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May, 2019

SEYReview: THE ORIGINS OF RUGBY

Southeastern Youth Rugby (SEYR) is run by a group of dedicated volunteers committed to advancing rugby both in their local Fishers, Indiana community and nationwide. “SEYReview” shines an occasional spotlight on teams, clubs, and stories unique to the sport.

How did rugby get started? The popular belief is that William Webb Ellis, a pupil at Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, picked up a soccer ball and ran with it during a school match in 1823, thus creating the "rugby" style of play. That story is now widely dismissed as a myth. For one, the game of soccer as we know it today didn't even exist in 1823.

Far from rugby being a descendant of soccer, the more likely story is that the two sports share origins. "Medieval mob football" is a term given to a collection of large-scale ball sports played in Europe throughout the Middle Ages (5th to 16th century). These sports were played with different regional variations throughout Europe, though they typically shared the same format: Teams of a few dozen to a few hundred players each would vie to capture the ball and take it to their village. Matches of such massive scale often took all day, with players dropping out throughout the hours due to fatigue. These unruly games were subject to a high level of chaos and violence, thus the name "mob" football. Notable examples of such games included the French "la soule," the Welsh "cnapan", and the Irish "caid."

It's hard to argue that rugby was a descendant of soccer simply because there were no restrictions in these medieval games regarding ball handling. If you could travel in a time machine back to the Middle Ages, mob ball probably looked more like rugby or even American football. You could touch the ball with your hands, and in most cases ball movement was, to use a more contemporary phrase, by any means necessary. One variation of the French game of la soule only allowed players to move the ball using a hockey-like stick. The name of that game? "Shouler a la crosse" of course.

Some theorize that soccer and rugby can trace their roots all the way back to the ancient Roman game "harpastum," which itself was a romanized version of the even more ancient Greek game "phaininda." Regardless, one historical fact we can state definitively is that modern soccer did not codify its rules to explicitly forbid handling of the ball until 1869, almost a half-century after William Webb Ellis attended Rugby School.
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