Story: Rugby union

Page 2. History of rugby

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Rugby union has a long history. Some claim that a form of football can be traced back to pre-imperial China about 2,500 years ago. In various forms, football is known to have existed in ancient Greece and headed west into Europe with the Romans.

Varied forms of football developed in British villages, but it was the English public school that formalised the rules of these games. Boys wanted to test themselves against others, but in order to do so, they needed to play the same game. Headmasters and teachers came to believe that football games would provide training in physical strength, discipline and manliness. Rules were necessary to ensure the rough games were played in a restrained civilised manner.

Not the founder

At Rugby School a plaque reads: ‘This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game A.D. 1823.’ However, there is little evidence of this, and the claim did not surface until over 50 years later. It is thought that Rugby School advanced the story in the 1890s to establish ownership of the origins of the game.

Public school origins

Eventually two distinct games of football emerged – rugby, named for Rugby School in Warwickshire where it was played, and the association game (soccer). This was named for the Football Association, formed by old boys of schools such as Eton and Westminster.

Initially the most distinctive difference between the two games was that in association football goals were scored by kicking the ball under a bar, and in rugby by going over the bar. (A try was simply an opportunity to ‘try’ for a kick over the goal.) Eventually the greatest difference came to be how the ball was propelled: rugby rules allowed for handling and running with the ball and association only allowed kicking. Under rugby rules, the ball could only be passed backwards, but in the association game, it could be passed in any direction.

New Zealand origins

One of the schools to adopt rugby was Christ’s College in north London. A young New Zealander, Charles John Monro, was sent there for his education in the late 1860s, and played the new game. At that stage football in New Zealand was a mixture of Australian rules and various old English games.

When Monro returned home in 1870, he persuaded the Nelson club, formed two years before, that rugby was better than the hybrid football it was playing. Monro and a club founder, Robert Tennent, suggested to Nelson College’s headmaster, Frank Simmons, a Rugby School old boy, that the school switch to the rugby rules. He agreed, and the first game of rugby in New Zealand, between College and Town, was played on 14 May 1870. On 12 September that year Nelson travelled to Wellington to play a Petone team – the beginning of regular annual contests between the two communities. Rugby had now got a start.

There have been reports of rugby being played in New Zealand earlier than 1870, especially in Wellington, but none can be verified.

How to cite this page:

Ron Palenski, 'Rugby union - History of rugby', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 May 2020)

Story by Ron Palenski, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Sep 2016