The origin of rugby football is reputed to be an incident during a game of at Rugby School in Warwickshire in 1823, when William Webb Ellis is said to have picked up the ball and run with it. Although the story may be apocryphal, it was immortalised at the school with a commemorative plaque that was unveiled in 1895, and the Rugby World Cup trophy is named after Webb Ellis. Rugby football stems from the form of the game played at Rugby School, which former pupils then introduced to their universities.
Former Rugby School student Albert Pell is credited with having formed the first "football" team while a student at Cambridge University. The schools used different rules during this early period, with former pupils from Rugby and Eton attempting to carry their preferred rules through to their universities. A significant event in the early development of rugby football was the production of a written set of rules at Rugby School in 1845, followed by the Cambridge Rules that were drawn up in 1848.
Formed in 1863, (FA) began codifying a set of football rules. These rules did not allow players to run with the ball in hand and also banned hacking (kicking players in the shins). In protest of these two rules, the Blackheath Club left the FA followed by several other clubs that also favoured the "Rugby Rules". Although these clubs decided to ban hacking soon afterwards, the split was permanent and became "". Clubs that favoured the Rugby Rules formed the in 1871, and their code became known as "rugby football".
In 1895, there was a schism in England in which clubs from Northern England left the RFU over the issue of paying players. This led to the creation of the separate code of "rugby league". The existing sport took on the name "rugby union" to differentiate it from rugby league, but both versions of the sport are known simply as "rugby" throughout most of the world.
The first rugby football international was played on 27 March 1871 between Scotland and England in Edinburgh. Scotland won the game 1-0. By 1881 both Ireland and Wales had representative teams and in 1883 the first international competition, the Home Nations Championship had begun. 1883 is also the year of the first rugby sevens tournament, the Melrose Sevens, which is still held annually.
Two important overseas tours took place in 1888: a British Isles team visited Australia and New Zealand—although a private venture, it laid the foundations for future British and Irish Lions tours; and the 1888–89 New Zealand Native football team brought the first overseas team to British spectators.
, captain of the New Zealand Army team, receiving the Kings Cup from George V.
During the early history of rugby union, a time before commercial air travel, teams from different continents rarely met. The first two notable tours both took place in 1888—the British Isles team touring New Zealand and Australia, followed by the New Zealand team touring Europe. Traditionally the most prestigious tours were the Southern Hemisphere countries of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa making a tour of a Northern Hemisphere, and the return tours made by a joint British and Irish team. Tours would last for months, due to long traveling times and the number of games undertaken; the 1888 New Zealand team began their tour in Hawkes Bay in June and did not complete their schedule until August 1889, having played 107 rugby matches. Touring international sides would play Test matches against international opponents, including national, club and county sides in the case of Northern Hemisphere rugby, or provincial/state sides in the case of Southern Hemisphere rugby.
Between 1905 and 1908, all three major Southern Hemisphere rugby countries sent their first touring teams to the Northern Hemisphere: New Zealand in 1905, followed by South Africa in 1906 and Australia in 1908. All three teams brought new styles of play, fitness levels and tactics, and were far more successful than critics had expected.
The New Zealand 1905 touring team performed a haka before each match, leading Welsh Rugby Union administrator Tom Williams to suggest that Wales player Teddy Morgan lead the crowd in singing the Welsh National Anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, as a response. After Morgan began singing, the crowd joined in: the first time a national anthem was sung at the start of a sporting event.[nb 2] In 1905 France played England in its first international match.
Rugby union was included as an event in the Olympic Games four times during the early 20th century. No international rugby games and union-sponsored club matches were played during the First World War, but competitions continued through service teams such as the New Zealand Army team. During the Second World War no international matches were played by most countries, though Italy, Germany and Romania played a limited number of games, and Cambridge and Oxford continued their annual University Match.
The first officially sanctioned international rugby sevens tournament took place in 1973 at Murrayfield, one of Scotland's biggest stadiums, as part of the Scottish Rugby Union centenary celebrations.
World Cup and professionalism
In 1987 the first Rugby World Cup was held in Australia and New Zealand, and the inaugural winners were New Zealand. The first World Cup Sevens tournament was held at Murrayfield in 1993. Rugby Sevens was introduced into the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and was added to the Olympic Games of 2016. Both men and women's Sevens will again take place at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Rugby union was an amateur sport until the IRB declared the game "open" in August 1995 (shortly after the completion of the 1995 World Cup), removing restrictions on payments to players. However, the pre-1995 period of rugby union was marked by frequent accusations of "shamateurism", including an investigation in Britain by a House of Commons Select committee in early 1995. Following the introduction of professionalism trans-national club competitions were started, with the Heineken Cup in the Northern Hemisphere and Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Tri Nations, an annual international tournament involving Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, kicked off in 1996. In 2012, this competition was extended to include Argentina, a country whose impressive performances in international games (especially finishing in third place in the 2007 Rugby World Cup) was deemed to merit inclusion in the competition. As a result of the expansion to four teams, the tournament was renamed The Rugby Championship.