The Roots of Rugby
During the Bronze and Iron Ages ancient Britons played a rough and tumble cross-country game that involved an inflated pig’s bladder. The Scots called it Ba Game, the Irish Caid, and the Welsh Cnapan. In Anglia, Germanic immigrants referred to that particular activity as Campball, and the Cornish knew it as Hurling to Goales. Across the channel, the Gallic races participated in a similar diversion that was labeled La Soule. To the frozen north the Danes competed in something that they called Knattlek.
Today scholars agree that the roots of all those oddly designated pastimes can be traced back to an ancient Greek game called Phaininda, which means “to pretend”.
The game was so named because the players attempted to move a ball forward whilst preventing their opponents from capturing it through a series of stratagems, tricks and feints. When the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC, the Greek game was taken back to Rome where the Latin name of Harpastum was bestowed upon it. After which, it was the Roman Legionnaires who saw to it that the dangerous and sometimes deadly game of moving a pig’s bladder down field was spread throughout the continent that was still waiting to be christened as Europe.
Medieval ‘Foote Balle’
Somewhere between the Roman invasion of Britain and the end of the dark ages the game of Harpastum became colloquially known as ‘Foote Balle’ in early medieval Britain. Although the spelling was often different, early games of ‘foteball’ were more like an unruly mob melee than an organized sporting competition. Contests were usually held between neighboring towns or villages, and often used as a means to end a family feud or settle personal vendettas.
Two teams comprised of an unlimited number of players, both mounted and dismounted, and of all ages and both sexes, would meet at noon, usually midway between opposing villages. The object was to get the ball back to a goal, which was often the square or public fountain, in one’s own village, by any means possible. Once the ball, which could be anything from an inflated pig’s bladder to a bundle of rags, was thrown into the air, the two teams would struggle to move that object to their village by kicking it, carrying it, throwing it, or hitting it with sticks and clubs. The field of play was not restricted in any way and the players followed the ball up hills, across valleys, over fields, through wooded areas, and even into rivers if need be. During the no-holds-barred match, injuries were common. Numerous players were maimed and many were accidentally killed or intentionally murdered to settle scores in pre-arranged ambushes. Win, lose or draw, play was abandoned at sunset.
‘A Murthering Practice’
Due to the human carnage and bloodletting inflicted on the masses by the game, and the damage it caused to local farms, villages, and commerce, football became an object of disapproval and derision amongst the well-heeled land and business owners. One detractor claimed that football should, ‘rather be called a frendle kind of fyghte than a play or recreation.’ Other critics with little sympathy towards the popular rowdy pastime labeled it as, ‘a bloody and murthering practice,’ or described it as ‘nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence.’ This combined with the fact that football lured both players and spectators away from their daily tasks, and the national duty of archery practice – archers at that time made up the backbone of the British Army – and the fact that the game was played on Sundays and disrupted religious holidays, incurred the ire of both church and crown. Due to the games many perceived evils and the noticeable decline in archery skills amongst the peasants, between 1314 and 1527, seven English kings put forth thirty royal decrees all of which banned the ‘murthering practice’ of football under pain of fine and imprisonment. The fact that so many royal proclamations had to be issued demonstrated just how popular football was to the impoverished serfs of medieval England.
From Countryside to Campus
By the late 18th and early 19th century, Britain’s population was gravitating away from an agrarian way of life to one that was more industrialized. Along with the change in profession from farmer to factory worker, football had also evolved into a somewhat more civilized mob activity. Its popularity however, was on the wane.
England’s public schools, when first founded, were initially intended to educate the sons of the poor. Noble as that endeavor was, by the early 1800s, the public boy’s schools were filled not with England’s underclass, but the sons of England’s upper-crust. The living quarters and teaching standards at what were meant to be low class learning institutions were not of sufficient caliber for the earls and lords to be. As a result of that inequity, and the fact that their instructors, whom the entitled pupils perceived to be socially inferior, the students armed themselves with swords, guns and explosives and rebelled! The riots were such that at both Winchester and Rugby Schools the army had to be summoned to restore order. As soon as peace had been reestablished – Westminster, Charthouse and Rugby, deemed it prudent to allow the boys to play the commoner’s game of football as a means to release their ‘aggressive tendencies’.
At that time football remained a full contact ‘mob game’ with very loose rules. Due to the catch, carry and ‘scrag’ tactics of the game, more than a few of the tackled lads at Winchester and Charthouse found themselves in hospital with serious abrasions or fractured limbs. The injuries were found to be the fault of the hard surface on which the game was played at those institutions. As a preventative measure, it was decided that the ball should remain on the ground and be kicked and not carried. Thus running with the ball was outlawed and the ‘Kicking Game’ that we now know as Football or Soccer was born. Rugby’s playing field however, was just that – a soft grass field. Therefore, the same catch, carry, and scrag method of playing ‘Carry Ball’ remained in play.
Rules, Refinement & the RFU
Like so many other sports played in Victorian England, it was the sense of fair play and the subsequent need for rules by which unfamiliar games prospered. With this in mind three Rugby School prefects drew up the first set of ‘Rugby rules’ in 1845. Before long, the former schoolboys, now fully grown men, formed clubs to broaden the appeal of ‘Rugby Rules Football’. Later in 1871, the 21 football clubs still playing the ‘carrying game’ agreed to abide by a single set of Rugby rules. Also, because the methods of play between the carrying and kicking variations of football were so radically different, it was decided that a separate organization devoted solely to carry ball should be formed. Thus the group broke away from the Football Association and formed a new body: the Rugby Football Union (RFU) named after the Rugby School football rules to which it prescribed … Thus giving the sport its present name. Back when there were no written rules and no referees presided over a match, the arts of tripping and ‘hacking’ or viciously kicking an opposing player; often with boots bearing sharpened nails had been, and was still an accepted form of tackling. As the clubs idly watched their playing strength dwindle due to that unsportsmanlike conduct, RFU rules were amended abolishing the injurious practice. Six months after the RFU was founded the first international match was played against Scotland in Edinburg.
The IRFB & Beyond
Due to an irreconcilable dispute over the aforementioned and highly contested inaugural international match, the home unions of Scotland, Ireland and Wales banded
together in 1886 to form the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB). England however, refused to join that organization. The RFU held out for four years, but as no home union team would play against England, the RFU finally relented and become a member in 1890. In 1930 the RFU and IRFB agreed that the member countries would all play under the laws as set forth by the IRFB. By the turn of the century, the style of carry ball had changed dramatically and the new sport of Rugby had gone global.
The sport of Rugby made its Olympic debut at the 1900 Summer Olympic Games which took place in Paris, France. Defeating Germany, the winner of what turned out to be the first of Rugby’s only four Olympic appearances was the home team of France. It was said that the Rugby event drew the largest crowd of all of that year’s events. Rugby next appeared in the 1908 Summer Olympics Games in London. The coveted gold medal was taken down under by the Australians. Surprisingly, it was the United States that captured the gold medal in the 1920 and 1924 Summer Olympic Games. Despite the fact that Rugby drew larger crowds than any of the track and field events, for reasons unknown it was dropped from the games after the 1924 Olympiad. However, in 2009, the International Olympic Committee voted that Rugby Sevens would return to the summer games scheduled to convene at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016.