In 1823 at Rugby School, William Webb Ellis showed “a fine disregard for the rules” by picking up the football he was supposed to be kicking and running with it instead.

A report in the Guardian shortly before the 2019 World Cup cast doubt on whether Webb Ellis did actually do as history suggests. 

However, as they say in the classic western, The Man who shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Indeed, the International Rugby Board (IRB) have validated the legend by naming the Rugby World Cup trophy after him, so who are we to argue with them?

Come on a whistle-stop tour through the last two centuries and look at some of the key events and developments in the 200-year evolution of rugby.

The origins of the game at Rugby School

To measure how far rugby has travelled on such a historical journey, you first need an idea of where it started. 

Tom Brown’s Schooldays is set at Rugby School around the same time that Webb Ellis was there and gives you an idea of the brutality of English public schools, so there is little doubt that the earliest iterations of rugby would have reflected that. 

However the first laws of the game, set out in 1845, do reveal that some of the features you would recognise today were already present. 

The stipulation that there should be no more than two matches in a week, and one had to be on a Saturday will certainly resonate with you. 

Expressions such as “knock-on”, “offside”, and “try” are all ones you will obviously recognise, as well as the confirmation that a ball out of play was “in touch”.

The development of club rugby

To play rugby up until the late 1850s, you either had to:

  • Attend one of a limited number of schools where the game was played
  • Work in a particular establishment at which groups of former pupils had banded together to continue to play the game. 

All that changed in 1858 when former students of Blackheath Preparatory School in south-east London formed the first “open” rugby club, Blackheath, by allowing non-pupils to join. 

Other open clubs followed as the game started to spread around the country, and rugby became a sport anyone could play. 

1871: the formation of the Rugby Football Union and first codification of the laws

In January 1871, representatives from 21 clubs met in London to form the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and set out the first codified laws of the game. 

Reading those laws today, you will be struck by how little has changed in the ensuing 150 years since they were written.

The most contentious and noteworthy of these was Law 57, which stated that “No hacking or hacking over or tripping up shall be allowed under any circumstances.” 

The effect of that was to make tackling an opponent with your arms the only legal way to stop them, which is the basis of how you play the game today. 

1905: the All Black “originals” revolutionise how the game is played 

By the start of the 20th century, rugby was in something of a rut.

The “great schism” of 1895, when a swathe of northern clubs left the RFU to form their own professional league, had deprived the game of many of the top players, and had created a potentially lucrative occupation for any union player who may be tempted to head north.

Rather than trying to accommodate the division, the RFU doubled down and forbade any players to have anything to do with the northern code. This created rancour and distrust that lasted for the best part of a century. 

However, the first All Blacks tour to the UK in 1905 invigorated the game and showed it a way forward.

Known as the “originals”, they lost only one of their 35 matches and finished with an extraordinary points differential of 976 to 59.

You will struggle to overstate the effect that tour had on the development of the game from a tactical perspective. 

For example, the All Blacks virtually invented the idea of half-backs with two players linking the forwards and backs, and for the first time forwards were given specific roles in the scrum, rather than packing down randomly. 

The inter-war period and the development of tactics and playing styles

For the next three decades, rugby sought to both mimic and emulate the tactical developments introduced by the All Blacks.

In the early 1920s, the tactic of the number eight controlling the ball at the back of the scrum as it advanced was introduced. 

Soon after that Wavell Wakefield, of Harlequins and England and a flanker himself, developed the idea of back-row forwards being mobile all over the pitch, rather than the more static role of the other forwards. 

There were off-pitch developments too, with the first live radio broadcast of a match in 1927, followed by the first televised game in 1938.

Stagnation, and another All Black-inspired upheaval

The entry of France expanded the Home Nations tournament to the Five Nations in 1947. Their mix of physicality and Gallic flair won them a first championship within just seven years. 

There were skilful and entertaining players elsewhere too, such as Jackie Kyle, Richard Sharp, and Cliff Bennett. However, they seemed stifled by the conservative nature of the way the game was played, and the resistance among rugby authorities to amend the laws to help open the game up.

A nadir was reached in the mid-60s when a Wales versus Scotland international featured no less than 111 lineouts, and the 1966 Five Nations championship averaged just 13 points a game. 

It took another All Blacks tour, in 1967, to reinvigorate the game. A subsequent book about that was titled The team that changed rugby forever for good reason. Their combination of forward strength with skill in the backs meant they remained unbeaten all tour.

Lessons were learnt by the home nations, to such an extent that, within four years, the 1971 Lions were able to beat the All Blacks in their own country. They then proved that was no fluke by going unbeaten through their next tour to South Africa three years later.

Wales provided the spine of those Lions teams, and their team dominated the 70s with their own mix of skill, pace, and forward dominance. 

Professionalism drives the game forward

A hundred years after the original amateur/professional split, came the biggest catalyst for change. In August 1995, rugby authorities bowed to the inevitable and accepted professionalism into the sport. 

With all top players becoming full-time professionals, there was more time for training and player development. Fitness levels improved, and the game became quicker and more intense as a result. 

The increasing speed of the game, and the fact that players now see it as a livelihood, has driven safety concerns, resulting in changes to the laws that have looked to make the game safer, and keep play moving. 

Clubs, too, want to protect their assets. There has been a careful balancing act of making the game more exciting to attract an audience, while not losing the intrinsic physical nature of the sport. 

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Please note

This article is for information only. Please do not act based on anything you might read in this article. All contents are based on our understanding of HMRC legislation, which is subject to change.