The historical origins of most major sports are imprecise. But for the sport of rugby we have a date, a place and the name of an individual. The date is 1823; the place is Rugby, an elite private school in central England; and the name is William Webb Ellis.
According to the story, 16-yearold Webb Ellis was taking part in a soccer match on the school playing fields. Frustrated by the pedal limitations of what is, essentially, a kicking game, he “took the ball in his hands and ran.” His fellow players adopted this improvisation with gusto, and thus, we are told, rugby was born.
Whether this is the literal truth or poetic legend, the school’s name was given to the new sport, and at the 2007 Rugby World Cup (http://www.rugbyworldcup.com) — set to take place in France in September and October — 20 nations will be battling to win the Webb Ellis Trophy. It is reputed to be the world’s third largest international sporting tournament after the Olympics and the soccer World Cup.
Rugby is among the most grueling of team sports. Without the protective armor and helmets that were incorporated into the American variant of the game — football — rugby players endure a violent battering in the course of a game.
The game is played with 15 players on each side. The object is to run with the ball, and to pass it to a teammate before you suffer an inevitable crunching tackle. By brutal attrition, your team attempts to get the ball to the opposing touchline to score a try, which is worth five points. Points are also awarded for kicking the ball over and between the goalposts.
Rugby is among the most grueling of team sports.
In the 1890s, an argument about whether the sport should be professional or amateur resulted in a split, with the northern English working class clubs forming “rugby league,” a professional code, while the southern clubs adhered to “rugby union.” Throughout the later part of the 20th century, rugby union became professional in all but name (it was accused of “shamateurism”), and all restrictions on payments to players were finally lifted in 1995.
The two rugby codes remain separate, with several significant variations in the rules of play. In rugby league there are only 13 players on each side, and there is a “six tackle rule” — after the sixth tackle by the defending team, the team on offense must hand over possession of the ball.
In rugby union, some key rule infringements result in play restarting with a “scrum.” In an awesome — and dangerous — test of power, the eight heaviest players on each team form three rows on each side, lock heads, and push against each other to gain control of the ball with their feet. Medical authorities continue to call for scrums to be banned.
Rugby union is most popular in the British Isles, parts of Europe (especially France and Italy), the British Commonwealth (notably, New Zealand and Australia) and in some countries in the Americas. In the United States, the women’s game is increasing in popularity, and the U.S. men’s team will be participating in the forthcoming World Cup, taking on the reigning champions, England, in their first game on Sept. 8.
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