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Exploding the Myth - How 'Football' became 'Rugby'

Folk football

Photo: World Rugby Museum

Forget the William Webb Ellis myth. This is the real story and it is far more complex.

There were at least seven schools playing their own versions of what was known as ‘football’ in the early years of the 19th century. These were:

  • Eton
  • Harrow
  • Charterhouse
  • Westminster
  • Winchester
  • Shrewsbury
  • Rugby

These games of ‘football’ bore little relation to modern soccer or rugby and were run and managed by the boys themselves with no influence from the masters.

They were largely derived from the riotous handling and kicking ‘folk football’ games of the Middle Ages, when a village would play against a neighbouring village over large areas of ground and with very few (if any) rules.

There were many similarities between the different versions of ‘football’ played by the boys at these schools. Each game used a single ball, two teams, two ‘goals’ and a rectangular pitch with a centre line running parallel to the goal lines.

At Eton, ‘football’ was known as the ‘Field Game’ – the famous ‘Wall Game’ is a later derivative. Most of the schoolboys  allowed players to handle the ball, for example being able to catch a ball and claim ‘a mark’.

However, there were core differences between each school’s version of ‘football’ and when boys from these various schools wanted to continue playing football at university, there was a problem.

Boys who had been to Eton could play against boys who had been to Eton and boys who had been to Harrow could play against boys who had been to Harrow, but they could not play against each other.

If players from a number of different schools took part in a match there was usually chaos. It is reported that when, in one such game, boys who had been to Rugby started running with the ball in the hands, the boys who had been to Eton ‘howled’ with anger.

We have reports of a particular match played between Etonians and Harronians at Cambridge University in November 1862.

The rules for this ‘compromise’ game seem to have been produced by taking the rules common to both and eliminating the rest. On other occasions (when teams had to decide between conflicting rules) one set of rules was played in the first half and the other set in the second half.

An attempt was made to create a single compromise code that would allow everyone to play against each other without disagreement. This was the formation of the Football Association.

The word ‘soccer’ is derived from the word ‘Association.’ It was never the intention, however, that this compromise code would take over from all the other school rules and eventually drive most of them into extinction – which is exactly what happened when soccer’s popularity exploded.

At the original meetings of the Football Association in 1863, clubs were invited to attend regardless of the type of football they played. As a consequence, there were members of teams such as Blackheath, who played football according to the Rugby School rules, in attendance.

The delegate from Blackheath, Francis Campbell, walked out after a few FA meetings when it became clear that hacking (tackling below the knee) would not be allowed. He must have also realised that running with the ball in the hands (the major distinguishing feature of the Rugby School football game) was also under pressure from the other delegates.

The original laws of Association Football allowed the ball to be caught and a mark to be made. However, with the departure of the delegate most vocally in favour of Rugby School football, the FA soon removed most of the handling laws and the brand new game of ‘soccer’ became a mainly dribbling game.

Evidence of soccer’s early handling roots can still be seen through the goalkeeper and in throw-ins.

Players from the major public schools were, over time, happy to accept the brand new code of soccer. However, the boys who had played ‘football’ at Rugby found that the difference was too great and they continued to play ‘their’ football.

So, Rugby School’s football not only survived, but prospered, while the others largely vanished.

By 1871, the clubs who were playing rugby football – as it was now commonly known, in opposition to association football – needed their own governing body. The RFU was formed and the split between rugby and the rest was complete.