An English Game?
Football is not an English invention, since there is evidence that it has been played for centuries in various nations. It came to England in the 11th century and was hugely enjoyed by the population.
In the 15th and 16th centuries it was banned because of the damage caused by the participants and also because it interfered with the practice of archery – vital to the defence of the country before the development of gunpowder.
Public Schools’ Influence
Football became popular in public schools as recreation for the boys when not studying. The various schools played to their own rules, developed by the pupils themselves.
The boys of Rugby School, which is situated in the Midlands of England, played their football on grass using a pig’s bladder encased in leather for a ball.
Early Rules at Rugby School
The rules at Rugby School initially forbade handling the ball on the field of play, unless the ball was airborne, in which case it could be caught. The catcher stood still, as did all other players.
The catcher could then retreat from where he had caught the ball and either kick it wherever he wished or place it on the ground and try to kick it over the crossbar and between the posts, which counted as a goal.
Until he had passed the spot where he had originally caught the ball, no one could move.
Running with the Ball
In the mid-1820s the boys started to catch the ball and, instead of standing still, run with the ball in their arms towards the opponents’ goal line. By the 1840s this had become the norm.
The Spread of Rugby
When the boys of Rugby School left, they took the game with them. Clubs sprang up all over England and in the colonies where they worked, either as service personnel or administrators. By 1870 it became clear that the game was being played to a variety of rules.
The Birth of the first Union
In December 1870 Edwin Ash, Secretary of Richmond Club, and B. H. Burns, the Honorary Secretary of Blackheath, put a letter in the papers which read: “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, which makes the game difficult to play.”
On January 26, 1871, a meeting was held in London attended by more than 30 people from 22 clubs and schools. As a result of this meeting, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded.
A committee was formed and three former Rugby School pupils were invited to write a set of laws. The writers were all lawyers and the task was completed and approved by June of that year.
Formation of the other Home Unions
At the same time, the Scottish members of the new Rugby Football Union challenged the English members to a match and the first international match between Scotland and England was played at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh on March 27, 1871. Scotland won by 1 goal and 1 try to 1 try.
The Scots formed their own Rugby Union in 1873; the Irish Rugby Football Union was formed in 1879 and the Welsh Rugby Union in 1880.
Trouble and Strife
Up until 1885 England, as the founder Union, had made the Laws of the Game. In 1884 England had a dispute with Scotland over a try: England said it was a try and Scotland maintained it was not.
In the exchange of letters that followed, England claimed that as they made the Law, if they said it was a try then it was a try. This heavy-handed approach did not go down well, and Scotland refused to play England in 1885.
The International Board Enters the Scene
In 1886 an International Board was formed by Scotland, Ireland and Wales but England refused to take part, resulting in the other Home Unions refusal to play them.
England changed its stance with regard to representation on the Board and in 1890 relations were resumed. The International Board gradually took over more and more responsibilities and they now make the Laws and run the game.
The Great Schism – Professional or Amateur?
In 1893 the Committee of the RFU began to hear reports that some players in the north of England were being paid for playing. This was contrary to the strict amateur code and efforts were made to collect hard evidence.
The evidence arrived with a complaint by Cumberland County Union that a leading Yorkshire club had induced one of their players to leave for a monetary consideration.
The Union set up an inquiry but were warned privately and through letters to the press that, if the club was punished, all the chief clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire would secede from the Union – a serious threat because a large proportion of international players were drawn from these counties.
The inquiry was held at Preston and the club concerned was suspended.
Broken Time Payments
There followed two big general meetings at which efforts were made by the northern clubs to carry a resolution that men should be paid for 'broken time' – that is to say when playing football instead of working. The motion was defeated.
The Northern Union Breaks Away
In August 1895, 22 clubs seceded from the Rugby Football Union and formed the Northern Union (in the 1920s this became the Rugby League).
The loss of these northern clubs, and the many others that followed them, to the Northern Union had a serious impact on the English international side and it was several years before the loss could be made up.
The Professional Game
In 1995, the International Rugby Board announced that the game would become “open” – that is, players could be paid for playing. So, exactly 100 years after the Northern Union had broken away, the ethos of the game had changed completely.
Rugby for the Young
The first schoolboy International was played between England and Wales in 1905 and mini rugby took off after the Rugby World Cup of 1991.
Women's rugby, which really started in the late 1970s, is one of the fastest-growing women’s sports.