The winners of the Rugby World Cup tournament are presented with the Webb Ellis Cup trophy.
Many texts and articles say that Rugby football was invented in 1823 when Ellis, in a schoolboy’s soccer football match at Rugby School, picked up the ball and ran with it – thus giving birth to the Rugby code.
However is that really what happened? Was it really during a soccer football game?
Let’s begin with a clip that (though certainly amusing) repeats the common mistaken theme…that Rugby emerged from a soccer football game:
Here is what the commemorative plaque at Rugby School states:
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
From the above plaque we can readily discern that a new feature (running forward with the ball) appeared in the Rugby School version of football in 1823.
However, for that to be so, the Rugby School version of football must have been been in existence before 1823. What year football at Rugby School was first played is now impossible to tell – it clearly was not born in 1823.
Interestingly, the plaque does not state that Ellis picked the ball up from the ground.
Indeed, Rule 8 of Rugby School (in the first documented laws of 1845) still expressly prohibited a player from picking the ball up and seeking to run ahead:
“Running in is allowed to any player on his side, provided he does not take the ball off the ground, or take it through touch.”
Once the ball was on the ground all that could be done was to kick it – picking the football up from the turf was still illegal decades after Ellis had left the School.
Putting aside arguments as to whether the deeds of Ellis are a myth, the “distinctive feature” he is said to have originated in 1823 was running forward, with the ball in hand, towards the goal line after taking a catch.
The rules of Rugby School in 1823 allowed players to catch the ball, and to run backwards, but not to run forwards and attempt to score a try.
Ellis did not pick the ball up from the ground in a soccer football match in 1823.
The round-ball code was not born until 1863 with the formation of rules at the founding of the Football Association.
Of the modern football codes, Rugby is the oldest, reaching its bicentenary in 2023.
© Sean Fagan