William Webb Ellis statue at Rugby School
William Webb Ellis statue at Rugby School

Unveiled by the Old Rugbeian Society in 1900, the famous bronze plaque at Rugby School pays tribute to William Webb Ellis who, in their words, “with fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time at Rugby School, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game”.

However, given carrying and attempting to run away with the inflated pig’s bladder was the basis of many of the forms of folk football stretching back to Medieval times and earlier, as well as being part of Australian and Gaelic football, perhaps the credit, and indeed the innovation, is misplaced.

The truly distinctive feature of Rugby football is not picking the ball up from the ground, not even running with it – what stands Rugby apart is the hand-passing of the ball between teammates.

Passing or throwing of the ball, even handing the ball off to another, was not part of the game in Webb Ellis’ time, nor is it mentioned in Thomas Hughes’ celebrated account of a Rugby School football match in 1857’s “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”.

That’s not to say the early written laws of the game in the 1840s-60s banned it – they didn’t need to – the notion of tossing away the ball to another player was an affront to one’s manliness, akin to one running off in the face of danger.

While at Rugby School and England football traditions governed as forcibly as the written word, the divisors of the Melbourne FC’s rules in 1859 felt the need to add a final commandment: “The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown”. Many have retrospectively, and wrongly, presumed this was done to rid the Australian code of a Rugby trait.

Hand-passing of the ball in Rugby football did not arise until after 1877’s reduction from 20-a-side teams to 15-a-side. It first began as short-passing and handing-off of the ball close-in amongst the forwards, led by the Blackheath FC in England.

In open field though, whether a forward or a back, a ball-carrier running with the ball would end their run with a drop kick at goal or for territory, rather than look to pass to a trailing teammate.

In 1882 at Oxford University under the captaincy of Harry Vassall, the ball was for the first time thrown from scrums to the three-quarter backs, who took advantage of the open spaces available to them. It was quickly seen that the backs running upfield and utilising hand-passing could make tremendous gains in territory and run across the goal line for tries.

This was the arrival of the truly “distinctive feature” of the Rugby game.

As revealed in The First Lions of Rugby book, the 1888 British Lions brought this revolution in Rugby to the playing fields of Australia and New Zealand: —

“Before 1888 there were the old ways of Rugby. After 1888 there were the exciting and revolutionary new ways of Rugby. People would arrive before a game believing one Rugby philosophy and leave two hours later mesmerised by an entirely new understanding of the possibilities. There was no going back to old ways, there was no slow evolution. The game dramatically, radically, and irrevocably changed for the better—for both the player and the spectator.”

At what ratio a code moves from being classed as ‘foot-ball’ to ‘hand-ball’ can never be answered – none of the football codes absolutely deny use of the hands in moving the ball, not even soccer.

Rugby is not handball, but when you see the inter-play, combination, switches and variety of passes (wide or close-in) shown by the best teams, you have to be glad Rugby’s innovation and evolution did not end with William Webb Ellis running with the ball.

© Sean Fagan