Legend has it that the game of Rugby was invented in 1823 when William Webb-Ellis, a pupil at Rugby school in England, picked up the ball during a football match, and ran with it. True or false, the name Webb-Ellis was chosen to describe the trophy for the Rugby Union World Cup, first played in 1987.
We do know that the game of rugby football was first played at Rugby school and Albert Pell, an ex student at Rugby, is credited with forming the first team when he studied at Cambridge University. At this early stage in the development of the game, each school played with different rules. The first written ‘laws’ were produced at Rugby school in 1845.
Club rugby started in 1863 when Blackheath left the Football Association and formed a rugby football club.
The Rugby Football Union [ RFU] was formed in 1871 as the governing body for the game, and the first international match between England and Scotland took place on the 27th March 1871. By 1881 Ireland and Wales also had teams and in 1883, the first international competition was played and was the beginning of the ‘Home Nations Championship’.
The spread of the game worldwide started with the first overseas tours in 1888, when a British Isles team toured Australia and New Zealand, followed by a New Zealand Native team visiting Britain. This was the foundation for the future formation of the British and Irish Lions as a touring team.
Until this time the game was known as Rugby Football, but in 1895 arguments over the payment of expenses to players resulted in a split in the game, and the formation of Rugby League in the north of England. The original game was renamed Rugby Union and the two codes remain as different games with different laws to this day, although Rugby League has not spread around the world to the same extent as Rugby Union, and is not played professionally in Ireland. Gambling on Rugby however was starting to take place and become popular in Ireland and other countries.
Between 1905 and 1908, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia all sent teams to the Northern Hemisphere, and the first international involving a team from France also took place in 1905. For those interested in the history of the traditions of Rugby Union, Dave Gallaher’s New Zealand tourists in 1905 were the first to perform the Haka before each game, which prompted Tom Williams to suggest that Wales sang their National Anthem in response. This was the first time a National Anthem had been sung at any sporting event.
World War One put an end to international rugby union for the duration of the war, and this was mainly true during World War Two, although Germany, Italy and Romania did play some games.
1987 saw the first Rugby Union World Cup, which was held in Australia and New Zealand and was won by New Zealand. The Rugby Union World Cup is held every four years and has been won by New Zealand in 1987, Australia in 1991 and 1999, South Africa in 1995 and 2007, and England in 2003.
Ireland have reached the quarter finals on four occasions, but never yet progressed beyond this stage
The ‘Five Nations ‘ tournament first appeared in 1910, and was played between England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France, although France were excluded in 1931 through a combination of poor results and accusations of professionalism and on field violence. They rejoined in the 1939/40 season, although World War Two halted the competition until 1947. Italy joined the competition in 2000, and it is now known as the Six Nations. The equivalent competition in the Southern Hemisphere is known as the Tri Nations, played between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The International Rugby Board ( IRB ) was established in 1886, and now has 95 full members and 8 associate members, and bears witness to the global spread of the game.
Rugby Union is also played by women, and it is claimed that the first ladies team was started by Emily Valentine at Portura Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland in 1887, although there are also reports of womens matches in New Zealand and France. The first Rugby Union ladies game with photographic evidence was played between Cardiff Ladies and Newport Ladies in 1917, at Cardiff Arms Park. It is now played in over 80 countries worldwide.
The modern game of Rugby Union changed dramatically in 1995, when the IRB sanctioned professional Rugby Union. This led to the demise of a number of leading clubs in all the home nations and France, and the establishment of professional leagues. The cut throat business of professional sport, particularly in the smaller countries such as Ireland, Scotland and Wales gradually reduced the number of fully professional clubs in these countries to four each in Ireland and Wales and two in Scotland.
The last 10 years has seen massive upheaval in Rugby Union and many other ball sports, but has resulted in a concentration of talent in the leading clubs in all the northern hemisphere countries, and increased media interest and attendances at matches. England now has the Aviva Premiership ( formerly the Guiness Premiership ). France has the Top 14, and Ireland, Wales and Scotland have been joined by two teams from Italy to compete in the Magners League. Performance in all these leagues is used for qualification into the Heineken Cup, which has become the most important rugby union club competition in Europe. There is also a second tier European competition, now known as the Amlin Challenge Cup, which by virtue of numbers is dominated by English and French clubs.
The four Irish Rugby Union Clubs, namely Connacht ( Galway ), Leinster ( Dublin ), Munster ( Limerick ? Cork ) and Ulster ( Belfast ) are joined by Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys ( Swansea ) , Scarlets ( Llanelli ), Edinburgh, Glasgow Warriers, Benetton Treviso and Aironi to compete in the Magners League. This is played on a Home and Away basis throughout the season with the top four teams qualifying for the Play-offs at the end of the season, to confirm a winner. The Play-offs are a relatively new development, only starting in the 2009/10 season.
In the first nine years of the league, Irish teams have won the title 5 times and been runners-up 5 times. Welsh teams have won 4 times and been runners-up twice, whilst Scotland have been runners-up once.
Irish teams have also had an impact on the Heineken Cup in recent years, with Munster winning twice, and Leinster and Ulster each winning once.