Understanding the Origin & Evolution of Sport 

Volume 1 - Rugby Union by Dai Richards

ISBN 978-0-9531714-1-5



There's no finer sight than a man who's picked up pace, running hard with the ball in hand, sweat glistening on his brow. There’s a hint of a swerve as he heads towards the line and the crowd looks on as he makes one last effort to reach the line. Then he sends the ball down to the batsman at the other end. Cricket — what a game. Its distinguishing feature is running with the ball. Over a day of cricket a fast bowler must cover at least a mile running forward with the ball in hand, and the crowd is there to watch just that. “Rubbish!”, I hear you say, and of course, it is. Cricket is all about scoring runs — if a team scores less runs than the opposition then they lose the game, no matter how far they've run with the ball.

Cricketers do, however, run forward with the ball far more often than Rugby Union players do, so why then is it that we think of rugby as a running game? Well, that’s because in 1895 a group of four Old Rugbeians decided that it was, and in 1897 they published a report saying that somebody else had said it was. When no disputes followed, in 1900 they placed a plaque on the wall of Rugby School explaining that running with the ball is the distinguishing feature of the game of rugby, and everyone at the time blindly agreed.

In my recent book published by Rugby Relics Ltd, I look at the 1897 publication "The Origin of Rugby Football" in closer detail. Unveiling previously unpublished information, the report is identified as one of sport's greatest confidence tricks. The 1897 report claims that Matthew Bloxam, a Rugbeian from before the time of Webb Ellis, identified the Webb Ellis event as the 'origin' of Rugby Football. What Bloxam actually said was that the event was the beginning of a change in one of the rules, and that running with the ball was the biggest difference between Rugby Football and Association Football, not the distinguishing feature of the game.

Through detailed analysis, the book shows that the objective aim of Rugby Football at the time of Webb Ellis was to score goals by kicking the ball over the crossbar. Both before the Webb Ellis event and after he died nearly 50 years later, in 1872, this was the only way you could win a game of Rugby Football. Even when in 1877 the objective aim of Rugby Union became to score more points than the opposition, the majority of points were still scored by goals. In fact, up until 1979 the laws of the game stated that if you scored a goal (conversion) after a try then the points gained from the try didn't count. In rugby, running with the ball is just one action among many others: passing, catching, tackling, scrummaging, jumping in the line-out and, of course, kicking. Whilst it may be argued that running plays a far greater part of Rugby Union today, it is still the goal and has always been the goal that is the main scoring method. In the 2017 All Blacks v Lions series, 75 points were scored by goals in comparison to 45 scored by tries. In Rugby World Cup finals to date, the ratio lies at 179:75 in favour of the goal. Throughout the evolution of Rugby Union, kicking the ball over the crossbar to score a goal has been its distinguishing feature.

Citing a number of different sources, the book demonstrates that Rugby Football existed before William Webb Ellis attended Rugby School , and concludes that this feted schoolboy couldn’t possibly have invented a game he was already playing. It’s certainly possible that Webb Ellis contributed to the evolution of Rugby Football, but the origin of the game must predate 1823.

When criticizing the validity of the Ellis event as the birth of Rugby Football, modern historians have tended to link its origin to 'folk or mob football' instead, because of the similarities in the style of play with the modern game. However, no link between Rugby Union and these ancient games can be found, and there is no evidence of another game or sport in which a ball was kicked over a crossbar having existed.

Through a more general analysis of the evolution of sport, I propose the following definition for the point of origin of a game or sport:

"The ORIGIN of a GAME or SPORT is the point in time at which a game/sport becomes identifiable as a single entity. From that point onwards it must have an evolutionary path, drawn either theoretically or through the provision of evidence, to the modern day version of the sport to be considered the origin."

Upon undertaking research of the history of Rugby School and of football at the school, I found that the game was first recorded as far back as circa 1783, with the oldest named player being Walter Savage Landor. Just five years earlier, Thomas James, a new headmaster and former Eton pupil, had introduced a brand new education system into Rugby School that was based entirely on Eton methods. Part of this system included a reward of 'play' for good work or behavior. That 'play' is thought to have taken the form of cricket in the summer and a variety of Eton Football in the winter. In his 1953 book on the history of the Football Association, Geoffrey Green states that Thomas James brought the 'Eton Field Game' to Rugby School, while I believe that it was most likely the little known 'Lower College Game', which ended in 1865. Both versions were reliant on the boys regulating and forming rules for the games, and both versions involved goals that were low to the ground. At some point the Rugby School boys moved their goals upwards, with their objective aim becoming to kick the ball over the crossbar.

Without conclusive evidence of when this happened, the book concludes that there are three possible scenarios for the 'origin' of Rugby Football, with the most likely being:

"There is a very high probability that Thomas James and/or James Chartes showed or advised the boys of Rugby School how to play Eton Football, or how to play a game with a similar style to Eton Football, circa 1778–1782. This game immediately became Football at Rugby School because it was played in a different location with different personnel to Eton Football. The game was self-regulated by the boys and at some point in time its aim became ‘to score a goal by kicking the ball over the crossbar’. It is that point in time, when this aim became a verbal rule, that marks the origin of Rugby Football. The abundance of Elm Trees in the Rugby School Close gives me reason to believe that this would have occurred very early on in the evolution of the Football at Rugby School game and that it may even have been the aim at its outset. I believe the probability of this being the origin of Rugby Football to be very high, with the actual date of origin to be sometime between 1778 and 1812, but most likely between 1780 and 1782."



The above illustration is from Rev. F. Marshall's 1892 book 'Rugby Football', showing the trees at Rugby School . Did the branches from these trees form the first crossbar?

This question is one of many asked and answered, in this, my first book. You may love or hate the way I deliver the narrative — I'm told it's a unique style — but whatever emotions it may stir, there is no doubting that this is the most detailed analysis published to date on how Rugby Football actually began, if I may say so myself.

Understanding the Origin & Evolution of Sport - Volume 1 - Rugby Union by Dai Richards - ISBN 978-0-9531714-1-5 - signed limited edition - available on amazon, ebay & www.rugbyrelics.com


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