How Has the Game Rugby Changed Over the Years?

Men playing rugby

The story goes that a schoolboy named William Webb Ellis played a soccer match at Rugby School in England in 1823. During the game Webb Ellis picked up the football and ran -- giving birth to an entirely new sport. Though the story may be exaggerated, rugby has developed into one of the world's most popular sports. Many of the rules are the same today as they were more than 100 years ago.


The earliest recorded laws of rugby, written by Rugby School pupils in 1845, are similar to today's rules. The notion of offside, the banning of forward passes and the idea of running a ball out of "touch" all are featured in the early codes. Paintings of early rugby games show dozens of players, instead of the 15 per team today. The rules also controversially promoted "hacking" -- the kicking and tripping of an opponent's legs. This was soon banned and replaced with the shoulder tackles seen in the modern game. Rugby in the 1800s also was far more focused on kicking, rather than the modern aim of try scoring.

Governing Bodies

In 1871, the Rugby Football Union was established. The Union aimed to create a code of rules for clubs in England and across the world. Former Rugby school pupils wrote the new laws, according to archives collected at Kings College London. Soon after in 1871 Scotland and England played the first international match. The International Rugby Board was founded in 1886 to govern the laws of rugby for all participating nations.

Split and Formats

The biggest change in the structure of rugby came in 1895. An argument about paying players resulted in 12 teams from northern England splitting from the Rugby Union to create their own league. The new format allowed player payment and allowed only 13 players per team. Today, the format is still known as Rugby League. Another form of rugby grew from Rugby Union. Rugby Sevens allowed only seven players per team, creating a more open game that suited faster, slighter players.


Until 1995 all Rugby Union players were classified as amateurs; they often had day jobs and played rugby when possible. However, as TV and sponsorship revenues increased, players argued for professional status. In 1995 the International Rugby Board agreed and permitted payment to Union players. Rugby League players had been paid for their sport for almost 100 years prior.

Trophies and Competitions

Rugby, both League and Union, has developed several hotly contested competitions since the 1800s. Matches between old rivals often have traditional names, such as the Calcutta Cup between England and Scotland. International games are often played as visiting "test" tours. The annual Six Nations Trophy includes French, Italian, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh teams. In 1987, Australia and New Zealand hosted the first Rugby World Cup, with New Zealand taking the inaugural Webb Ellis Cup.