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The History of Rugby - Part 2

And Now We Are Six

Blackheath Rugby Club resigned from the newly formed Football Association because of irreconcilable differences in their interpretation of how to play football. The Cambridge Rules eliminated certain aspects of the game that Blackheath, and others, favoured i.e. running with the ball in hand.

Up to this time, there had been no regulation, no rules as such, the number of players per side was uncontrolled and games often ended up looking like a huge rolling maul with a ball somewhere in the middle!

Despite the lack of regulation, rugby clubs flourished though schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, the civil service. The military took the game out to the colonies while at home, the working classes of the industrial north of England were well represented.

The story moves on to the formation of the Rugby Football Union following the example set by the Football Association (1863) (note: now soccer), but the whole story of football based games also includes the split within the ranks of the RFU and the creation of Rugby League and overseas, of how the original Rugby Rules were interpreted and adapted to give rise to Aussie Rules and American Football. In Ireland , Gaelic Football came to the fore developed along its own distinct line and with it, we have the six distinctive variants of the game of football.


Despite Blackheath's stand against the FA, not all clubs were happy with the inclusion of hacking and tripping in the game. In a letter to the press in 1866, Richmond also wanted to see these elements of the game dropped.

As a result, hacking gradually disappeared from the game after both Blackheath and Richmond refused to play opponents who continued to play with hacking as part of their game. It was the Secretary of the Richmond club, Edwin Ash, who called for the rules of the game to be standardised in another letter to the press.

Consequently, a meeting was arranged to eliminate the more violent aspects of the game early in 1871; the Rugby Football Union was established in the Pall Mall Restaurant in Charing Cross and involved representatives from 21 leading clubs.

As an aside, the representative from London Wasps was invited to this first meeting, but failed to turn up. There are different versions of events to explain his absence; either Wasps sent their man to the wrong place on the wrong day, or he went to a restaurant with the same name, had a few too many drinks and was incapable of finding the right venue when the mistake came to light! The original 'Drunken Wasp'?

Meanwhile, the first meeting of the RFU was chaired by the captain of the Richmond Rugby Club. The other attendees were: Guy's Hospital (the oldest recognised rugby club, founded in 1843), Blackheath and Harlequins, plus representative from Wellington and King's College, St. Paul 's School and a team from the Civil Service. Teams that have since disappeared from the rugby map were: Addison , Belize Park, Chapham Rovers, Flamingoes, Gipsies, Lausanne , Law, Marlborough Nomads, Mohicans, , Ravenscourt Park , Queen's House, West Kent and Wimbledon Hornets. You must admit, there are some great names in there!

The first job of the RFU was to form a committee consisting of three former students of Rugby School, all from the legal profession, who were tasked with setting down the first formalised laws for rugby union (notice 'laws' as opposed to 'rules' - well what do you expect from lawyers?), a job that was completed in June 1871.


One of the basic principals of the RFU was that rugby should be played as an amateur sport and this was generally accepted in the early years. However, trouble was brewing in the northern clubs where rugby had a strong following in the working classes. Here, to play on a weekend and effectively lose money for the privilege became increasingly unacceptable.

In 1893, a complaint had been made to the RFU from Cumberland County that one of their players had been poached by monetary incentives. An inquiry was launched and the club concerned was suspended. This was the first, but by no means the last of time that the issue of player payments was to be raised.

A meeting was convened at the Westminster Palace Hotel in London on September 20 1893 where representatives from the northern clubs attempted to introduce payments for 'bona fide loss of time'.

In a vote on the matter, the RFU had virtually guaranteed their own victory by carrying 120 proxy votes in its favour into the meeting; the motion was defeated by 282 to 136.

Undaunted, delegates from 22 clubs, primarily from Lancashire and Yorkshire, met in The George Hotel in Huddersfield on 29 August 1895. The result was the formation of the breakaway Northern Rugby Football Union in which 'broken time' payment to players was allowed. The 21 clubs present were: Batley, Bradford, Brighouse Rangers, Broughton Rangers, Dewsbury (withdrew and was replaced by Runcorn), Halifax, Huddersfield, Hull, Hunslet, Leeds, Leigh, Liversedge, Manningham, Oldham, Rochdale Hornets, St Helens, (Stockport, not present at the George, but participated by phone!), Tyldesley, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington, Widnes and last but not least Wigan.

It would take nearly three decades for this new organisation to re-brand itself and in 1923 changed its name to Rugby League. With their new identity came changes to the rules of the game; the number of players on a team was reduced to 13, line-outs were abolished, but it was Rugby Union that would suffer most during the early years following the split.

The northern rugby teams were a breeding ground for some of the best players in England but the split now meant that these players were no longer available for selection in the Union national side.

The effect on England 's domination in the Four Nations competition was immediate and long lasting; up to 1895, England had either won or shared the honours in half of the championships; in the years that followed the break wins were few and far between

Some of England's score lines from this period are shown below:

04 Jan 1896


W 25-0

01 Feb 1896


L 4-10

14 Mar 1896


L 0-11




09 Jan 1897


L 0-11

06 Feb 1897


L 9-13

13 Mar 1897


W 12-3




5 Feb 1898


L 6-9

12 Mar 1898


D 3-3

2 Apr 1898


W 14-7




7 Jan 1899


L 3-26

4 Feb 1899


L 0-6

11 Mar 1899


L 0-5




06 Jan 1900


L 3-13

03 Feb 1900


W 15-4

10 Mar 1900


D 0-0




05 Jan 1901


L 0-13

09 Feb 1901


L 6-10

09 Mar 1901


L 3-18




11 Jan 1902


L 8-9

08 Feb 1902


W 6-3

15 Mar 1902


W 6-3




10 Jan 1903


L 5-21

14 Feb 1903


L 0-6

21 Mar 1903


L 6-10




09 Jan 1904


D 14-14

13 Feb 1904


W 19-0

19 Mar 1904


L 3-6




14 Jan 1905


L 0-25

11 Feb 1905


L 3-17

18 Mar 1905


L 0-8




13 Jan 1906


L 3-16

10 Feb 1906


L 6-16

17 Mar 1906


W 9-3




12 Jan 1907


L 0-22

09 Feb 1907


L 9-17

16 Mar 1907


L 3-8




18 Jan 1908


L 18-28

08 Feb 1908


W 13-3

21 Mar 1908


L 10-16




16 Jan 1909


L 0-8

13 Feb 1909


W 11-5

20 Mar 1909


L 8-18

In the next three sections, we have to jump around a bit (in time, that is) to tell the stories of American, Aussie Rules and Gaelic Football because each have their own unique histories.


Contrary to popular belief, Aussie Rules is a derivative of rugby as played in English schools and colleges in the mid-19th century, and is not a variant of Gaelic Football; this idea comes from similarities in the game play, but the rules for each style of football were developed along two distinct paths. In fact, it was Rugby School that was to play a major part in the development of Aussie Rules, yet again.

Tom Willis, an Australian born in Melbourne, was sent to England to be educated at Rugby School at the age of 14. He was to prove to be an outstanding sportsman and returned home in 1856 having excelled in both rugby and cricket.

After playing cricket in the summer months, he was eager to bring the other game he had played while in England to his home country to fill the long, empty winter months; rugby football. In a letter to the press in July 1858 he suggested that cricketers should form foot-ball clubs to play during the winter.

Some football games were actually played that year, but it was to take nearly twelve months before Willis chaired the first meeting to create the rules of Australian football, on 17 May 1859.

After some discussion, lead by four men who had played the game in England, no consensus could be reached so they consulted the rules that existed at the time from schools in Rugby, Eton, Harrow and Winchester.

Armed with this knowledge and the experience from the previous years' games, they set about drawing up a set of rules for a variation of the game that was simpler, faster and contained of less of the violence of English rugby.

The popularity of the game grew year on year. By 1880, the FA Cup Final in England attracted a mere 6,000 while an Aussie Rules game in Melbourne the same year drew some 15,000 spectators. Only six years later, a game between Geelong and South Melbourne saw a gate of 36,000! The rules have continued to develop to the present day giving us the unique, fast-flowing game of Aussie Rules Football.


The game of ballown was played by the students of Princeton in the mid 1800's which was similar to the football games prevalent in England before the end of the 18th century.

A regular fixture was played between the freshman and sophomore classes at Harvard on the first Monday of the school year and soon became known as 'Bloody Monday' games.

By 1865, not long after the end of the American Civil War, other colleges began to play football type games and it was Princeton that was responsible for setting down the first rules in 1867. Local rivals, Rutgers College also drew up a set of rules in the same year and on November 6th 1869 the first inter-collegiate game was staged between these two universities. Rutgers ran out the winners by 6 goals to 4.

The first inter-collegiate rules were drawn up in 1873 by representatives of Princeton, Rutgers, Columbia and Yale and it was from this meeting that the IFA, the Intercollegiate Football Association, was founded.

The first rules of what would now be recognised as American Football were set down in 1876 at the Massosoit convention, in an effort to move away from the soccer / rugby dominated version of the game that had held sway up until that time.

It was originally agreed that each team should field 15 players, but this was reduced to 11 per team after the intervention of a man named Walter Camp.

Camp, born in New Haven in 1859, attended Yale from 1876 to 1882. A student of Medicine and Business, he went on to be a successful business man in his own right. In his college years he played football, but along with others, became concerned about the number of injuries suffered, even to the point of seeing the game banned in some colleges.

It was Walter Camp who introduced the system of 'downs' in 1882 and it was under his guidance that American Football rose from the ashes of English style Rugby during the four years between 1880 and 1884.

A series of meetings took place involving up to 60 colleges and from them a 7-strong Rules Committee was appointed. This committee was later to become the NCAA; the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Today, the American Football is played by colleges and universities in three distinct divisions under NCAA guidelines, culminating in the championship bowl matches: The Rose Bowl takes place in Pasadena on New Year's Day; The Orange Bowl can be seen in Miami, The Sugar Bowl (New Orleans), The Peach Bowl (Atlanta) and The Cotton Bowl (Dallas)


Following the famine across Ireland in the 1840's, traditional games waned in popularity. Until then, football games akin to those seen in England were common pitting local villages against each other.

Gaelic football is mentioned in the Irish records The Statutes Of Galway as early as 1527, which allowed the playing of football, but not hurling. The earliest match on record goes back to 1712 when the neighbouring villages of Meath and Louth met.

The first signs of recovery came in 1884 when the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in Dublin by Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin. The aims of the GAA was to preserve Irish heritage through the promotion of traditional Gaelic sports; football, hurling and athletics, and the preservation of the traditional Irish music, song and dance.

The first rules for the game of Gaelic Football were penned in February 1885. The rules were developed over time, as seen in Australia and America, moving the sport away from the soccer and rugby influences from England.

The GAA, unsurprisingly, took on a political role during the early 20th century and established a network across Ireland. The 1916 Easter Rising contained many members of the GAA which was banned by the British Government in 1918. In an act of defiance, the games continued.

Things came to a head in 1920; 11 British officers were killed in Dublin by the IRA, government troops later fired on a crowd at Croke Park during a football game and 1 player and a dozen supporters were killed.

Today, there are well in excess of 2,500 clubs in the GAA with membership exceeding 750,000 both at home and abroad.


William Webb Ellis picked up the ball in a football match at Rugby School in 1823.

1823 to 1848 English schools created their own set of rules for the game of rugby. The 'Cambridge Rules' of football set down in1848.

Tom Willis chaired the first meeting to create the rules of Australian football, on 17 May 1859.

The Football Association (FA) founded in England on 26 October 1863

Blackheath left the FA and was instrumental in setting up the RFU in 1871.

The first American Football inter-collegiate rules were drawn up in 1873.

The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884.

The first rules for the game of Gaelic Football February 1885.

The Northern RFU was formed to allow 'broken time' payment to players 29 August 1895.

The NRFU became Rugby League in 1923.

The next in article in the series (don't worry - it is much shorter!) looks at the devolvement of scoring in rugby union; 'So, What's The Point?'


Ian Birks, 2005
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