdoch's deal ushers in new age for rugby union The glory and despair of the golden amateur era

I'm still an amateur, of course, but I became rugby's first millionaire five years ago.

David Campese, 1991