History of Rugby League

Football was played by the Greeks and Romans in ancient times and was most likely introduced to the British Isles during Roman occupation. The game took the form of two teams who threw the ball in an attempt to carry it to the goal line at the opposite end of the pitch. This game survived in the Eastern counties of England through to the nineteenth century, perhaps owing to the heavy Roman presence in this area. Other forms of the game existed in other areas of the Country, such as "Hurling" which was popular in Cornwall.

The Welsh also played a version of the game in the Middle Ages which used a wooden ball and had some players on horseback who were armed with large wooden bats. These somewhat barbaric games diminished as society became more civilised, and the game developed from an amalgamation of all these games into the sport we know today at the school of Rugby. Many variations were played at the school, depending on conditions allowing it to remain spontaneous and uncomplicated. William Web Ellis, a pupil at the school, is credited with being the first person to pick up the ball and run with it. This event is thought to have taken place in 1816 and although being a total disregard for the rules, became the most significant step in developing the rules that are in place today.

Running with the ball became legalized in the sport in 1841, although there is huge debate surrounding the events which preceded this and this continues to provide much work for scholars and sports enthusiasts alike. The game known as Rugby, borrowing its name from the school where Ellis had played, was played mainly in public schools throughout England in the nineteenth century. Various sets of rules were proposed, the most famous being the "Laws of Football Played at Rugby School 1845" and by 1862 most schools in the country were playing according to the rules set out at Rugby. The game took hold in Universities and Gentlemen’s clubs also, and by 1863 a football association was set up.

The Rugby Football Union was established in 1871 with 21 English clubs meeting to discuss the future of the sport. 1895 saw the formation of the Northern Rugby Football Union which aimed to support players who could not afford to take time off work to play without financial compensation. This highlighted class issues within the game that led to the eventual changing of the laws in 1906 which separate Rugby League and Rugby Union.

In 1922 the Northern Rugby Union, typically the strand of the game seen to be more working class, adopted the name Rugby League for their set of rules and the new sport was born. The sport was already being played worldwide at this time, with the New Zealand, Australian and British teams touring each other’s countries. It spread to France in the 1930s and 1954 saw them host the first Rugby League World Cup. The sport is now played by over 30 countries worldwide, with New Zealand, Australia and Northern England being the leading areas. The game is becoming increasingly popular in Europe and through the Pacific and there are a significant number of competitions each year.