Australian Rugby League - Kangaroos Team, 1929 - War Cry

Thanks for taking the time to follow on with our History of Rugby Series. I stated last week we would cover Rugby League & Union, but the history took a turn, as I indulged into how Rugby spread across the British Empire and how it was first introduced to the world. This lays out the foundations of Rugby Football before we cover the formation and schisms of Rugby.

The Rules

The first codified ‘rules’ of the game was drawn up by Rugby School prefects before being written up by William Delafield Arnold, W. W. Shirley and Frederick Hutchins – approved by the “Levee of the Sixth” on August 28th, 1845. (WikiSource). No. 5 ‘Try at goal’ – a touchdown doesn’t count unless it is converted; so it’s a try or attempt at goal. (Rugby School). No. 20 ‘All matches are drawn after five days, but after three if no goal has been kicked.’ (Rugby School). This is the first written set of rules of any style of football known to have been published.

Fun Fact: ‘The Montevideo Cricket Club is founded in Montevideo, Uruguay. Becoming the first club to play rugby outside of the British Islands’ (Wikipedia, Modern Rugby)

Montevideo Rugby Club








The Football Association and Rugby Football

Freemason’s Tavern
By John Nixon circa 1800

 The Football Association, more commonly known as The FA was formed 1863 at the Freemason’s Tavern, Great Queen Street, London. The intentions, to construct a frame of codes that would embrace the best aspects of all the various methods of play, under one heading of football. However, disagreement over what rules to exclude led to Blackheath Club to withdraw from the association, which was followed by many clubs.


‘The two contentious draft rules were as follows, (fourth meeting):

  1. A player shall be entitled to run with the ball towards his adversaries’ goal if he makes a fair catch or catches the ball on the first bound; but in case of a fair catch, if he makes his mark he shall not run.
    X. If any player shall run with the ball towards his adversaries’ goal, any player on the opposite side shall be at liberty to charge, hold, trip or hack him, or to wrest the ball from him, but no player shall be held and hacked at the same time.

At the fifth meeting, a motion was proposed that these two rules be expunged from the FA rules

Francis Maule Campbell, a member of the Blackheath Club, argued that hacking is an essential element of “football” and that to eliminate hacking would “do away with all the courage and pluck from the game, and I will be bound over to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice”’ (Wikipedia)


‘On 4 December 1870, Edwin Ash of Richmond and Benjamin Burns of Blackheath published a letter in The Times suggesting that “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”.’ (Wikipedia)

The 21 clubs and schools (all from London or the Home Counties) attended the meeting: AddisonBelsize ParkBlackheath (represented by Burns and Frederick Stokes the latter becoming the first captain of England), Civil ServiceClapham RoversFlamingoesGipsiesGuy’s HospitalHarlequinsKing’s CollegeLausanneThe Law ClubMarlborough NomadsMohicansQueen’s HouseRavenscourt ParkRichmondSt Paul’sWellington CollegeWest Kent, and Wimbledon Hornets. The one notable omission was the Wasps who “In true rugby fashion … turned up at the wrong pub, on the wrong day, at the wrong time and so forfeited their right to be called Founder Members”.[11] (Wikipedia). As a result of this meeting, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded. Algernon Rutter was elected as the first president of the RFU and Edwin Ash was elected as treasurer. Three lawyers, who were Rugby School alumni (Rutter, Holmes and L.J. Maton), drew up the first laws of the game; these were approved in June 1871.


Competitions and other Football Codes

Rugby league and association football were not the only early competitors to rugby union. In the late 19th century, a number of “national” football codes emerged around the world, including Australian rules football (originating in Victoria), Gaelic football (Ireland), and the gridiron codes: American and Canadian football.

Some of these codes took direct influence from rugby union, or rugby football, but all of these involved kicking and carrying the ball towards posts, meaning that they were in direct competition with rugby union. While American, Canadian, and Australian rules football are professional, and so competed for rugby union players’ economic attentions, Gaelic football has remained staunchly amateur.

Tom Wills, the founder of Australian rules football, was educated at Rugby School. In Melbourne, in 1858, he umpired and played in several football matches using experimental rules. It was reported that “exceptions were taken … to some of the Rugby regulations”,and on 17 May 1859 Wills chaired a meeting to incorporate the Melbourne Football Club in which the club’s rules (later the laws of Australian Football) were written down for the first time. While Wills was a fan of the rugby rules, his intentions were clear that he favoured rules that suited the drier and harder Australian fields. Geoffrey Blainey, Leonie Sandercock, Ian Turner and Sean Fagan have all written in support for the theory that rugby football was one of the primary influences on Australian rules football along with other games emanating from English public schools.

Canadian Football

Early forms of rugby football were being played in Canada from 1823 onwards, in east Canadian towns such as Halifax, Montreal and Toronto. Rugby football proper in Canada dates to the 1860s. Introduction of the game and its early growth is usually credited to settlers from Britain and the British army and navy in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Esquimalt, British Columbia. In 1864, the first recorded game of rugby in Canada took place in Montreal, Quebec amongst artillery men. It is most likely that rugby got its start in British Columbia in the late 1860s or early 1870s, when brief mentions of “football” appeared in print. Canadian rugby, however, soon faced stiff competition from Canadian football.


Rugby in the British Empire | Introductions to Rugby– Australia, New Zealand & South Africa

Australian Rugby League – Kangaroos Team, 1929 – War Cry
Australian National “Kangaroos” Team 1930

According to Rugby Australia, rugby football was an early introduction to Australia, with games of the primitive code being played in the early to mid-19th century, and the first formal team, Sydney University Football Club being set up in 1864. In 1869, Newington College was the first Australian school to play rugby in a match against the University of Sydney. From this beginning, the first metropolitan competition in Australia developed, formally beginning in 1874. This was organised by the Southern Rugby Union, which was administered by the rugby union at Twickenham, in England. Administration was given over to the Southern Rugby Union in 1881.

More Australian Rugby History Here

Introduction to New Zealand came later, but formal development took place around the same time as Australia. Christchurch Football Club was founded in 1863 and is regarded as the oldest rugby club in the country, with records of a football match played in August 1863.

Rugby football was first introduced to New Zealand in 1870 by Charles John Monro, son of the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, David Monro. He encountered the game while studying at Christ’s College Finchley, in East Finchley, London, and on his return introduced the game to Nelson College

Nelson Rugby Team 1873

By the following year, the game had been formalised in Wellington, and subsequently rugby was taken up in Wanganui and Auckland in 1873 and Hamilton in 1874. It is thought that by the mid-1870s, the game had been taken up by the majority of the colony.

More Kiwi Rugby History Here

Paul Roos, Springbok Captain, of the first South African touring rugby team to the British Isles in 1906

When Canon George Ogilvie became headmaster of Diocesan College in Cape Town, South Africa in 1861, he introduced the game of football, as played at Winchester College. This version of football, which included handling of the ball, is seen as the beginnings of rugby in South Africa. In around 1875 rugby began to be played in the Cape Colony, the following year the first rugby  club was formed (as opposed to Winchester football).

Former England international William Henry Milton arrived in Cape Town in 1878. He joined the Villagers club and started playing and preaching rugby. By the end of that year, Cape Town had all but abandoned the Winchester game in favour of rugby. In 1883, the Stellenbosch club was formed in the predominantly Boer farming district outside Cape Town and rugby was enthusiastically adopted by the young Boer farmers.

However, for a number of years, South African rugby would be hindered by systemic racial segregation.

South African Rugby Team 1906






More South African Rugby History Here



Thanks for taking the time to follow on with our History of Rugby Series!

Next Week we will dive into the schisms of Rugby and how League and Union separated and why. Find out about the sport’s first internationals and professionalism.