Related links:

Rugby League | British History | Famous People | Sport

History of Rugby League

Featured Destination

December 2017: A West Country Christmas – Dorset in December

Thomas Hardy’s celebration of Christmas in Dorset in his early novel Under the Greenwood Tree is perhaps second only to A Christmas Carol (a version ...More
More Uk destinations

History of Rugby League


In 1823 during a game of football at Rugby School , William Webb Ellis famously disregarded the rules by running with the ball in his hands after catching it. This was a breach of the rules of the day, instead he should have retreated and taken some kind of kick. William Webb Ellis , probably without realising it, had just invented the modern game of Rugby Football. This new version of the old game of football was named after his school, as if to solidify the connection between the game and the school.

There are many however, including rugby historians, who would cast doubt upon this tale. They believe that the origins of the sport as played today are somewhat more complex than the Rugby School story would suggest. Some even cast doubt upon whether the incident actually occurred in the first place. It is well known that there were games of football in medieval times in many parts of the British Isles that involved moving the ball by handling and even games that had elements that resembled scrimmages and lineouts. One thing is certain, the game of rugby shares a common origin with all forms of football, including Football Association ‘soccer’ and American football.

By the 19th century, the practice of getting an inflated sheep’s bladder from one end of a muddy field to another had become fairly organised. There were by now many established teams, however the problem remained that they all played to slightly different rules. Teams would often have to meet up before a match to decide on the exact set of rules to be used on that particular occasion.  By the end of the 19th century soccer and rugby had sorted out their differences and gone their separate ways. Rugby kept handling in the field of play and the more robust elements of the old game such as tackling, scrummaging, rucks and mauls. Certain kicks were still allowed, in keeping with the type of game played before soccer’s more refined take on the game evolved.

The town of Rugby does have the verifiable credit of another crucial development of the game however. Rugby is the birth place of the oval ball, the rubber inflatable bladder and the brass hand pump to inflate it. All were inventions of Rugby’s Richard Lindon who owned a shop in Rugby close to Rugby School in the 19th century. Lindon’s four panel buttonless stitched ball design quickly became the regulation ball and the blueprint upon which all subsequent rugby balls have been based. Leather balls with rubber bladders were replaced in the 1970s with synthetic balls less prone to becoming waterlogged in poor conditions.

In 1870 two representatives of the Richmond and the Blackheath clubs called a meeting of those involved in ‘the rugby-type game’, to agree on a set on unified rules. The meeting took place on 26 January 1871 at the Pall Mall Restaurant in London . Twenty one clubs were represented, including Richmond , Blackheath and the Harlequins . The Wasps were supposed to have sent a representative but due to some confusion he did not arrive. Various stories exist to suggest confusion over venues or dates had prevented the Wasps from being represented for what turned out to be the inaugural meeting of the Rugby Football Union (RFU). 

The first rugby international was played in the same year, after a challenge was issued by the captains of five Scottish clubs. They invited a team picked from the whole of England to a match which was played in Edinburgh. The game would have looked somewhat different to today’s matches, with 20 players per side and the Scots team wearing white cricket flannels instead of the shorts we have become used to. The English side wore white shirts with a red rose emblem. The Scots were victorious on the day with a solitary converted try. Each team had scored an additional try but these were not counted under the scoring regulations of the day as the conversions were missed.

The current governing body in the sport of Rugby Union is the IRB (International Rugby Board), founded in 1886 as the IRFB (International Rugby Football Board). England initially refused to join Scotland, Wales and Ireland in its formation. They had instead wished to retain a greater share in control, due to the larger number of clubs. They also wished to preserve the status of the RFU as the principal lawmakers in the game. The situation was soon resolved and England joined in 1890.

The game of rugby union is traditionally an amateur game and this led to the divide between north and south that gave rise to Rugby League. The original amateur code was devised by Yorkshire and Lancashire ; northern clubs who fiercely defended the notion that rugby football should remain amateur. However, a problem soon arose over so-called ‘broken time’ payments. These were compensatory payments for players who missed time at work due to rugby commitments. The northern clubs were predominantly filled with working class players who relied on these payments to enable them to continue playing the game. The southern clubs tended to be comprised of players from more affluent backgrounds, who could often afford the time more easily than their northern counterparts. 

A meeting was convened in Huddersfield in 1895 after many northern clubs and players had been suspended by the RFU over the payments to players issue. The northern clubs at the meeting voted to break away and form the Northern Union. It was the birth of the game of Rugby League and by 1904 the new governing body of the sport had more member clubs affiliated to it than the ‘old’ RFU. Rugby was now divided two very distinct codes that would progress in very different ways.

Twickenham has hallowed status for rugby fans in the same way as the old Wembley always did for association football fans. It was opened as the home of English rugby in 1910 and it enjoys the status of being the home of world rugby union. In the same year it opened England won the Five Nations Championship. It was the first year that the French had been included and therefore the inaugural Five Nations Championship. One hundred years on, it is still host to what is now the Six Nations Championship.

The Five Nations Championship was actually born on a dull day in Swansea in 1882.  England travelled to face Wales and claimed victory on that day, doubtlessly not realising the magnitude of what they had begun. The International Championship, as it was then known, started with the four home nations England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The early championship was loosely organised and unfortunately littered with disputes, which in at least three cases (1885, 1887 and 1889) caused the competition to go unfinished as arguments remained unresolved. 

Even in the new millennium, after 1900, there were still a number of problems hanging over the game. Welsh crowds were reported to have regularly threatened to lynch referees following pitch invasions at home games. In the 1930’s French players caused their team to be expelled from the competition after being found to be carrying stiletto knives in their socks.

A Grand Slam in the Six Nations is achieved by one team winning all their games and therefore beating every other team in the contest. With the exception of the new arrivals to the championships Italy, every team has won the Grand Slam at least once. However, the records of the nations varies considerably.

The Irish had only one Grand Slam to their name up until 2009, having won the Grand Slam in 1948. Back then the team were guided by their outside half and master tactician Jack Kyle. After seeing off France in Paris, England at Twickenham and Scotland in Dublin , they took on Wales at Ravenhill in Belfast in Northern Ireland. The Irish were victorious there and took the Grand Slam. It was another 61 years before they were able to repeat this feat and the match was also one of the last times they played Internationals at Ravenhill. The number of Irish internationals based in the Irish Republic outnumbered those based in Northern Ireland. The dispute between the British Government and the Irish Republic meant that the 1954 game against Scotland was the last played at Ravenhill. It was also the last time the national team played in Northern Ireland until 2007.

For the Scots the honour of the Grand Slam has come on three occasions, the first being in 1925. This was followed by a 59 year wait until 1984 when the Scots were Grand Slam winners for only the second time. The last win came in 1990, when the Scots upset the fancied English side in the Grand Slam decider at the Scottish home ground of Murrayfield .  The English were hot favourites but the Scots were led by the steely-eyed David Sole, whose grim stance set the tone of the day. The Scots ground out a 13-7 victory to send the Scottish crowd into raptures. There could be no greater way for the Scots to win the Grand Slam than a showdown for the title against the ‘auld enemy’ at fortress Murrayfield.

In terms of Grand Slam and championship successes, the English, Welsh and French have proved the most successful. The French won their first Grand Slam in 1968 after a highly successful decade where French rugby union really came of age. Wales have been one of the most successful teams in the history of British Rugby. The occasion when Wales first played the visiting All Blacks on their first tour of the United Kingdom is a memorable on in Welsh rugby history. The match took place at Cardiff Arms Park after the all conquering All Blacks had swept aside every other home nation. Prior to this game the Grand Slam, the term is also used for a Southern Hemisphere touring side achieving a clean sweep of all four home nations, was on. The Welsh went on to win the match and ruin the visitor’s tour whitewash.

The Welsh have enjoyed several successful eras in the past including the late 60s and 70s when legends such as Gareth Edwards, Barry John and J.P.R. Williams were playing for their national side. Cardiff Arms Park has seen many memorable matches and has been filled with the famous sound of the Welsh singing their support to their side. The loyal Welsh fans suffered some very barren times in the 1980s and for much of the 1990s. However, after winning the Grand Slam in the new Six Nations Championship in 2005 and 2008 they are now hopeful that a new era is beginning.

England has always been a force to be reckoned with in since the early days of the competition. Although they had many successes early on the team had suffered some lean times through the 1970s. Success finally came back, under the leadership of captain Bill Beaumont CBE, somewhat unexpectedly. Beaumont had led the North of England to a surprise win over the All Blacks touring side a year earlier and then in 1980 took England to its first Grand Slam success for 23 years!

A new golden era seemed to begin in English rugby when England won the Grand Slam under the captaincy of Will Carling in 1991. Great things were then expected from England in the World Cup being hosted in England later that year. All seemed to go to plan and England reached the final to meet Australia at Twickenham. Unfortunately, the combined attacking skills of Rory Underwood, Will Carling, Rob Andrew and Jeremy Guscott were not enough to outscore the Australians who ended up 12-6 winners. 



England gained their revenge in heroic style when they met the Australians in the 2003 World Cup Final. Johnny Wilkinson scored his famous last second drop goal to snatch the trophy from the Australians on their home soil. This classic game, and England’s passage to the final, was responsible for a big upsurge of interest in the game of rugby in the UK. England’s form on the International Rugby Union circuit may have faltered since their famous World Cup win but interest in the game remains high very high throughout the Great Britain. The game of rugby seems set for at least another 150 years as an integral part of the sporting history the United Kingdom.

More Sport History here

Brit Quote:
At the side of the everlasting why, is a yes, and a yes, and a yes. - E M Forster
More Quotes

On this day:
Flannan Isles Mystery Born - 1900, Retreat from Gallipoli - 1915, Bosman Ruling - 1995
More dates from British history

click here to view all the British counties

County Pages