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Rugby: How the sport spread across the world

19 September 2019 11:39

New Zealand are reigning world champions

New Zealand are reigning world champions

It's time for kick off in Japan as the Rugby World Cup 2019 takes to Tokyo Stadium. But where did the sport originate?

In celebration of this year's World Cup tournament, let's look back to where it all began...

The birth of rugby

According to a plaque at Rugby private school in Warwickshire, England, rugby football began in 1823 when a pupil named William Webb Ellis got fed up with kicking the football around and decided to pick it up and run instead.

The idea caught on quickly and soon enough rugby had become a popular winter game at many British schools and universities. The Rugby Football Union was founded in a London pub in 1871 and the 'International Championship' between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland formed just over ten years later.

Passing the ball

The game was spread across the British Empire by British troops stationed overseas. Most notably, in 1874 the South African Rugby Football Union was established, followed by the New Zealand RFU in 1892.

Elsewhere in the world, other countries began to catch on – Romania learnt from France in the late 19th century, while Argentina picked up the game from English and Scottish immigrants.

Rugby was taken to Canada by British settlers, while rugby's American ancestry can be dated back to 1874, when McGill University in Montreal challenged Harvard. Even the Japanese caught on eventually, taught by British, Australian and New Zealand troops stationed in the country after World War II.

The question of professionalism...

In 1893 the game of rugby was torn in two as players began to want payment for their play. The Rugby Football Union frowned on this idea as it took the game away from its 'amateur' roots, and so the Northern Rugby Union, later renamed Rugby League, was formed.

Meanwhile, rugby union grew from strength to strength, with France welcomed into the International Championship in 1910, giving birth to The Five Nations – although the French were temporarily banned in the 1930s for paying their players.

An exciting landmark for Rugby Union came in 1938, when the first ever televised game saw Scotland beat England 21-16 at Twickenham. However, nothing was quite as exhilarating as the very first Rugby World Cup in 1987, which was co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand beat France 29-9 in the final, becoming the first world champions. The first Woman's Rugby World Cup came four years later, in 1991.

Pay the players!

Having fought off professionalism for over a century, in 1995 the International Rugby Board finally gave in. Removing all restrictions of payment, rugby became the professional sport we know and love today.

This year, the ninth Rugby World Cup is hosted by Japan and will feature 48 games spread across 43 days. All 20 competing teams are now united in one goal... lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on 2nd November.