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Rugby football

This article discusses the sport 'Rugby'. For other uses see Rugby.


General description

Rugby football, as a catch-all term, may refer to two related but separate team sports: Rugby League and Rugby Union.

Rugby League has become a popular professional and amateur sport in some regions of Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Semi-professional rugby league tournaments take place in France, Russia and many Pacific Island nations. Papua New Guinea regards rugby league as its national sport.

Nine "major" unions dominate rugby union: Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales. The "minor" union-playing nations include Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Japan, Namibia, Romania, Samoa, Spain, Tonga, United States and Uruguay. For further details see the List of international rugby union teams. Rugby Union ranks as the national sport of Wales, of New Zealand and of Pacific countries such as Tonga, Fiji and Samoa.

An old saying goes "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, and rugby is a ruffian's game played by gentlemen." Rugby union has a quite common image as a gentleman's sport: most private schools in rugby-playing regions play the union version of the game (often along with sports such as fencing and boxing). Rugby league, traditionally, has a reputation as a more "working class" pursuit.

Because of the nature of the games (full bodily contact with little or no padding), the rugby world frowns on unsporting behaviour, since even a slight infringement of the rules may lead to serious injury or even death. Because of this, governing bodies enforce the rules strictly.

Argentina-France Rugby Union match
Argentina-France Rugby Union match


Distinctive features common to both rugby games include the ovoid ball and the ban on passing the ball forwards, so that players can gain ground only by running with the ball or by kicking it.

Set-pieces of the Union game include the scrum, where packs of opposing players push against each other for possession, and the lineout, where lines of players attempt to catch the ball thrown from touch the area behind the touch-line (the sidelines).

In the League game, the scrum still exists, but with greatly reduced importance, and line-outs do not occur.

The main difference between the two games, besides League having teams of thirteen players and Union of fifteen, comes after tackles. Union players contest possession following the tackle, depending on the situation either a ruck or a maul occurs. League players do not contest possession: play continues after a tackle with a play-the-ball.

Scoring in both games occurs by achieving either a try or a goal. A try (at goal) involves grounding the ball over the goal line at the opponents' end of the field. A goal results from kicking the ball over the crossbar between the upright goalposts. Three different types of kick at goal can score points: the goal kick after a "try" has been awarded (which if successful becomes a conversion (of a try into a goal)); the drop kick; and the penalty kick.


See also: Football; History of rugby union; History of rugby league

The legendary story about the origin of Rugby football -- whereby a young man named William Webb Ellis "picked up the ball and ran" while playing football at Rugby School in 1823 -- has little evidence to support it. Pundits have dismissed the story as unlikely since an official investigation by the Old Rugbeian Society in 1895. However, the story has entered into legend, and the trophy for the Rugby Union World Cup bears the name of "Webb Ellis" in his honour (as does Ellis Park in Johannesburg a major international rugby union stadium), and a plaque at the school commemorates the 'achievement'

Various kinds of football have a long tradition in England and football games had probably taken place at Rugby School for two hundred years before three boys published the first set of written rules in 1845. At the time, a set of rules would be agreed between two teams before a match. Teams which competed against each other regularly would tend to agree to play similar rules.

Rugby football has strong claims to the world's first and oldest "football club": the Guy's Hospital Football Club , formed in London in 1843, by old boys from Rugby School. Around the anglosphere, a number of other clubs formed to play games based on the Rugby School rules. One of these, Dublin University Football Club , founded in 1854, has arguably become the world's oldest surviving football club in any code.

The Blackheath Rugby Club, in London, founded in 1858, has the longest continuous history of any non-university rugby club. The club also features in the history of association football (soccer): as Blackheath Football Club, it became a founder member of the Football Association (FA) in 1863. However, Blackheath withdrew from the FA just over a month after the initial meeting, when it became clear that the FA would not agree to rules which allowed running with the ball in hand (a fundamental part of the rugby game). Other rugby clubs followed this lead and did not join the FA.

By 1870 about 75 clubs, including Blackheath, played variations of the Rugby School game in Britain. Clubs playing varieties of the Rugby School game also existed in Ireland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, they had no generally accepted set of rules: the clubs continued to agree rules before the start of each game. On January 26, 1871, 22 clubs founded the Rugby Football Union (RFU), leading to the standardisation of the rules for all rugby clubs in England. Soon most countries with a sizable rugby community had formed their own national unions.

Games based on rugby football became immensely popular in North America. However, by the 1880s, these games had rapidly diverged from the laws of rugby used in most countries, and they became instead the basis of Canadian football and American football. Nevertheless, the origins of the North American codes of football left traces: the Canadian Football League's predecessor originally bore the name of the Canadian Rugby Football Union from its founding in 1884.

In fact North American football, especially in Canada, still frequently appeared as "rugby" until the middle of the 20th century. On the setting up of the modern CFL in the late 1950s, it assumed control of the Grey Cup from an organization that still called itself the Canadian Rugby Union (now Football Canada, the country's amateur umbrella organization for Canadian football). Only in 1929 did the Canadian national rugby union form -- the predecessor of Rugby Canada.

In 1886, the International Rugby Board (IRB) become the world governing body and law-making body for rugby. The RFU recognised it as such in 1890.

The 1890s saw a clash of cultures between working men's rugby clubs of northern England and the southern clubs of gentleman, a dispute revolving around the nature of professionalism within the game. On August 29, 1895 21 clubs split from the RFU and met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield in Yorkshire to form the Northern Rugby Football Union, commonly called the Northern Union.

For clarity and convenience it became necessary to differentiate the two codes of rugby. The code played by those teams who remained in national organizations which made up the IRB became known as Rugby Union. The code played by those teams which played "open" rugby and allowed professionals became known as Rugby League.

NRFU rules gradually diverged from those of Rugby Union, although the name "Rugby League" did not become official until the Northern Rugby League formed in 1901. The name Rugby Football League dates from 1922.

A similar schism opened up in Australia and in other rugby-playing nations. Initially Rugby League in Australia operated under the same rules as Rugby Union. But after a tour by a professional New Zealand team in 1907 of Australia and Great Britain; and an Australian Rugby League tour of Great Britain the next year; Rugby League teams in the southern hemisphere adopted Rugby League rules.

In 1948 a meeting in Bordeaux set up the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) to oversee Rugby League world wide.

On August 26, 1995 the IRB declared Rugby Union an "open" game and removed all restrictions on payments or benefits to those connected with the game.

Culture and humour

Because of its long adherence to amateurism, an ethic considered to have discouraged working class players, rugby union often has a reputation as a middle-class game. Exceptions to this occur in New Zealand, Wales and the Pacific Islands, where rugby union remained popular in working class communities. Rugby league retains great popularity among working class people in the English counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire, and in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland.

In the United Kingdom, rugby fans sometimes use the term "rugger" as an alternative name for the sport (though less so nowadays than previously, and mainly in relation to rugby union). Those considered to be heavily involved with the rugby union lifestyle — including heavy drinking, striped jumpers, girlfriends with the given name "Kay", et cetera — sometimes identify as "rugger buggers". Retired rugby union players who still turn up to watch, drink and serve on committees rank as "alickadoos" or, less kindly, as "old farts" (see W. Carling).

Rugby league supporters sometimes call themselves "treizistes", reflecting the French title of their sport (rugby treize). The epithet occurs almost universally in France, but its use has also spread to English-speaking countries.

Australians fall into three camps when it comes to naming the two codes of rugby: in New South Wales and Queensland, people usually refer to rugby union simply as "rugby" and to rugby league simply as "football". (The same perceived class barrier as exists between the two games in England also occurs in these two states, fostered by rugby union's prominence and support at elite private schools). However, in most states, "football" means Australian Rules Football, and there is no popular differentiation between the two kinds of "rugby". Areas in which all three codes are popular, especially the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, and the Riverina, generally use the names "league", "union" and "Aussie rules" to avoid confusion.

New Zealanders generally refer to rugby union simply as "rugby". and to rugby league as "league". In New Zealand, playing rugby union has a reputation as the epitome of manliness for both Maori and Pakeha, as symbolised by a haka (war dance) at the start of important games. Kiwis see "rugby" as the accepted substitute for military heroism and an excellent training ground for soldiering. If (as Wellington allegedly said) Britain won the Battle of Waterloo on the playing-fields of Eton, New Zealand long saw its role in the Empire as intimately connected with the rugby field. Popular Kiwi mythology sees the encouragement of New Zealand rugby in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the Imperial reaction to declining fitness in Britain's industrial slums.

Games descended from Rugby School rules

  • American football — called "football" in the United States, and "gridiron" or "gridiron football" in Australia
    • Arena football — an indoor version of American football
    • Touch football — non-tackle American football.
      • Flag football — non-tackle American football, like touch football using a token to indicate a tackle.

See also

National Rugby Unions of the IRB

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Last updated: 02-07-2005 15:31:33
Last updated: 02-21-2005 12:20:05