Skip to main content

rugby football

rugby football. William Webb Ellis is credited with inventing rugby in 1823 by picking up the ball while playing football at Rugby School and running with it. The claim is much disputed but there is little doubt that rugby developed at public schools out of a large-scale, few-rules, mauling scrum game. Other schools played with different shapes and sizes of ball until the oval ball gained favour to facilitate handling and passing. Definition of the code began in 1863 when the Football Association was formed and outlawed handling and hacking. Richmond, Blackheath, and some London clubs stayed with the handling code and in 1871, at the Pall Mall restaurant, the Rugby Football Union was formed. The Scottish Rugby Union followed in 1873, the Irish in 1874, and the Welsh in 1881. As in soccer, the balance moved in favour of northern clubs and there were accusations of professionalism, under the pretence of expenses and broken-time payments. In 1895 St Helens, Wigan, and a number of northern clubs formed a breakaway union, which became the Rugby Football League in 1922. The number of players was reduced from fifteen to thirteen and scrums restricted to produce a fast handling game, which would attract spectators. Rugby league also gave rise to a large number of amateur clubs.

The first rugby union international match was played at Raeburn Place (Edinburgh) in 1871 between Scotland and England, and the Calcutta Cup was introduced in 1879. The spread of the game to the former dominions and some unlikely spots such as Romania allowed the introduction of World Cup competitions in the 1980s. Rugby league made little progress in southern England but spread to Australia, New Zealand, and France, allowing international ‘test’ competitions.

The two codes, amateur and professional, treated each other with disdain for many years and those union players who turned professional, often with marked success, were at once banned from the amateur game. But the advent of television and the growth of commercial values after the Second World War led to a gradual thaw. Rugby union introduced a league system, with promotion and relegation, expenses became ever more substantial, and the ban on players returning after playing rugby league was lifted in 1995. Full professionalism followed. In 1996, in two exhibition matches between the two codes, Wigan outplayed Bath 82–6 at Maine Road (Manchester) in the league game; at Twickenham, in the return match under union rules, Bath won 44–19.

Nicholas J. Bryars

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"rugby football." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 19 Feb. 2019 <>.

"rugby football." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (February 19, 2019).

"rugby football." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.