Legend has it that the game of rugby football was inspired by the actions of one William Webb Ellis, a pupil at Rugby School, in 1823. According to a stone plaque at the school, it was he who ‘with a fine disregard of the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it’.
To put this unexpected action in context, catching the ball was allowed in football at this time; running forward with it was not.
The story is firmly entrenched in the folklore of the sport, to the extent that the World Cup trophy is named in honour of Webb Ellis. Yet there is little contemporary evidence to support it, and many consider it a myth.
Webb Ellis certainly existed — he lived from 1806-72 and was a prominent Anglican clergyman — but his favoured game was cricket, which he later played for Oxford University.
Birth of the unions
Whatever the truth about the origins of the game, we do know that the first set of rules was published in 1845, and that 21 rugby-playing clubs broke away from the Football Association to establish the Rugby Football Union in 1871.
Initially the RFU was dominated by London-based clubs, but Scotland, Ireland and Wales also proved fertile ground for the growth of new teams. The Scottish Football Union (now Scottish Rugby Union) was founded in 1873, the Irish Rugby Football Union in 1874 and the Welsh Rugby Union in 1880.
In Wales, rugby would eventually become the national sport. In England, it would diverge into two separate sports after a group of northern clubs split from the Union in 1895 to form what would become the Rugby Football League.
British and Irish stamp issues celebrated the centenaries of the RFU, the IRFU and the WRU in 1971, 1974 and 1980 respectively.
The latter half of the 19th century was the heyday of the British Empire, and the former public school pupils who were posted around the world as colonial administrators took the game with them. Hence, rugby also took root in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
In Australia the Southern Rugby Union, formed in 1874, was the chief vehicle for organised sport, and there was no Australian RFU until 1949. However, the national team, the Wallabies, was playing test matches from 1899, a fact acknowledged by a set of four stamps on the centenary in 1999.
New Zealand organised the NZRFU in 1892, and its centenary was marked by the issue of an illustrated postal stationery envelope in 1992. The country has also issued plenty of stamps on the theme, including a pair in the long-running Health series in 1967 and a set of six in 2003 celebrating the centenary of the national team, known worldwide as the All Blacks.
The South African Rugby Board was formed in 1889, for white players only, while a South African Coloured Rugby Football Board was set up in 1897 to cater for those on the other side of racial segregation. The centenary of the original organisation was marked by a set of four stamps in 1989, but there would not be a unified governing body until after the end of apartheid in 1992.
Under British influence, various Pacific islands also adopted the sport with enthusiasm, including Fiji by 1913, Tonga by 1923, Samoa by 1924 and the Cook Islands by 1948.
Fiji holds the distinction of producing the world’s second stamp in this theme: a 2d+1d Health design of 1951 which shows a player placing a ball ready to kick at goal. It also celebrated the 50th anniversary of its national body with a set of stamps in 1973.
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