Would You Know a Scrum if You Saw One?
These sports terms may be relatively unfamiliar in North America, but much of the rest of the world knows exactly what they mean. They are key elements of rugby—a game that shares its earliest history with soccer and American football.
The history of rugby and these other ball games can trace its roots back to ancient England. As early as the 10th Century, great mobs would get involved in games that involved kicking and throwing an inflated pig bladder through town streets and squares. Villages would compete against each other and any means short of murder could be used to get the ball across the goal.
To no one’s surprise such games were frowned upon by ruling authorities. In the 12th and 13th Centuries, no less than nine European monarchs banned these ball games. The kings weren’t so much opposed to the violence and the property destruction, but to the distraction the games caused from military training.
The Legend of Rugby
In the late 1700 and early 1800s, a more civilized type of mob football was a common pastime at English boy’s schools. Such games had very loose rules, but it was apparently understood that running with ball was right out. According to legend, that changed in 1823 when young William Webb Ellis, a student at Rugby School, picked up the ball and ran toward the goal. After Webb’s scamper, the attitude among spectators and players seemed to be, “Forget the rules, running the ball is cool!” (We admit they most likely didn’t say “cool” in 1823, but you get the idea.)
We will never know for sure if the legend of Webb Ellis and his jaunt down the field is completely true, but we do know that the debate over whether or not the ball should be carried continued for 40 years. On October 26, 1863, representatives from 11 schools and clubs met at the Freemason’s Tavern in London to once and for all hash out official rules of the game. One club, Blackheath, eventually withdrew from the debates after the group voted not to allow running with the ball or hacking an opponent. The other schools went on to form what became association football (soccer). The break between rugby and soccer was now official.
Laying Down the Law
Rugby students took the game, carrying the ball and all, with them when they graduated and soon rugby clubs were forming throughout England. The first known club in rugby history was started at Cambridge University in 1839. Matches were still played under fairly informal rules. In 1845, three Rugby School students established the first set of written rules. Still, not all clubs knew these rules or chose to abide by them. It was clear that if they game were to survive, some type of central organization was necessary.
In December 1870, Edwin Ash, secretary of the Richmond Rugby Club, placed a notice in the paper inviting all clubs to a meeting where the rules could be standardized. Twenty-two clubs attended the meeting and agreed to form the Rugby Football Union. By June 1871, the first formal set of rules in the history of rugby were called the 59 laws of the game. From that point they were written and adopted. (Quite a bit more complicated than soccer’s seven laws.)