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The Rough And Brutal History Of Rugby

Sports History | June 28, 2019

Rugby match between England and Wales at Blackheath, London, United Kingdom, engraving from The Illustrated London News, No 2751, January 9, 1892. Source: (gettyimages.com)

One of the best-loved games, particularly in England, is rugby. A cousin of American football, rugby a rougher, tougher sport than soccer. Rugby got its start as a rule-less mob sport for the uneducated masses. Let’s look back at how this game got its start. 

Rugby started in medieval times. (football-origins.com)

Medieval Sport

Back in the medieval era, in the 12th through 16th centuries, a ball game similar to rugby was played between opposing villages. Unlike rugby, football, or soccer, this game had no rules. Each team could have as many players as they wanted and there was no attempt to make the teams even or balances. The only goal of the game was for one team to move a ball made from an inflated animal bladder across the village to a designated point. Players could use any means they wanted to accomplish this…fighting, tripping, stealing the ball. Everything was fair game in this form of mob football. 

Mob football was part of the Shrove Tuesday festivities. Source: (wikiwand.com)

The Shrove Tuesday Festival

One of the earliest written references to this mob football game was an account by a monk named William Fitzstephen. He wrote about a ballgame that took place during the Shrove Tuesday festival of 1175. He observed that the youth of the city, representing every school as well as trade guilds, came together in the early afternoon. Each group brought their own ball. The older citizens also gathered to watch the adolescents and cheer them on. 

Rugby was so dangerous that it was banned. Source: (spartacus-educational.com)

Banning Mob Football

As you can imagine, this sort of blood and guts ball game was dangerous. Numerous people were injured in each game. A least one person was killed as a result. Sometimes, the rivalry between villages heated up so much that folks spent too much time challenging their neighbors to a ball game that it cut away from their time doing necessary and productive tasks, like farming. That led to official bans on the sport. By the middle of the 1600s, more than thirty local ordinances across England outlawed the sport of mob football. 

The sport of rugby took its named from the Rugby school. Source: (libertyrugby.org)

The Origin of Modern Rugby

Rugby as we know it began in 1749. That’s when the Young Gentlemen’s School of the Midlands of England, which had outgrown their previous location, opened a new school building on the outskirts of the town of Rugby in Warwickshire. This new school featured an 8-acre open field adjacent to the building for the students to engage in physical activity. Here, the students played a tamer version of mob football. Some of the early games had as many as 200 players on the field and lasted for a week. 

Eventually the number of players on a rugby team was limited. Source: (historic-uk.com)

Bring on the Rules

The students at Rugby slowly introduced rules to the game. Running with the ball was not allowed. Forward progress was done by kicking the ball. Touch down lines were drawn on the grass. In 1823, another important rule was added to the game. During the game, one of the players, William Webb Ellis, caught the ball, but instead of punting it downfield, he tucked the ball into the crook of his arm and ran it down the field. His teammates blocked the other team from reaching Ellis and he was able to run all the way to the touchline. Word spread of his rule-defying move and, soon the rules were changed to allow a player to run with the ball. 

Players from Oxford and Cambridge still meet to play rugby. Source: (irishtimes.com)

A College Sport. A World Sport

Rugby, as the sport became known, moved onto university campuses. In 1872, the first college-level rugby game took place between Oxford and Cambridge. The game’s popularity spread through the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. Professional and collegiate rugby matches attracted huge crowds of fans. Today, rugby is played around the world. Every four years, the best teams in the world compete for the Rugby World Cup. The next tournament will be held in September of this year. 

Tags: football history | rugby | sports

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.