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Rugby football (usually just "rugby") may refer to two current sports, either rugby league or rugby union, as well as a number of sports through history descended from a common form of football developed in different areas of the United Kingdommarker.


A ball-game resembling rugby football was a game played by ancient Greeks called episkuros ( ). In Wales such a sport is called cnapan or "criapan," and has medieval roots. The old Irish predecessor of rugby may be caid. The Cornish called it "hurling to goals" which dates back to the bronze age, the West country called it "hurling over country" (neither should to be confused with Gaelic hurling in which the ball is hit with a stick called a hurley or hurl, not carried), East Anglians "Campball", the French "La Soule" or "Chole" (a rough-and-tumble cross-country game). English villages were certainly playing games of 'fute ball' during the 1100s. English boarding schools would certainly have developed their own variants of this game as soon as they were established - the Eton Wall Game being one example.

The "invention" of rugby was therefore not the act of playing early forms of the game at Rugby Schoolmarker or elsewhere but rather the events which led up to its codification.

The game of football which was played at Rugby Schoolmarker between 1750 and 1859 permitted handling of the ball, but no-one was allowed to run with it in their hands towards the opposition's goal. There was no fixed limit to the number of players per side and sometimes there were hundreds taking part in a kind of enormous rolling maul. This sport caused major injury at times. The innovation of running with the ball was introduced some time between 1859 and 1865. William Webb Ellis has been credited with breaking the local rules by running forwards with the ball in a game in 1823. Shortly after this the Victorian mind turned to establishing written rules for the sports which had earlier just involved local agreements, and boys from Rugby Schoolmarker produced the first written rules for their version of the sport in 1870.

Around this time the influence of Dr Thomas Arnold, Rugby's headmaster, was beginning to be felt around all the other boarding schools, and his emphasis on sport as part of a balanced education naturally encouraged the general adoption of the Rugby rules across the country, and, ultimately, the world.

Status of rugby codes in various countries

Rugby union is both a professional and amateur game, and is dominated by first tier unions: Argentinamarker, Australia, Englandmarker, Fijimarker, Francemarker, Irelandmarker, Italymarker, New Zealandmarker, Scotlandmarker, South Africa, and Walesmarker. Rugby Union is administered by the International Rugby Board (IRB). Rugby union is the national sport in New Zealand, South Africa and Wales. Second and Third tier unions include Canadamarker, Chilemarker, Georgiamarker, Japanmarker, Mexicomarker, Namibiamarker, Portugalmarker, Romaniamarker, Samoamarker, Spainmarker, Tongamarker, United Statesmarker and Uruguaymarker.

Rugby league is also both a professional and amateur game, administered on a global level by the Rugby League International Federation. In addition to the countless amateur and semi-professional competitions in countries such as the United Statesmarker, Russiamarker, Lebanonmarker and across Europe and Australasia, there are two major professional competitions worldwide—the Australasian National Rugby League and the European Super League.


Distinctive features common to both rugby codes (league and union) include the oval ball and the ban on passing the ball forward, so that players can gain ground only by running with the ball or by kicking it. As the sport of rugby league moved further away from its union counterpart, rule changes were implemented with the aim of making a faster-paced, more try-orientated game.

The main differences between the two games, besides league having teams of 13 players and union of 15, involve the tackle and its aftermath:
  • Union players contest possession following the tackle: depending on the situation, either a ruck or a maul can occur. League players may not contest possession after making a tackle: play is continued with a play-the-ball.
  • In league, if the team in possession fails to score before a set of six tackles, it surrenders possession. Union has no six-tackle rule; a team can keep the ball for an unlimited number of tackles before scoring as long as it maintains possession and does not commit an offence.

Set pieces of the union code include the scrum, where packs of opposing players push against each other for possession, and the lineout, where parallel lines of players from each team, arranged perpendicular to the touch-line (the side line) attempt to catch the ball thrown from touch (the area behind the touch-line).

In the league code, the scrum still exists, but with greatly reduced importance as it is rarely contested and involves far less players making the scrum academic. Set pieces are generally started from the play-the-ball situation. Many of the rugby league positions have similar names and requirements to rugby union positions but there are no flankers in rugby league.


In the UK, an old saying goes "Football is a gentleman's game played by thugs and rugby is a thug's game played by gentlemen". In most rugby-playing countries, rugby union is widely regarded as an "establishment" sport, played mostly by members of the upper and middle classes. For example, many students at private schools and grammar schools play rugby union. By contrast, rugby league has traditionally been seen as a working and middle class pursuit. A contrast to this ideology is evident in the neighbouring unions of England and Wales. In England the sport is very much associated with the public schools system (i.e. independent/private schools). In Ireland, rugby union is also associated with private education and the "D4" stereotype, and this image of the spoilt, ignorant, wealthy rugby-playing jock inspired the best-selling Ross O'Carroll Kelly novels. In Wales, rugby is associated with small village teams which consisted of coal miners and other industrial workers playing on their days off. In Australia support for both codes is concentrated in New South Walesmarker, Queenslandmarker and the Australian Capital Territorymarker (see Barassi Line). The same perceived class barrier as exists between the two games in Englandmarker also occurs in these states, fostered by rugby union's prominence and support at private schools.

Exceptions to the above include New Zealandmarker, Walesmarker, Francemarker except Parismarker, Cornwallmarker, Gloucestershiremarker, Somersetmarker, the Borders region of Scotland, County Limerickmarker in Ireland (see Munster), and the Pacific Islands, where rugby union is popular in working class communities. Nevertheless, Rugby League is perceived as the game of the working class people in northern England, and in the Australian states of New South Walesmarker and Queenslandmarker.

In the United Kingdom, rugby union fans sometimes use the term "rugger" as an alternative name for the sport, (see Oxford '-er'). Also the kick off is known to be called "Rug Off" in some regions. New Zealanders generally refer to rugby in general as "footy" or "football", rugby union simply as either "rugby" or "union" and to rugby league as "rugby league" or "league". In the U.S., people who play rugby are sometimes called "ruggers", a term little used elsewhere except facetiously. Those considered to be heavily involved with the rugby union lifestyle—including heavy drinking and striped jumper—sometimes identify as "rugger buggers".

See also


  1. Episkuros, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  2. Origin of Ball Games
  3. Nigel B. Crowther, Sport in Ancient Times (Praeger Series on the Ancient World), Praeger Publishers, January 2007
  4. Quotations. The quotation has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, it is redolent of Wilde's style, and he is known to have made verifiable quips about the game e.g "My drinking team has a rugby problem". It has been attributed elsewhere to Kipling.
  5. Phillips, Buchler. Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence to Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. [1]
  6. Sommerville, D. (1997). The Encyclopedia of Rugby Union. Aurum Press, UK. ISBN 1854104810.
  7. Collins, T. (2005). "Australian Nationalism and Working-Class Britishness: The Case of Rugby League Football." History Compass, Vol. 3, No. 1.
  8. Collins, T. (1998). Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football (London).
  9. Rugger: * OED:Rugger "Slang or colloquial alteration of RUGBY (in the sense of 'Rugby football'). Freq. attrib. rugger-tackle". * Tony Collins, Football, rugby, rugger?, BBC sound recording with written transcript, and a comment in prose by Jonnie Robinson, Curator, English accents and dialects, British Library Sound Archive.)
  10. The New Zealand Pocket Oxford Dictionary. ISBN 0195583795.

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