In 1823, during a game of football (soccer) at Rugby School in England, 16 year old William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it towards his opponents' goal line. The reaction of his fellow players or any officials is not recorded, but the advantages of playing the game in this natural fashion were obvious to Ellis's schoolmates who followed his example. And so the game of rugby was born.
Though this might be somewhat of an embellishment, for which our English brethren are famous, rugby’s roots are traced back to this time. The type of football played at Rugby School in Ellis's time was not soccer, but a game with a mixture of both soccer and rugby rules. Handling the ball was prohibited unless the ball was airborne, when the player was permitted to catch it. After catching the ball he would stand still, as did all the other players, and had the option of kicking it wherever he chose, or placing it on the ground and kicking for goal. It should also be noted that in those days at English Public Schools the pupils often developed their own rules for the games of football they played. So it is possible that Ellis, during some game of football, did indeed run with the ball, setting an example soon followed by others.
Whatever the case, the story of William Webb Ellis is too good to have been abandoned, and he even has an official headstone in the grounds of Rugby School with this inscription:
THIS STONE COMMEMORATES THE EXPLOIT OF WILLIAM WEBB ELLIS WHO, WITH A FINE DISREGARD FOR THE RULES OF FOOTBALL, AS PLAYED IN HIS TIME, FIRST TOOK THE BALL IN HIS ARMS AND RAN WITH IT, THUS ORIGINATING THE DISTINCTIVE FEATURE OF THE RUGBY GAME. A.D. 1823
By the 1840s running with the ball had become the norm, and by the 1870s rugby clubs had sprung up all over England and in the colonies. But different rules were being used by different clubs, and a meeting was held in January 1871, attended by representatives of 22 clubs, to resolve the situation. It was at this meeting that the Rugby Football Union was founded. The first international match between England and Scotland took place at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh on March 27,1871, resulting in a win to Scotland by one drop goal and one try to one drop goal.
Rugby is also the precursor of American football and has been played in the United States since about 1870. American football, as well as basketball, owes many of it’s characteristics to rugby. In fact, basketball was invented by James Naismith as an indoor alternative to rugby when the New England winters required an indoor game. Some of rugby's characteristics such as quick switches between attack and defense, ball handling and committing defenders to attack space are all found in basketball. Some people liken rugby to tackle basketball on grass.
Similarly, American football evolved with many of the same principles, strategies and tactics as rugby. In fact, between 1917 and 1919, during President Woodrow Wilson’s time in office, American football was stopped/postponed because of the large increase and severity of injuries on the field, and many of the heralded college rivalries substituted rugby for their football games during this time. Eventually the rules of football were modified and football again took center stage.
There are several obvious differences between rugby and American football. Rugby is played at a fast pace, with few stoppages and continuous possession changes. All players on the field, regardless of position, can run, pass, kick and catch the ball. Likewise, all players must also be able to tackle and defend, making each position both offensive and defensive in nature. There is no blocking of the opponents like in football and there are a maximum of seven substitutions allowed per team.
USA Rugby is proud to offer both non-contact and contact versions of rugby all over the United States, making it safe for all ages. Kids as young as five years old can get involved with Rookie Rugby and then progress through the USA Rugby ‘Rugby for All’ Continuum.
Want to know more about rugby? Read our Spectators Guide To Rugby below!
ORIGINS OF RUGBY – Rugby is the precursor of American football and has been played in the United States since about 1870. American football, as well as basketball, owes many of it’s characteristics to rugby. In fact, basketball was invented by James Naismith as an indoor alternative to rugby when the New England winters required an indoor game. Some of rugby's characteristics such as quick switches between attack and defense, ball handling and committing defenders to attack space are all found in basketball. Some people liken rugby to tackle basketball on grass. There are several obvious differences between rugby and American football. Rugby is played at a fast pace, with few stoppages and continuous possession changes. All players on the field, regardless of position, can run, pass, kick and catch the ball. Likewise, all players must also be able to tackle and defend, making each position both offensive and defensive in nature. There is no blocking of the opponents like in football and there are a maximum of seven substitutions allowed per team.
RUGBY ETHOS - All players, coaches, officials, parents and fans are encouraged to remember that rugby holds a unique place in American sport. It is an international fraternal sport that is based on hard but fair competition, and camaraderie. The International Rugby Board (IRB), the governing body for rugby around the world, Charter states: “Rugby owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is played both to the letter and within the spirit of the Laws. The responsibility for ensuring this practice lies not with one individual -- it involves coaches, captains, players and referees. It is through discipline, control and mutual respect that the spirit of the game flourishes and, in the context of a game as physically challenging as rugby, these are the qualities which forge the fellowship and sense of fair play so essential to the game’s ongoing success and survival. Rugby is valued as a sport for men and women, boys and girls. It builds teamwork, understanding, co-operation and respect for fellow athletes... It is because of, not despite, rugby’s intensely physical and athletic characteristics that such great camaraderie exists before and after matches.”
TIME OF MATCH - A match consists of two 40-minute halves (35 minutes for high school and youth), and there are no time outs. Play only stops for infractions, dead balls (when the ball is buried in a ruck or maul), or when the ball goes out of bounds. The clock only stops for injuries.
FIELD OF PLAY - Rugby is played on a field, called a pitch, which is longer and wider than a football field, more like a soccer field. Additionally, there are 10 meter end zones, called the try zones or in-goal area, behind the goalposts. The goalposts are the same size as American football goalposts.
THE BALL - A rugby ball is made of leather or other similar synthetic material and is best described as a large, over-inflated football with no laces.
PLAYERS & POSITIONS - Rugby has fifteen (15) players on each team. Everyone on the pitch plays offense and defense, and the number of each player signifies that player's specific position. Jersey numbers above 15 are worn by substitute players. Players numbered one (1) through eight (8) are forwards, typically the larger, stronger players of the team whose main job is to win possession of the ball. They would be the equivalent to American football linebackers and lineman. Players numbered nine (9) through fifteen (15) are backs, the smaller, faster and more agile players. Their main role is to exploit possession of the ball won by the forwards. Backs may be equated to running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks in American football.
Rugby Arizona (RA) oversees all youth rugby in Arizona, from elementary schools to the high school program. RA offers certification programs for coaches and referees, and creates a development pathway to collegiate rugby.
USA Rugby governs all rugby nationally with over 100,000 members, and is responsible for the development of the Men’s and Women’s National Teams. USA Rugby is an official member of the United States Olympic Committee and the IRB.
The International Rugby Board, or IRB, is the world governing and Law making body for the Game of Rugby Union. There are a number of tournaments under IRB control, including the Women’s Rugby World Cup, Rugby World Cup Sevens and HSBC Sevens World Series. The principal IRB property is, however, Rugby World Cup – an international sporting event surpassed in media coverage only by the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics and the Tour de France.
STARTING THE GAME - Just as in American football, rugby begins with a kickoff to the opponent from mid-field. Provided that the ball travels beyond the 10-meter line, any player from either team may gain possession of the ball. You may occasionally see players lift each other to gain advantage here.
MOVING OR ADVANCING THE BALL – Rugby, like soccer, is continuous. There is no blocking in rugby. Additionally, rugby does not have downs and it is not required to reach 10 yards and stop. The person with the ball leads the attack. There are only three ways to move the ball in rugby: a player may carry (run), pass or kick the ball. When a player is tackled or the ball hits the ground play is not stopped, unless there is some sort of infraction or the ball is considered dead or buried in a ruck or maul. The game is intended to be free flowing and continuous.
SCORING - There are four ways for a team to score points in rugby:
RESTARTING PLAY - There are three methods of restarting play following a stoppage caused by either the ball going out of bounds or because of an infraction of the laws.
TACKLES, RUCKS AND MAULS - Players carrying the ball may be stopped by being tackled by the opposing team. Players are tackled around the waist and legs, in general. Once a player is tackled, however, play does not stop as it does in football. A player who is tackled to the ground must make the ball available immediately so that play can continue. Supporting players from both teams converge over the ball on the ground, binding with each other and attempt to push the opposing players backwards in a manner similar to a scrum. This situation is known as a ruck. The ball may not be picked up by any player, until the ball emerges out of the back of the ruck. A team that can retain possession after the tackle and the ensuing ruck has a huge advantage. A maul is formed with a similar gathering of players, except the player in possession of the ball is simply held up, and not tackled. The maul ends when the ball emerges.
OFFSIDE - One of the more challenging aspects about rugby for a first time rugby observer is the offside law. Similar to soccer, the offside line is continually moving up and down the pitch. In most instances, the ball creates the offside line and players are not permitted to participate in play if they are on the opposing team's side of the ball.
ADVANTAGE - After an offense occurs, if the referee thinks the non-offending team might benefit by “playing on” they may play advantage. How much territory or opportunity is needed before advantage is gained depends on the violation