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The Rugby Football Union at 150

Online Sports Editor Harry Scott-Munro looks at the history of the Rugby Football Union, as rugby's first governing body celebrates it's 150th birthday.
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The Rugby Football Union at 150

Image: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, Flickr

Online Sports Editor Harry Scott-Munro looks at the history of the Rugby Football Union, as rugby’s first governing body celebrates it’s 150th birthday.

Today (Tuesday 26 January) marks 150 years to the day since the creation of the Rugby Football Union at Pall Mall Restaurant on Regents Street. This significant milestone also meant the creation of the first ever governing body for rugby in the world.

The origins of the sport date back to 1823 when a schoolboy, William Webb Ellis is said to have picked up the ball and run with it during a game of English Schoolboy Football at Rugby School. In 1845 and 1848, two different sets of laws for the new game were drawn up, before the FA (Football Association) was formed in 1863 and outlawed many of the iterations of the hybrid sport that had been played, cementing a key difference between rugby and football. A number of clubs chose to leave the FA and looked to form their own governing body for their now separate sport.

The seeds for this new governing body were sewn in December of 1870, when Edwin Ash of the Richmond Club 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.”

Twickenham Stadium, the home of English Rugby, was bought by the RFU in 1907, having formally been a cabbage field.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Representatives from 21 clubs attended the meeting, where they agreed upon a uniform set of rules for the sport of rugby, as well as agreeing on the selection of 20 players to represent England against Scotland on 27 March 1871 in the first ever international rugby match, following a challenge from their Celtic cousins.

The clubs in attendance were:

Blackheath, Richmond, Ravenscourt Park, West Kent, Marlborough Nomads, Wimbledon Hornets, Gipsies, Civil Service, The Law Club, Wellington College, Guy’s Hospital, Flamingoes, Clapham Rovers, Harlequin F.C., King’s College Hospital, St Paul’s, Queen’s House, Lausanne, Addison, Mohicans, and Belsize Park.

Nine of the clubs that were represented that day are still playing at one level or another today.

Wasps were one of two absentees from this group, after their representative allegedly turned up to the wrong restaurant on the wrong date, with Ealing also invited to the meeting, only for their representative to stop in a pub and miss the meeting as well.

It mattered little though in the grand scheme of things, as Algernon Rutter was formally elected as the first President of the newly formed Rugby Football Union, with Ash who had called for the creation of a union for their sport elected as treasurer. The group, who had an average age of just 23, also named Frederick Stokes, who attended the meeting alongside Benjamin Burns on behalf of Blackheath, as the first captain of the English national rugby team. The laws that were also drawn up during this meeting were used for that first international and were formally approved in June 1871.

England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph saw the William Webb Ellis trophy return to English soil for the first time. The victory over Australia in the final is seen as one of English rugby’s greatest days
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The RFU has seen and done a lot in the 150 years since, having to contend with the ‘great schism,’ when 22 rugby clubs from across the north of England met on 29 August 1895 and agreed to split from the RFU, forming their own governing body, the Northern Rugby Football Union, that later became the Rugby Football League and with it, their own version of the game after a dispute over compensation for lost wages when playing the game.

It also took the step of buying a market garden where cabbages were grown in Twickenham, in 1907, for £5,500 12s 6d. On that land, Twickenham Stadium was built, with the ground serving as the home of English rugby ever since.

It has contended with two World Wars, where 41 England internationals and countless amateur players gave the ultimate sacrifice, created and formed a league pyramid consisting of promotion and relegation in 1987, overseen two ‘home Rugby World Cups’ in 1991 and 2015 and ridden the waves, adapting to the advent of professionalism in rugby union in 1995.

None of this however, would have been possible without that first meeting of 20-something representatives in a London restaurant.

So, congratulations to the RFU on 150 years of guiding English rugby, let’s see what the next 150 have in store.

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