Who Invented Rugby?

Rugby is enjoyed by millions across the globe, but many newcomers will be wondering who invented rugby when it was first introduced to the world.

Rugby is one of the most popular team sports played across the world, with millions involved in the sport in either participation or viewership. The continued popularity of rugby is increasing annually, with new fans being born in the United States and Canada throughout the modern era.


However, the popularity remains high in existing nations such as England, France, Australia, and New Zealand. But, many spectators often wonder who invented rugby, as it has come a long way since it was established in the 1800s.


You can learn more about the success enjoyed by the sport throughout history and find out more about who invented rugby here.

The Legend of William Webb Ellis

The man that is widely accepted as the figure who invented rugby is William Webb Ellis. The Englishman is credited with the traditional form of establishing the sport after picking up the ball and running with it during a football match in 1823. Legend suggests this was the official formation of the sport as Matthew Bioxam reported that this was the first instance of a player picking up the ball and running with it.


Bioxam doubled down on this stance in a letter to The Meteor in December 1880. He claimed that Ellis ‘disregarded’ the existing rules of football for an infringement using his hands. The journalist revealed that he believed that it was the first time that the standing rule of football had been disobeyed.


Nonetheless, the formation of the sport and Ellis’s history as the man who invented rugby has been questioned on a number of occasions. That included in 1895 when an investigation was conducted by the Old Rugbeian Society. The investigation found that they couldn’t find first hand evidence of the occurrence.


Plus, later reports, such as Dunning and Sherard in 2005, found that the investigation may have been conducted due to the growing schism into the split of rugby league and rugby union. But, Ellis is widely accepted as the man who invented rugby, and the World Cup trophy is named in his honor.

William Webb Ellis
Statue of William Webb Ellis outside Rugby School

Rugby School: The Cradle of Rugby Football

One of the credited intuitions behind who invented rugby is located in Warwickshire and the Rugby School. The school is a boarding educational establishment for pupils aged between 13 and 18, and is located in the town of Rugby. It is regarded as the birthplace of rugby football, with the game in which William Webb Ellis picking up the ball taking place on the field in Rugby. Nowadays it is still one of the best rugby school for beginners to learn and practice the sport.


Games of rugby football at the school during Ellis’s time at the school were organized by pupils, with teams and masters not setting rules that should be followed.


Early Rules and Evolution of the Game

Rules were often shared among those playing the sport during the early years at Rugby School, and there were no written laws of the game that should be followed. Rules were often modified and changed when new pupils enlisted at the school, but Ellis’s decision to travel with the ball in his hands changed how the sport was played in the future.


However, it was during this period that the initial rules of the sport were set. The first official rules of the game were established at Rugby School in 1845, before the Cambridge Rules were drawn up three years later. 

The impact that the school had on the future of the sport is undeniable, as it immediately put rugby on a national scale, before international visitors took the sport back to their homelands.


Rugby Calcutta Cup 1892
Illustration of the Scotland v England match at Raeburn Place in 1892.

Global Spread and Popularity

The first rules of the sport were established following an official document at Rugby School in 1845, but these were slightly amended by the Cambridge Rules in 1848. As well as having a direct impact on the rules that rugby would follow, the document would also have a significant influence on the laws of Aussie Rules.


The Football Association was established in 1863, with the organisation tasked with forming a unified set of football rules that should be followed. That included the exclusion of using hands and travelling with the ball using that method. As a result of the new rules, Blackheath Club left the FA along with a number of other clubs in favour of following rugby rules.


Their departure led to the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871, with the sport becoming known as ‘rugby football’. International fixtures would soon be staged in the 1870s, before it gained the attention of other nations


Overseas nations would soon catch on to the success being enjoyed by the sport, with a notable event being the British & Irish Lions Tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888. This would have a direct impact on the sport being embraced by locals, and was significant from a sport perspective as it was one of the first meetings between nations from different continents.

Rugby Union vs Rugby League: The Great Schism

By 1892, there was dissension in rugby as the growing popularity of rugby league was increasing. The roots of this new code of the game can be found in Huddersfield, as the Northern Rugby Football Union broke away from the RFU to set up their own competition. Similar schisms would also occur in Australia and New Zealand in 1907.


The big breakaway factors for teams in the North of England and Scotland were due to the fact that they were handed charges of professionalism after paying players for missing work. Rugby league was born following a meeting of 22 clubs in Huddersfield in August 1895, before the official name of the sport was founded in 1922.


The RFU didn’t take the decision of the Northern teams lightly, as drastic action was taken against the clubs, players, and officials. However, that stance backfired by 1904, as more clubs were affiliated to the Northern Union than the RFU. Slightly different rules were also adopted by clubs in rugby league in 1907 following the arrival of the All Golds.


Among the key differences in rules was the fact that 13 players would be on the field instead of 15. Meanwhile, ‘play the ball’ was a key factor after a tackle instead of a ruck. Line outs were also eliminated, while point scoring was also achieved in a slightly different way.

Line-out, Toulouse vs. Lyon OU, in a Top 14 match at Stade Ernest-Wallon

Modern Rugby and Its Impact

Rugby union has achieved global success throughout modern history, with much of the victories for the sport coming following the introduction of the World Cup in 1987. This standout tournament was first hosted in Australia and New Zealand, before further rugby international events were staged to boost the popularity across the world.


Those included the World Cup in 1993, which was also staged during the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. Professionalism was one of the biggest factors that have contributed to the success of the game, with the changes coming into effect in 1995. This has had a massive impact on the scale of the competitions that are staged in union, with the Heineken Cup quickly established following law changes.


Further afield, Super Rugby was also established as a way to take the game into the new era. Rules have continued to change throughout history to ensure that the game stays ahead of the competition. Some of the biggest developments that have been made in modern history relate to the safety of players following head injuries.


Temporary substitutions have been widely approved by fans and medical professionals. Meanwhile, the team sport has always been a step ahead of others when it comes to adopting technology in the best way possible. TMO’s are able to quickly get involved in matches to help make decisions for the on-field referee, with fans at home and in the stadium able to hear exactly what the officials are discussing.

Challenging the Traditional Narrative

Webb Ellis remains the legendary figure behind the man who invented rugby, but evidence has always struggled to uphold claims that he invented the sport. Ellis died four years after the claims that he invented the story were made, and doubts have continued surrounding his story since 1895. Among those that have dispelled the legend were classmates of Ellis, who claimed that handling the ball was ‘strictly forbidden’.


A number of theories have claimed that Ellis wasn’t actually forming the game of rugby, but instead playing Caid. According to the theory, Ellis was playing the ancient Irish game that would have been familiar with his father who was stationed in Ireland throughout his life.


Another interesting theory was presented by Gordon Rayner of The Sunday Telegraph, who claimed that Jem Mackie could have originally been the man who invented rugby. The reports claim that he was expelled from Rugby School after being part of the team that put together the rules of rugby football. In the report, it claims that Bloxam may have replaced Mackie’s role in the sport following his expulsion for an unspecified incident.

Uganda v Samoa (20 March, 2006). Uganda scores a try against Samoa.

Rugby Football Union Today: A Global Phenomenon

Nowadays, there are professional rugby competitions across the globe, with events taking place in major rugby nations such as England, Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.


However, there are also professional teams as far afield as South America, with Argentina, Brazil, and Chile all now playing competitive fixtures. Meanwhile, further global success has been achieved following the addition of Major League Rugby in North America, with eleven professional teams in the United States and one professional outfit in Canada taking part.


While the figure who invented rugby is still disputed to this day, it is hard to find evidence to suggest that Ellis wasn’t in fact behind setting the rules that established the sport in the modern day.


The sport has endured a troubled history following the schisms with rugby league, but its future has never looked brighter than it does in the modern day following new games such as Oval3 capturing the imagination.


However, the globalization of the sport could one day bring fresh inquiries as to the formation of the sport.

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