The origins of the game, now know across the world simply as rugby, can be traced back over 2000 years. The Romans played a ball game called harpastum, a word derived from the Greek word “seize”, the implication of the name being that somebody actually carried or handled the ball.
More recently, in medieval England, documents record young men leaving work early to compete for their village or town in games of football. Laws were passed, in Tudor times, forbidding the “devilish pastime” of football, as too many injuries and fatalities seriously depleted the available workforce. The participants of this devilish pastime are recorded thus… “The players are young men from 18-30 or upwards; married as well as single and many veterans who retain a relish for the sport are occasionally seen in the very heat of the conflict…” A description that some might say is as applicable today as it was all of those years ago.
Shrove Tuesday became the traditional timing for such conflicts. Rules differed from one part of the country to the next, from Derbyshire to Dorset to Scotland, records reveal many regional variations to the game. The games often took place over an ill defined pitch – the ball being kicked, carried and driven through town and village streets over fields, hedges and streams.
The roots to the modern game of rugby can be traced to a school for young gentlemen in the Midlands of England, which in 1749 finally outgrew its cramped surroundings within the town centre and moved to a new site on the edge of the town of Rugby in Warwickshire. The new Rugby School site had “…every accommodation that could be required for the exercise of young gentlemen.” This eight-acre plot became known as the Close.
The game of football, which was played on the Close between 1749 and 1823, had very few rules: touchlines were introduced and the ball could be caught and handled, but running with ball in hand was not permitted. Progress forward towards the opposition’s goal was generally made by kicking. Games could last for five days and often included more than 200 boys. For fun, 40 seniors may take on two hundred younger pupils, the seniors having prepared for the event by first sending their boots to the town cobbler to have extra thick soles put on them, bevelled at the front to better slice into the shins of the enemy!
It was during a match on the Close in the autumn of 1823 that the face of the game changed to the one which is recognisable to day. A local historian described this historic event as follows: “with a fine disregard for the rules of the game as played in his time, William Webb Ellis first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.” Ellis had apparently caught the ball and, according to the rules of the day, should have moved backwards giving himself enough room to either punt the ball up field or to place it for a kick at goal. He would have been protected from the opposing team as they could only advance to the spot where the ball had been caught. In disregarding this rule Ellis had caught the ball and instead of retiring, had run forward, ball in hand towards the opposite goal. A dangerous move and one that would not find its way into the fast developing rule book until 1841.
The rules and the fame of the game spread quickly as the Rugby School boys moved onwards and upwards, first to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The first university match was played in 1872. From the universities, the graduating teachers introduced the game to other English, Welsh and Scottish schools, and overseas postings for the Old Rugbeians who had moved through to the army officer class, promoted its growth on the international stage. Scotland played England in the first International game at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh in 1871.
The photograph below shows the young gentlemen of 1864 that formed the backbone of the Rugby Schools First XX. The skull and crossbones badge on the front of their kit, perhaps attests to the gentle nature of the game, the shape of the ball was determined by the pig’s bladder used for the inside.
More recently in the modern game, England became the first northern hemisphere team to win the Rugby World Cup in 2003. Below a recent photograph of the victorious England captain, Martin Johnson, signing autographs on the Close at the birthplace of rugby football, Rugby School in Warwickshire.
Integrated Global Rugby Season is a possibility – IRPA
9th July, 2013
Rugby players are calling on the Game’s leaders to renew efforts to develop an integrated global rugby season that addresses long standing player welfare and competition challenges.
The International Rugby Players' Association (IRPA) - the worldwide representative body for professional rugby players - held a conference in Australia recently and considered the possibility of moving the June test match window until the last three weeks of July, beginning in 2016.
The move would see Northern Hemisphere club competitions starting a month later, enabling more of their domestic competitions to be played after the Christmas break, potentially provide more breathing space for their respective finals series’ and improving player availability for test matches.
In the South the change could do away with Super Rugby’s month-long break and allow players an extended pre-season, something that has been sought for years.
"We're in a unique position - for the first time since rugby went professional, the major Northern and Southern Hemisphere competition and commercial structures are on the table at the same time," IRPA Chairman Damian Hopley explained. "This is the ideal time to seriously consider change that will secure player welfare initiatives."
The 2016 timing is important, as the 2015 Rugby World Cup will put significant pressure on the season structures of Northern Hemisphere leagues. Mid-week rounds have already been mooted, putting pressure on spectator numbers, club revenues and negatively impacting on player welfare.
The idea would also see the British & Irish Lions from the 2017 series in New Zealand onwards touring in a clear window after Super Rugby, with an improved ability to deliver full strength mid-week games. Existing windows for RWC, Six Nations, Rugby Championship, the November Tests and provincial competitions would not require any change.
IRPA is now asking SANZAR, Premiership Rugby, the French clubs, The Celtic League, IRB and the Six Nations to come together and open their minds to the potential benefits of change, and what that may look like.
Not surprisingly, the proposal is gaining support from professional players.
"If the Game’s leaders give this idea, or a variation of it, serious consideration it could be a game-changer for professional rugby," World Cup-winning All Black captain Richie McCaw said. "It would be fantastic to address this long standing season structure debate once and for all, the players and the game would be so much better for it."
McCaw's sentiments are fully endorsed by Ireland and Lions playmaker Johnny Sexton, who is confident a breakthrough can be found through meaningful dialogue.
"We see this initiative as beneficial for the global game" Sexton said. “From a player perspective, we urge our leaders to get in a room together, take a positive attitude and see what can be done.”
There are also potential spin-offs for Tier Two rugby nations. Planning for their fixtures in the test windows could be done well in advance, enhancing their ability to access their players.
Premiership Rugby are believed to be supportive of the proposal and preliminary discussions have already started with some National Unions.
IRPA Executive Director Rob Nichol said the players are all extremely motivated to play a constructive role in now getting the key parties together.
“This is a rare opportunity for greater alignment of the season structures in the two Hemispheres” said Nichol “and it is essential we use these discussions to achieve positive change for players, supporters and commercial partners.”
“We focused on what we felt was feasible and what would make a significant improvement and this integrated global rugby season, moving the June test window to the last three weeks in July, was what emerged.”
“We will now focus on getting the key parties together in the coming weeks to progress discussions urgently.”