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Player with rugby ball

The Rugby League World Cup begins on 26 October, with 14 teams taking part in the tournament across the UK, Ireland and France. But why, where and how did the world of rugby split into two distinct codes, having kicked off with the same oval ball nearly 200 years ago?


In any consideration of the evolution of Rugby Football, which encompasses the two codes of the game known as ‘Union’ and ‘League’, you need to know that the version known as rugby union came first. And the only other thing you need to know is that it was invented apparently on the playing fields of a place for the education of young gentlemen called Rugby School. Its inventor (according to contemporary accounts) was a chap called William Webb Ellis. According to a plaque at the school, it was 1823 when young Ellis ‘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’ and thus the game of rugby was born.


To understand how Rugby League came about you can comfortably rely on traditional British class stereotypes to see you through. As rugby became popular it was inevitable that people other than public school boys and the landed gentry would take it up. In the northern industrial towns rugby became almost as popular as whippet racing, pigeon fancying and modelling for Lowry paintings.


  1. Invictus; the Hollywood version of how South Africa won the rugby world cup for Nelson Mandela.
  2. This Sporting Life; dark gritty northern landscape illuminated by a hard-drinking Richard Harris as an increasingly battered rugby league star
  3. The Closet; French comedy starring Daniel Auteuil and well-known Russian actor Gerard Depardieu as a keen rugby player
  4. Bakgat; South African coming of age comedy about sex and rugby. The rugby authorities hated it, so it must be good.
  5. Forever Strong; Little known film about rugby in the US. Perfect fodder for bluffers.


All you need to know is that Rugby League is another form of the game, with ever so slightly different rules that lead to an awful lot more running around and considerably less intimate grappling in scrums.


Down south, rugby at the time was a strictly amateur pursuit. To pay a chap for playing the game was almost as ghastly a prospect as passing the port from left to right. And should you get an irksome knock of some sort, well, one’s valet would be able to cover most of the basic errands and help manage the family estate. However, up north some of the players had actual jobs which required the use of at least four fully functioning limbs. Pit owners didn’t take kindly to players hobbling up to work with a rugby injury. Moreover there were large crowds prepared to pay to stand around watching a game of rugby, and the gate money could comfortably extend to compensating players for their time spent training, playing and recovering. But the Southern officials would hear none of it. “Paying people to play would fundamentally change the nature of the game”, they harrumphed.


So a committee was convened (rugby people do love a committee) in Huddersfield. It lasted for three hours – it would have been longer but fortunately no-one had yet invented Powerpoint. Eventually it was decided that a breakaway league should be established specifically
allowing for the principle of compensating players for ‘broken time.’


The two codes of rugby toddled off merrily down their own separate paths, introducing subtly different rules as they went along. The Northerners playing Rugby League, with paying crowds to entertain, ended up spending more of the game running around and kicking and being interesting to watch. The Southerners playing Rugby Union, largely for their own amusement, ended up rolling around in a heap with their fellow players for rather more of the game.


Rugby School was where the fictional Harry Flashman – cad, bounder, coward, liar, cheat, and libertine – all the things that make an effective rugby player – bullied and blustered his way through Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Had he actually existed he would almost certainly have been responsible for rugby’s invention.


Because the game came about as a result of cheating and that was Flashy’s special gift.

DO SAY ‘The essential grace and beauty of the game transcends both codes.’

DON’T SAY ‘Those ferret-trousering types ‘oop north give the game a bad name.’

Happy Bluffing!

Steven Gauge and David Allsop

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