It may be reasonably assumed that anyone who is interested in the history of rugby in their own town would have an interest in how rugby developed elsewhere – especially as the mood of a nation like Wales seems intricately bound to the progress of its national rugby team. What follows are brief histories of rugby union as it started in England and then spread out, first to the other home countries, and later to the former 'colonies' as the English so quaintly called other regions and peoples who had the dubious distinction of coming under their rule.

History of rugby in England
History of rugby in Wales
History of rugby in Scotland
History of rugby in Ireland
History of rugby in France
History of rugby in New Zealand
History of Rugby Union
History of Rugby League
Chronology of Rugby League in Wales

The long haul from a pub to Twickenham

Pupils of the Public Schools (primarily Rugby) spread the game in the first half of the 19th Century. They took it to the Universities (a club forming at Cambridge in 1839), to London (where Blackheath were founded in the 1860s) and the provinces (Manchester and Liverpool leading the way in the north).

In 1871, 21 English clubs met at a London hostelry to form the Rugby Football Union (RFU). There would have been 22, but the Wasps' representative went to the wrong pub, enjoyed the fare there and never reached that inaugural meeting.

England's early international sides (in the 1870s) comprised mainly Old Rugbeians or Marlburians . Most were selected from Oxbridge, who set up their annual Varsity match in 1872. Oxford became the first senior club to dominate the game in England, making an unbeaten 58-match run in the early 1880s.

By the 1890s, the north of England was making its contribution to the national side. There, the county championship was the focal point of the game with Yorkshire and Lancashire having a duopoly of the competition's early years.

But a storm was brewing. The RFU and its northern clubs disagreed over the question of remuneration for "broken time" payments – not payment for playing the game, but compensation for loss of working time. This was a particular problem for northern players who were predominately working men.

Matters reached a head in 1895 with a split that led to the formation of the Northern Union, later Rugby League. English rugby suffered dreadfully and it was not until 1910 that the national side restored its pride by next winning the International Championship.

That title coincided with the opening of Twickenham and the rise of the Harlequins club, whose effective brand of attacking football led to a purple period in the years leading up to the Great War.

England benefited from the Harlequin approach to the extent that from 1913 to 1924 the Grand Slam was collected five times in seven seasons (there being no games between 1914 and 1920 owing to the First War and its after effects.) English rugby would have to wait nearly 70 years for another Golden Era.

The period between the Wars was notable for the advances made by the Northampton, Leicester and Coventry clubs in the Midlands and Bristol and Gloucester in the West Country. In the 1950s and 1960s these sides regularly contributed players to the England side and each took its turn to shine at club level.
Yet for all their playing resources, England could not find a team to do the nation justice on the field. True, in the late 1950s England went through eleven successive Five Nations matches unbeaten, but the 1957 Grand Slam was their last for 23 years.

By 1980, the RFU had already successfully launched a Cup competition (instituted in 1972 and dominated early on by Coventry and later Leicester), but without a League structure to bring the best players into regular contact, the promise of Bill Beaumont's Grand Slam quickly evaporated.

At length, in 1987 the leagues were launched and English rugby hasn't looked back since. Bath, Leicester and occasionally Wasps have dominated that scene to date, while the intensity of the competition has brought dividends at international level. (Between 1991 and 1999 England carried off the Grand Slam three times and won six Triple Crowns).

The dawning of the professional era in the late 1990s brought new entrepreneurs to the major clubs. The rise of Saracens – who'd have ever dreamt of world class rugby in Watford ten years ago? – and the resurgence at Newcastle have brought new playing strengths to the old order and increased support for the game in previously uncharted territory.

The RFU must be very pleased with its work to date. Who can blame them for not wanting to be part of a British League that, let's face it, wouldl primarily help the Celtic nations to improve.


16 year old William Webb Ellis of Rugby School, Warwickshire, is supposed to picked up a soccer ball and ran with it in 1823 but the game that he invented appears not to have reached Wales until the 1850s. Although several clubs had been in existence since the mid 1870's the Welsh Rugby Union was not formed until 1880 and it now has a total of 222 member clubs. Their first International match quickly followed the union's formation, against England at Blackheath in February 1881, and after a heavy defeat for the Welsh the English refused to play against them the next season.

However the strength of Welsh rugby developed over the following years, primarily thanks to the 'big four' South Wales clubs of Newport (who lost only seven games between 1891 and 1895), Cardiff, Llanelli (who lost just twice in 1894 and 1895) and Swansea. By the turn of the century Wales were nearly invincible winning the championship six times and being runners up also on six occasions in the first 12 years of the new century. During that period they lost only seven games and famously beat the 'invincible' All Blacks at Swansea in 1905.

Similar periods of great success have followed in the 50's and the 70's, when they won the Championship six times in 10 years. Their worst period in International Rugby was during the 20's when the rugby side seemed to mirror the industrial recession, which was felt particularly hard in South Wales.

Over the years there have been a succession of players who have made significant contributions to the world rugby stage, such as Reggie Gibbs, Cliff Morgan, Mervyn Davies and Gareth Edwards. The Welsh have also made a significant contribution off the field. It was they who first advocated the use of replacements in test rugby in the late sixties, and more recently former Welsh Union President Vernon Pugh has been a leading light on the International Board and the development of the Professional game. The World Cup, staged by Wales in 1999, also marked the opening of their magnificent new Millennium stadium.

The 'big four' clubs of the early years continue to be amongst the most powerful in the game, with all four recording momentous victories over touring test teams down the years. The league and cup structure in Wales continues to be strong, and it has been the Welsh drive to encompass a British Isles league which brought the Welsh/Scottish Premiership and a Celtic league in 2001.


Although the SRU was not formed until 1873 Scotland took part in the first ever test against England in March 1871 in Edinburgh. The Scots have over the years been the architects of several notable innovations within the game. Seven a side rugby was first played at Melrose in 1883, and the clubs annual tournament is still one of the most respected, while the worlds first purpose built rugby ground was opened at Inverleith, near Edinburgh in 1899.

Scotland were also the first of the British Isles Unions to run a truly nation-wide club league. This was introduced in 1973 and still flourishes today with several of the country's original clubs still very much in evidence, such as West of Scotland, Watsonians and the famous 'border' clubs such as Gala, Hawick, Kelso and Melrose. However the advent of professionalism saw Scotland's District championship abandoned and two 'Super Districts' formed, which have resulted in the top players generally being unavailable for their clubs.

The Districts competed in a league against the Welsh clubs for the first time this in 2000 and have been Scotland's two representative in Europe, although a Scottish side has never reached the quarter finals of the European competition.

Grand Slam winners on three occasions, the Scots have also won the Triple Crown a further seven times. Their most notable recent achievements were the Grand Slam of 1990 and the Championship win last season, which were both achieved against expectations, with the former being all the sweeter for their defeat of the 'auld enemy'.

Scotland have produced an impressive list of top quality players over the years ranging from turn of the century forward Mark Morrision through Ian Smith and Ken Scotland to the more modern heroes, such as Sandy Carmichael, Gavin Hastings, and Gary Armstrong. And of course Scotland has also produced for many the voice of rugby, Bill McLaren.


Although the Irish Rugby Football Union was formed in 1874 club rugby had been played in the country for many years before that. Trinity College Dublin claims to be one of the oldest clubs in Ireland, having been formed in 1854, while North of Ireland FC soon followed in 1859.

Ireland played their first test match against England at the Oval in 1875, but it was not until 1881 that they first won a test, against Scotland at Ormeau in Belfast.
During the 1880's the four provincial branches of the IRFU first ran cup competitions and although these tournaments still take place every year their significance has been diminished by the advent of an All Ireland league. This was first held, with two divisions in 1990, and since then has developed to highly competitive four divisions. In the 10 seasons since its introduction the league has never been won by a club from outside of Munster, with Shannon laying claim to the title of greatest ever Irish club side by winning the title for four years in succession from 1994-1998.

The four provinces have played an Inter provincial Championship since the 1920's and continue to be the focal point for players aspiring to International level. Munster, Leinster and Ulster continue to be the strongest three with Connacht, in the west of the country traditionally the weakest. The top three provinces compete in the European Cup, which Ulster won in 1999, while Connacht take part in the European Shield.

At international level Ireland have always been inconsistent. Grand Slam winners only once – in 1948 – they have won the 'Triple Crown' six occasions, the last being in 1985. However they have finished bottom of the Championship table on 30 occasions. They have also failed to get past the quarter finals at any of the four World Cups. Despite this they have some magnificent individual players with Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride and Fergus Slattery all winning over sixty International caps.


Why rugby became established in the South of France as opposed to the North, which is nearer Britain and where the climate is more suited to playing the game, nobody is too sure. Whatever the reasons, it has become one of the country's most popular sports, rivalling football and cycling when the French XV is on song, even though there are precious few clubs north of the River Loire and in the big cities where the population is concentrated.

Rugby first made it over the Channel in 1872, when a group of English merchants set up their business in the port of Le Havre to form the Le Havre Athletic Club. The club still exists today (though they have switched allegiances to the round-ball game) and has kept its original colours of sky and navy blue, representing Oxford and Cambridge.

The Merchant Taylors soon followed their Oxbridge counterparts and established clubs in and around Paris. The first French championship was held in 1892, with the Racing Club de France beating the Stade Français, though the "stadistes" got their revenge the following year in a repeat of the final. More than a century later, those two Paris-based outfits are the only two teams from the North of France currently plying their trade in France's first division.

As many British merchants established themselves, so the game developed across the length and breadth of the country. A Scotsman by the name of Shearer brought the game to Bordeaux, a Welshman called Owen Roe formed a club in Bayonne and soon the whole of the southern half of France was converted. Rugby never caught on in Brittany, however, probably since the region was almost entirely devoted to agriculture and thus never attracted investment from British businessmen (and rugby-players). When one thinks of how the game has flourished in the other Celtic nations, it is a shame for French rugby that the Bretons were never encouraged to play. However, their 'kindred links' with the Irish, Welsh and Scots has often seen them supporting France's opponents during the Five Nations!
France first participated in the Five Nations in 1910 and achieved its first victory the following year over Scotland. The international board broke off relations between Britain and France during the 1930s, but thanks to the suppport of the collaborationist Vichy governmant during World War II (which went so far as to ban rugby league whilst promoting the union code), French rugby finally became a force to be reckoned with in the post-war years. A share of the spoils in 1954 and 1955 was followed by outright victories in the Five Nations tournament of 1959, 1961 and 1962. Fullback turned fly-half Pierre Albaladejo was the tournament's top points scorer from 1961-1963 and was the first real star of French rugby.

The late 60s and early 70s was a halcyon era, with the French running the Welsh every step of the way, winning the Five Nations in 1967 and 1968 and sharing the top spot in 1970 and 1973. Titanic battles were raged between Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Dai Morris, John Taylor and Gerald Davies for the Welsh and Jo Maso, Claude Dourthe, Jean-Pierre Lux, Guy Camberabero and Pierre Villepreux for the French.

In the 1980s, France won two Grand Slams under the coaching of former international Jacques Fouroux and with such famous names as Philippe Sella, Daneil Dubroca and Serge Blanco. They reached the final of the inaugural World Cup. Knocked out in the last eight in 1991, they were desperately unlucky to lose in the semi-finals to the hosts South Africa in 1995 and, after finishing wooden-spoonists in the last ever Five Nations, upset the odds with their historic win over the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1999.


The first provincial union, Canterbury, was formed in 1879 , Wellington a few months later, and as early as 1882 New Zealand played host to a visiting team for the first time, from New South Wales, Australia. The tourists played Auckland provincial clubs twice, Wellington twice, and had one game against Canterbury, Otago and West Coast – North Island. New South Wales won four and lost three – a better record than most subsequent tourists!

The NZRFU was formed in 1892, the inaugural meeting held at Wellington's Club Hotel. Seven unions were represented but with the significant absence of Canterbury, the oldest union. Otago and Southland additionally refused to affiliate which meant they had no representatives when the first full New Zealand side went to New South Wales in 1893.The skipper was Tom Ellison, the founder of the wing forward position, who moved that the New Zealand playing uniform be, 'Black Jersey with Silver Fern Leaf, Black Cap with Silver Monogram , White knickerbockers and Black Stockings.' Only the knickerbockers have since changed .

New Zealand first played as a team on home soil in Christchurch against New South Wales in 1894, winning 8-6.Its first full international match was against Australia in 1903 at the Sydney Cricket Ground, New Zealand again victorious 22-3.

The first New Zealand national team to visit Britain was the 'Originals' – the 1905 tourists – the first team to be referred to as the All Blacks. The side annihilated most opposition, but lost to Wales, 3-0 in Cardiff, a match that has become part of the folk history of both countries because of the controversy surrounding the try not awarded to All Black Bob Deans.

New Zealand began their great rivalry with South Africa in 1921, the Springboks' tour of New Zealand proving tense and tightly fought, the test series finishing all square. The All Blacks first toured South Africa in 1928, the test series again finishing all square, and it was not until 1996, under Sean Fitzpatrick's captaincy, that New Zealand finally won its first series in the Republic.

The British first visited New Zealand in 1888, returning in 1908 with a team consisting only of English and Welsh players, the All Blacks winning the test series 2-0. The 1924 All Black tourists to the UK were dubbed 'the Invincibles', although Scotland refused to play them. The first truly representative British side toured New Zealand in 1930, the home side winning the tests 3-1.

The 1935-36 New Zealand tourists lost only four games in the UK, but two of these were tests, including the English game when Prince Obolensky scored his famous two tries. The 1950 Lions could only draw the first test, the 1959 Lions lost the series 1-3, the 1966 side 0-4 and it was not until 1971, under the captaincy of Welshman John Dawes, that the Lions finally beat the All Blacks on home soil. That remains the Lions' only series victory in New Zealand.

New Zealand touring sides to the UK from the 60's on were powerful forces, dominated by the legendary names of Meads, Clarke and Whineray. The 1963-64 team, led by Wilson Whineray, only failed to achieve a Grand Slam because of a scoreless draw with Scotland. The 1967side won three tests, but was unable to play Ireland because of a foot and mouth scare. The 1972-3 tourists narrowly missed a Grand Slam with a draw against Ireland, but the tour achieved notoriety after the sending home of prop Keith Murdoch. He was alleged to have been involved in a brawl in a Cardiff hotel whilst celebrating the defeat of the Welsh. Graham Mourie's 1978 All Blacks finally achieved a Grand Slam, but there was further bitter controversy during and after the Welsh test in Cardiff, with allegations of cheating hurled at All Black locks Haden and Oliver who dived out of a line-out claiming they had been fouled. New Zealand won by kicking the subsequent penalty.

The 80s was a tumultuous decade which left deep scars on New Zealand rugby and society. In 1981 two South African tour matches were cancelled on police advice; the 1985 tour of South Africa was cancelled after legal action; in 1986 an unauthorised tour party of South Africa included All Blacks.

The inaugural World Cup in 1987 was co-hosted and won by New Zealand, beating France in the final at Eden Park, Auckland. Subsequent World Cup campaigns have been less successful: defeated by Australia in the 1991semi final in Dublin; defeated by South Africa in the 1995 final in Johannesburg ; defeated by France, unforgettably, in the 1999 semi-final at Twickenham.

In 1995 the professional era in rugby began. With Australia and South Africa, New Zealand combined to sell TV rights for all southern hemisphere test matches, a new inter-provincial competition – the Super 12 – and domestic provincial competitions in each of the three countries. The test match between New Zealand and Italy in late 1995 was the first of the professional era.

The All Blacks won the inaugural Tri-Nations series against Australia and South Africa in 1996 and through the Auckland Blues and the Canterbury Crusaders have won each of the four Super 12 tournaments.

A rugby website can be found at: http://www.scrum.com/country and select the country from the list

(The histories of Australian And South African rugby are not yet available)


Source: http://www.grandrapidsrugby.org

In 1823, during a game of soccer at Rugby School in England, 16 year old William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it towards his opponent's goal line. The reaction of his fellow players or any officials is not recorded; but the advantages of playing the game in this natural fashion were obvious to Ellis's schoolmates who followed his example. And so the game of rugby was born.

Or so, at least, goes the popular story. Unfortunately, some argue that the legend is probably apocryphal, pointing out that games that involved running with the ball had existed centuries earlier. This is true. But it is also true, at least, that the earliest form of football with much similarity to rugby as we know it today, did originate at Rugby School around Ellis's time.

Probably closer to the truth is the somewhat different version of the tale that appears on the English Rugby Union's site RFU-History. The type of football played at Rugby School in Ellis's time was not soccer, but a game with a mixture of both soccer and rugby rules. Handling the ball was prohibited unless the ball was airborne, when the player was permitted to catch it. After catching the ball he would stand still, as did all the other players, and had the option of kicking it wherever he chose, or placing it on the ground and kicking for goal.

It should also be noted that in those days at English Public Schools the pupils often developed their own rules for the games of football they played. So it is possible that Ellis, during some game of football, did indeed run with the ball, setting an example soon followed by others.

Whatever the case, the story of William Webb Ellis is too good to have been abandoned; and he even has an official headstone (see picture above) in the grounds of Rugby School with this inscription:

A.D. 1823

By the 1840s running with the ball had become the norm, and by the 1870s rugby clubs had sprung up all over England and in the colonies. But different rules were being used by different clubs, and a meeting was held in January 1871, attended by representatives of 22 clubs, to resolve the situation. It was at this meeting that the Rugby Football Union was founded.

The meeting of 26 of January 1871 was initiated by Edwin Ash, Secretary of Richmond Club, who submitted a letter to the newspapers which read: "Those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play."

Along with the founding of the Rugby Football Union a committee was formed, and three ex-Rugby School pupils, all lawyers, were invited to formulate a set of rules. This task was completed and approved by June 1871. And about the same time the Scottish members of the Union challenged the English to a match. This, the first international match between England and Scotland, took place at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh on 27 March 1871, resulting in a win to Scotland by one goal and one try to one goal.

The "Great Schism"
A commitment of the union was a strict adherence to the principles of amateurism. However, in 1893 reports of some players in the north of England receiving payments for playing reached the committee, and it attempted to obtain evidence. This came through a complaint from the Cumberland County Union that another club had lured one of their players away with monetary incentives. The Union set up an inquiry, but was warned that if the club involved was punished, all the chief clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire – from which a large proportion of international players were drawn – would secede from the Union.

Nevertheless, the inquiry went ahead and the club concerned was suspended. Two general meetings resulted at which the Northern Unions attempted a compromise resolution that would allow payment for players when playing football instead of working ("broken time"). But the resolution was defeated, and, true to their word, in August 1895, twenty-two northern clubs seceded from the Union and formed the Northern Union, later to become known as the Rugby League.

It was a very bitter severance of rugby into two rival camps and acrimony continued for something like a hundred years. At first – and until 1995 in fact – a major distinguishing feature of the two codes was that rugby league was a professional sport, and rugby union strictly amateur. This though has tended to obscure the fact that, despite their common origins, the two games have evolved into two quite different sports. Since the split in 1895, both codes have made their own distinct rules, and a game of rugby league is almost immediately distinguishable from a game of union.

Rugby Union Becomes Professional
Apart from this rugby union is no longer an amateur sport. The process by which it became professional is a story in itself. Essentially the IRB (International Rugby Board – the governing body of rugby union) has been dominated by worthy English gentlemen who adhered implacably to their cherished amateur principles. But as the demands on top players grew – increased media attention, amount of training required, long overseas tours away from their families and so on – increasing pressure was applied, by the Southern Hemisphere unions in particular, to allow player payments.

Along with this was an ever-increasing degree of sham-amateurism. While straight payments may not have been openly accepted, it was obvious that top players in some countries received various benefits and perks from playing the game – through player trust funds, other roundabout methods, or even, as was scabrously suggested, usually by the English, through direct under-the-table cash payments.

The IRB finally capitulated to the inevitable, and in August 1995 rugby union became fully professional.

How the scores have changed in Rugby Union

THE TRY AT GOAL from: http://www.springfieldrugby.com/origins.html

Until 1875 the only way to score was to kick the ball over the crossbar and between the goalposts (hence the preference for an oval ball). Place-kicks, goals from marks and dropped goals all counted for one point, a touchdown was worth nothing.

However, if a player could touch the ball down behind the goal line he had the right to punt the ball out. If he was a defender he would do just that. If he was an attacker he would gently tap the ball to a teammate on the field, who would (hopefully!) take a fair catch and make his mark. The ball could then be carried back for a place kick – and therefore a try at goal.

As time went on the try became more and more important. From 1875 touchdowns counted if the game was otherwise a draw. From 1884 a goal became worth three points, and an unconverted try worth one point. In 1892 and again in 1894 the value of the try was increased until it was worth three points – and 5 points converted. It was to stay at that value until 1971 when it was increased to 4 points. After yet another change the try is now worth 5 points and a conversion of a try 2 points.

1992 -
1 point
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The Origins of Rugby League in England
Source: http://www.rl1908.com/

The origins of rugby league in England go back long before the creation in 1895 of the Northern Union. In the early 1800's formalities were introduced to football rules in the seven major public schools of England. Six of the seven schools were largely playing the same game (including Eton, Harrow and Winchester) – while the seventh, Rugby School (founded in 1567) at Warwickshire, was playing a markedly different version of football.

The other schools moved ahead refining their rules and eventually their game became known as "association football" – soccer. How the Rugby School's game developed differently is lost in history and the true story is unlikely to ever be known. The Rugby Football Union's (RFU) much revered tale of how in 1823 the young Rugby School student, William Webb Ellis, "in a fine disregard for the rules" picked up the ball and ran with it in a defining moment in sports history is now accepted by sports historians as being untrue and a gross distortion.

There is no doubt that Ellis was a student at Rugby School from 1816 to 1825, but he was never mentioned by anyone as having done the actual deed described above. The first reference to Ellis appeared in a Rugby School magazine in 1875 (four years after Ellis' death) by an Old Rugbeian, M. Bloxham, who was endeavouring to refute claims that rugby was an ancient game.

Bloxham's story has always been in doubt because of the time that had passed since Ellis supposedly ran with the ball. Bloxham himself never saw the event and no living person could corroborate his version of events. In addition, examination of existing records and recollections does not show that the Rugby game dramatically changed after one event (i.e. Ellis deciding to run with the ball).

Handling the ball was permitted in football in the early 1800's when players were allowed to take a mark and then a free kick, long before Ellis arrived at Rugby. In fact, most of the public schools allowed forms of handling the ball right up until the formation of the Football Association in the 1860's where the issue was considered and then outlawed. The reverse picture that the RFU has painted that the rugby game was born from soccer the moment Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it is fanciful.

What is known is that at Rugby School by the 1830's running with the ball was in common use, the goal posts had been extended to 18 feet high (with a cross-bar at 10 feet above the ground) and there were forms of scrummaging and line-outs. The inclusion of the cross-bar was accompanied by a rule that a goal could only be scored by the ball passing over the bar from a place kick or drop kick. Apparently this was done to make scoring easier from further out and also to avoid the horde of defenders standing in the goalmouth.

Players who were able to "touch-down" the ball behind the opponents goal line were awarded a "try-at-goal" – the player would make a mark on the goal line and then walk back onto the field of play to a point where a place kick at the goal was possible (a conversion). There was also an "off-your-side" rule used to keep the teams apart and passing the ball forward was not allowed. The rules were first seriously agreed upon and documented when former Rugby students and clubs wanted to commence formal competitions outside of the Rugby School in 1862. Many of the clubs that formed around this period would later become rugby league clubs.

From 1875 when games finished without any goals being scored, the team which had the most "tries-at-goal" was awarded the win. From 1886 three "tries" equalled one goal in points, before the balance finally moved to giving more value to the scoring of tries. By 1893 the scoring was much closer to what we know today – a try was worth three points, a converted try five points, three for a penalty goal and four for a field goal. However, the rugby game was still very brutal and raw with 71 deaths recorded in English rugby from 1890 to 1893 alone.

The RFU had been formed in 1871 by representatives of 21 clubs – all of which were located in southern England and most were within London. By the early 1890's rugby was widespread and well over half the RFU's clubs were in northern England. The working classes of the north of England and South Wales were particularly taken with rugby over soccer. At this time there was increasing friction occurring between the northern clubs and the predominantly southern England administrators of the RFU.

Clubs in Yorkshire in particular caused concern for the RFU by adopting an "open rugby" approach to club membership and allowed anyone to join. Many other clubs followed the wishes of the RFU (and themselves) by staunchly remaining gentlemen's clubs to the exclusion of all others.

The Northern Clubs
Some of the open rugby clubs of the north sprang from the same background as the exclusive clubs, before developing differently. Hull FC was formed in 1865 by young gentlemen who had been at Rugby School, but then immediately took on members who were plumbers and glaziers. Other clubs were started by working men on their own initiative like Leeds Athletic which began with an advertisement in a local newspaper placed by a rail clerk.

Other clubs had religious affiliations at the start which are now long forgotten, but others such as Wakefield Trinity were marked by this for the rest of their existence. Wakefield was formed in 1873 as a sporting arm of the Holy Trinity Church Young Men's Society. In Lancashire, rugby was started at Rochdale in 1867 by a magistrate and numerous business owners and self-employed men. Within a year they were all playing alongside new members when workers were allowed to join as well. This club was the forerunner of the Rochdale Hornets who arrived in 1871 with an open door approach to membership. At Rochdale they were also able to insist on gate money as they played on an enclosed field. This became an increasing tendency in the North. Some clubs though, like Wigan, did not have an enclosed field and had to rely on crowd donations from collection boxes.

The Great Divide
The rugby playing men of the North were at a distinct disadvantage to their southern gentlemen counterparts. Players in the North who were miners and factory workers were not permitted to leave work on Saturdays (match days) until 1pm, while the self-employed and gentry of the South had no such restriction. The northerner might have been able to play in a home game without much difficulty, but an away match was out of the question. If he was a miner, as many were, even turning out in a home game was a major achievement.

Miners were only paid for time that they were actually hewing coal. Travelling to and from the surface was in the employee's time, no matter how far down the mine it was. This resulted in enthusiastic rugby players having to forgo pay to play rugby. It also meant that they were subsequently first in line for retrenchment if the mining industry fell on hard times. Many of the clubs in the North, with their open membership, thought that it was only fair that these players be compensated for the lost wages (or "broken-time") that they would suffer just to play in a game of rugby.

This was a problem that the RFU and clubs of the South did not have to overcome, and they took the view that paying players money for turning out in a rugby team, for whatever reason, was not acceptable. The RFU stated that paying for "broken-time" would only encourage more time to be spent playing rugby and would lead to "professional" full-time rugby players. The RFU also took the view that any club or player involved in such practises as paying for lost wages needed to be sought out and punished. There were even those who had become zealots for the cause of amateur rugby who investigated and reported any inference of a breach they could find.

From the early 1890's this polarisation of views between the RFU and some clubs in the North began to escalate the already existing Southerners v Northerners anxieties and misconceptions. There was general acknowledgement that the rugby teams of Yorkshire and Lancashire were the strongest in England and had been so since the 1870's. These counties were the first (in 1870) to rise above club level rugby and introduce representative games (Yorkshire v Lancashire) – these games were held before the southerners had even formed their collective RFU.

When a county championship "was at last permitted" in 1889, Yorkshire won the initial title and then eventually won seven of the first eight years. The only year they lost it was to Lancashire! In 1895 the movement for the creation of a Northern Rugby Union outside of the control of the RFU had a reached a crescendo.

In an effort to reign in their renegade clubs the RFU broadened its definition of "professionalism" to include playing on a ground where gate money is taken and/or any game to be played with less than 15 men-a-side. The RFU knew that some of the northern clubs had been contemplating reducing the number of players in teams to less than 15 – in fact the RFU had even considered the option itself in 1892. As a result the Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs jumped before they were pushed.

The Birth of Rugby League
On 29 August 1895 twenty-one clubs met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield and formed the Northern Rugby Union (later to become known as Rugby League). The clubs and their year of foundation were:

Batley 1880, Bradford 1863, Brighouse Rangers 1878, Broughton Rangers 1877, Dewsbury 1875, Halifax 1873, Huddersfield 1864, Hull 1865, Hunslet 1883, Leeds 1890, Leigh 1877, Liversedge 1877, Manningham 1876, Oldham 1876, Rochdale Hornets 1871, St Helens 1874, Tyldesley 1879, Wakefield Trinity 1873, Warrington 1875, Widnes 1873, Wigan 1879.

Dewsbury withdrew a few days later and were replaced by Runcorn (1876). Stockport was also accepted by telephone at the meeting at the George. The inaugural competition which the 22 founding clubs played for was called the Northern Rugby Football League (NRL). In a very ambitious competition, each team had to play every other on a home and away basis. In the days of slow transportation a journey across the two adjoining counties was a long day indeed, with teams often not arriving home until midnight. Intra-county games also counted for points for the awarding of county champions in the Yorkshire and Lancashire Cups.

The adminstrators acted over the coming years and changed the rules of the game (aboloshing line-outs, reduced teams to 13-a-side and introducing the play-the-ball being the main variations) to improve the attractiveness of the spectacle and therefore paying crowds. Rugby League had begun.


1850s – Handling games played around Wales.
1881 – The Welsh Rugby Union is formed
1893 – Wales win their first triple crown.
1907 – Merthyr Tydfil and Ebbw Vale joined the Northern Union (NU). Welsh clubs are awarded 10 pounds per match in England by the NU. The Welsh Northern Union is formed in Wrexham, but the NU refuse it affiliation as they wanted the body located in the South of Wales – the WNU soon folded.
1908 – Aberdare, Barry, Mid-Rhondda and Treherbert joined the NU. Merthyr Tydfil finish eighth out of 31 clubs in the NU. Wales play their first international match – won against New Zealand in Aberdare (17,000). Win the first Anglo-Weslh match 35-18.
1909 – The Welsh League XIII defeat the touring Australians. Aberdare, Barry and Mid-Rhondda fold.
1910 – Treherbert fold.
1911 – Merthyr Tidfil convert to soccer.
1912 – Ebbw Vale fold.
1921 – Cardiff RU player Jim Sullivan signs for Wigan.
1922 – The Northern Union become the Rugby Football League (RFL).
1925 – Jim Sullivan scores 22 goals in a match for Wigan.
1926 – Wales defeat New Zealand 34-8 – the New Zealanders award full caps for the match. The RFL form the Welsh commission to covert RU clubs to Rugby League. Pontypridd join the RFL.
1927 – Pontypridd resign eight games into their second season.
1936 – Wales win the second European Championship with a 17-14 Victory over England in Hull.
1938 – Wales win the European championship for the third consecutive season.
1945 – 30,000 people attend a match against England in Swansea.
1946 – Jim Sullivan retires from Rugby League.
1947 – Wales defeat England 10-8 in Wigan.
1949 – Huddersfield, St Helens, Warrington and Wigan play exhibition matches in Wales. The Welsh commision form a Welsh league.
1951 – Cardiff join the RFL. The Cardiff club have a gate of 14 pounds, the RFL subsidise the club to finish the season.
1952 – Cardiff fold at the end of their first season (1951-52).
1955 – The Welsh League disbands due to lack of interest and finance.
1975 – Wales finish third in the World Cup, which included a 12-7 victory over England.
1981 – Cardiff City join the Second Division and finish eighth.
1984 – Cardiff become the Bridgend Blue Dragons.
1985 – Bridgend fold after finishing bottom of Division Two.
1988 – Welsh RU international Jonathan Davies signs with Widnes.
1989 – Welsh and British Lion RU international Jim Devereux signs with Widnes.
1991 – Wales defeat Papua New Guinea 68-0 in Swansea (record win for Wales). In that match Jonathan Davies scored 24 points.
1993 – Jonathan Davies signs with Warrington.
1995 – Wales win the European Championship, with an upset win over England (its first since 1968). Wales make the semi-finals of the World Cup, only to loose to England. After the World Cup Jonathan Davies returns to RU
1996 – South Wales join the RFL second Division, only to fold after the season.
1997 – Anger as the RFL announce that at the proposed 1998 World Cup (never played), Wales would not be included at the expense of the NZ Maoris. Wales were once again to form part of Britain.
1998 – Emerging England defeat a full Welsh side in Widnes. A bid was made for Cardiff and Swansea to enter the RFL, but the bid was refused.

NOTES – The two great eras of Welsh Rugby League coincide with the playing careers of Jim Sullivan, Jonathan Davies and John Devereux. One in four Welsh RU internationals converted to RL (1997).

Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010