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Rugby union is one of the leading professional and recreational team sports in England. Rugby is thought to have been created in England in 1823, when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it during a football match at the Rugby Schoolmarker. In 1871 the RFU was formed by 21 clubs, and the first international match, which involved England, was played in Scotland. The English national team compete annually in the Six Nations Championship, and are former world champions after winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup. The top domestic club competition is the Guinness Premiership, and English clubs also compete in international competitions such as the Heineken Cup.


Rugby School and foundation of early clubs

Rugby School
Rugby in England is generally attributed to when William Webb Ellis "who with a fine disregard for the rules as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it" in 1823 at the Rugby Schoolmarker, although modern scholars consider that this story may be a myth. One of the earliest football clubs formed, some claim it to actually be the first, is the Guy's Hospital Football Club which was founded in 1843 in Guy's Hospitalmarker, Southwarkmarker, Londonmarker. The club played an early version of rugby football and was formed by old boys of the Rugby School. Subsequent clubs established in this period include Dublin University Football Club in 1854 and the Blackheath Rugby Club in 1858.

Football Association meeting and the subsequent forming of the RFU

The Football Association was formed at the Freemasons' Tavernmarker, Great Queen Street, on Lincoln's Inn Fieldsmarker, London on 26 October 1863, with the intention to include the most acceptable points of play under the one heading of football. However, disagreements over what was being excluded led the Blackheath Club to withdraw from the association which was followed by a number of other clubs. In 1870, Richmond F.C. published an invitation in the newspapers which read "Those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play". In January of the following year, 21 clubs meet at the Pall Mall Restaurantmarker and the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded.

First international and the schism in rugby

1871 engraving of the game.
On March 27, 1871, the first ever international match took place, involving the English rugby team and the Scottish. Scotland won the match, which was played at Raeburn Placemarker in Edinburghmarker. In 1884, England opted not to join the International Rugby Football Board which was formed by Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as they thought they should have greater representation on the board as they have the larger number of clubs.

By the late 1800s, the issue over broken time in rugby had become important, particularly in the North of England, where a larger working class played rugby compared to the south, thus their work and injuries they received whilst playing came into conflict with the rules of amateurism. With mounting pressure regarding player payments and veiled professionalism, on August 29, 1895 at a meeting at the George Hotel, Huddersfield, 21 clubs met to form the Northern Rugby Football Union and thus resigned from the RFU. The game of rugby league was formed from the disaffected clubs.

During this period, rugby was played between counties similar to the system of first-class cricket in England now. In 1907, Cornwallmarker won the county tournament and went on to represent Britain at Rugby union at the 1908 Summer Olympics. As the system was not particularly popular it soon ended.

All amateur leagues were outlawed by the Rugby Football Union in September 1900.

Twickenham and centenary celebrations

The 1910 opening of the RFU's new home at Twickenhammarker heralded a golden era for English rugby union. During the First World War, the Five Nations Championship became suspended in 1915 and it was not resumed until 1920. One hundred and thirty three international players were killed during the conflict. In 1923, a century of rugby was celebrated at the Rugby School, which saw an England and Wales XV play a Scottish-Irish team.

World War II

For duration of World War II the ban on rugby league players was temporarily lifted by the RFU. Many played in the eight rugby "Internationals" between England and Scotland which were played by Armed Services teams. The authorities also allowed the playing of two “Rugby League vs. Rugby Union” fixtures as fundraisers for the war effort (both matches were won by the rugby league teams playing rugby union). In 1958, long after the William Webb Ellis had become engraved as a legend in the history of rugby union, his grave was finally located by Ross McWhirter in the Frenchmarker town of Mentonmarker near the border with Monacomarker.

Formation of leagues

The RFU had long resisted leagues competitions, as it was thought that they would encourage player payments, thus most club matches were only organised friendlies, with competitions such as the County Cups and County Championship existing also. In 1972 the RFU sanctioned a knock-out competition, which was revamped in 2005 into a competition for top-tier English and Welsh sides now known as the LV= Cup. The league evolved over time since starting in 1987 when the Courage Leagues were formed, a league pyramid that had more than 1000 clubs playing in 108 leagues; each with promotion and relegation.


The Heineken Cup was formed in 1995 as a competition for twelve European clubs. Today the competition fields sides from England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. The century old competition for the European rugby powers became the Six Nations Championship in 2000 with the addition of Italy.

In November 2008 a proposal was made and adopted by the RFU to create a fully professional second tier of club rugby, to be called the Championship. It is intended to replace National Division One and is due to begin in 2009.

Governing body

The Rugby Football Union are the governing body for rugby union in England.


See also English rugby union system

Guinness Premiership

The 12-team Guinness Premiership is the top level of competition, it is fully professional but has a salary cap in place. The RFU Championship (formerly National Division One) and National League 1 (formerly National Division Two) are the next rungs down. The Championship is a fully professional league for the first time in 2009–10; League 1 is semi-professional. Below this there are many regional leagues. Attendances at club rugby in England have risen strongly since the sport went professional. Some clubs have good all seater grounds in the 10,000-25,000 capacity range; some have older grounds which are still partly terraced, and others play in council-owned joint-use stadia. Some clubs rent stadia from football clubs.

See: A summary of English leagues.

Heineken Cup

The Heineken Cup is a European club competition between the best teams from England, France, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. It is viewed by some as the top prize in European rugby for all teams.

LV= Cup

The Anglo-Welsh Cup, now known for sponsorship reasons as the LV= Cup, is the successor to a tournament founded in the 1971–72 season as the RFU Club Competition. It was originally a national knock-out competition for English club teams, and went through several sponsored names in the next quarter-century. Starting in the 2005–06 season, it was changed into a competition for Premiership clubs plus the Welsh sides competing in the Celtic League, now the Magners League. The EDF National Trophy was founded in 2005–06 as a new knock-out competition solely for English clubs, but Premiership sides do not take part. The strongest Premiership teams take part in the Heineken Cup and the rest of the Premiership takes part in the Amlin Challenge Cup.

British and Irish Cup

The British and Irish Cup is a competition founded in 2009–10 by all four Home Unions for lower-tier professional and semi-pro teams throughout Great Britain and Ireland. It features the 12 teams from the RFU Championship, six top teams from the Welsh Premier Division (the level below the Magners League), three Irish provincial "A" sides, two top sides from the Scottish Hydro Electric Premiership, and a side drawn from players in Scotland's national rugby academy. The 24 teams are divided into four pools, each with a single round-robin format. The pool winners then advance to knockout semi-finals followed by a final.

Daily Mail Cup

The Daily Mail Cup is the Englishmarker school's rugby union cup competition. The final is held at Twickenham Stadiummarker. Competitions are held at the U18 and U15 age group levels. At each age group there are two competitions, a cup for the better schools and a vase for lesser schools.

Middlesex 7s

The Middlesex 7s is the premier club-level rugby sevens event held in England (note, however, that international sides have taken part on occasion).

London Sevens

National sevens teams compete annually in the London Sevens at Twickenham, which is the next-to-last event in each year's IRB Sevens World Series.


The following games are considered derbies.


Rugby's recent success is in part due to England's recent 2003 Rugby World Cup success. In terms of average attendance, the Guinness Premiership is the third best attended club competition in England behind The Premiership and The Championship. The highest club attendances at Guinness Premiership matches are starting to become similar to some of the lower attended matches in football's Championship, with game attendances now averaging at 10,000 compared with 17,000 in the football Championship (figures from season ending 2005). Some teams- such as Sale Sharks- have (or plan to) move to new, bigger capacity stadiums. Others such as Bath are planning make extensions to their existing stadium.

Historically rugby union was a participatory sport rather than a spectator sport in England and attendances at club games were low. Leicester Tigers for example averaged less than a hundred spectators in the 1970s. However, attendances at Twickenham for the national team have always been very high. Games in the Six Nations Championship and Rugby World Cup have always been shown on network TV. Many people watch these games but don't follow club rugby, mainly due to the fact that the pay-TV Sky Sports owns the rights to the game broadcasts, and highlights are rarely shown on network television. The average England rugby fan is not necessarily very knowledgeable as a consequence, many people watch national games with little knowledge of the laws of the game.


According to the International Rugby Board England has 1,900 rugby union clubs; 6,060 referees; 362,319 pre-teen male players; 698,803 teen male players; 121,480 senior male players (total male players 1,182,602) as well as 11,000 senior female players.


Rugby union has often been considered, somewhat pejoratively, a 'posh' game. This may be historically linked to the split between Northern teams and the rest of the rugby fraternity over 'broken time payments', i.e. professionalism. This split led to the development of the separate sport of rugby league.

The amateur ethos made it difficult for players who could not afford to take time off work to play away games or to go on tour - an integral part of the rugby tradition. Rugby union in many parts of England is associated with fee-paying independent schools such as Stonyhurst Collegemarker or Sedbergh School who have historically provided many of the national players. It is also commonly played at Grammar schools, but Comprehensive schools in much of the country tend not to play the game. Research from 2003 stated that the majority of spectators are from the AB1 demographic group with a gender ratio of approximately 80% male and 20% female at live domestic professional matches. [266549] However, this is a general picture of the sport across the country as a whole and, in some parts of the country, the game has widespread grassroots support. This is particularly true of the Westcountry, especially in Cornwallmarker and in the cities of Bathmarker and Gloucestermarker, where the game is substantially more popular than football without significant class differentiation . In the Midlands, the game competes with football and the larger clubs, such as Leicester Tigers, Northampton Saints and Coventry, have considerable fanbases and strong traditions.

Due to the split with most of the Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs, rugby union remained more popular in the South and the Midlands than the North of England, although an outpost in the North East remained, such as through the Gosforth, West Hartlepool R.F.C.marker and Northernmarker clubs. This is changing somewhat with the relative success of Sale Sharks and Leeds Carnegie. Although four of the teams in the Premiership have historic links with London, three of these have now moved to neighbouring towns, and only Harlequins now play in the capital albeit in the outer suburb of Twickenham. At an amateur level, however, rugby remains strong in the London area.

Both the Welsh and Scottish Rugby Unions have expressed an interest in establishing Magners League teams in Londonmarker, most probably the existing London Scottish and London Welsh clubs. The English RFU has not yet responded.


English rugby union receives extensive coverage from major media outlets. Currently Sky Sports covers the Guinness Premiership and the BBC covers the Six Nations.

Current trends

Following England Rugby's success with capturing the 2003 Rugby World Cup, popularity of rugby union in Englandmarker practically doubled according to research that was conducted as part of MORI’s SportsTracker.

Prior to the 2003 World Cup, research estimated that around 18 per cent of all British citizens had an interest in rugby union (conducted in January 2003), ranking the sport eighth in popularity in England. In December 2003, shortly after England's win at the World Cup, the percentage was revealed to be 27 per cent, pushing the sport to second in England. A lot of the popularity was attributed to Jonny Wilkinson's famous drop goal in the latter stages of the final at the 2003 World Cup. A rise in match attendances, as well as interest in schools was noted.

Whilst rugby union was officially an amateur sport, many rugby union players came to play rugby league. In recent years this trend has reversed and some rugby league players have crossed codes to play union. [266550]

The national team

England playing Wales in the Six Nations.

England have enjoyed success from time to time with more Six Nations Championship titles and Grand Slams than any other nation. England contest the Calcutta Cup with Scotland and the Millennium Trophy with Ireland as part of the Six Nations Championship. They were World Champions from 2003-2007 and also made the finals of the 1991 and 2007 World Cups. The IRB currently ranks England at 5th out of 95 union-playing countries. They play their home games at Twickenhammarker in Middlesexmarker. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a song associated with the national rugby union team even though it was originally sung by black slaves on the cotton fields in the south of the U.S.A. Every four years the British and Irish Lions go on tour with players from England as well as Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

See also


  • Collins, Tony (2009); A Social History of English Rugby Union, Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-47660-7.
  • Richards, Huw A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburghmarker, 2007, ISBN 9781845962555)


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