Posted by: Simon Day | February 7, 2013

Part 1: From Rugby to Yale

This is the story of a sport travelling from the United States to the United Kingdom.  It’s a story largely based in modern times.  A story of Brits who have crossed the Atlantic and found success in the NFL, a story of the NFL finding a home in this country and the story of how the sport has grown immeasurably in the UK over the last 30 years.

But it starts with the story of sport moving in the opposite direction. …



“Name?”Most people are familiar with the name William Webb Ellis and how, at Rugby School in 1823, he picked up a round ball during a game of football and ran with it.  And thus, rugby was born.  It’s always struck me as a bit of an unlikely story.  For a start, if Webb Ellis had done that at my school, he’d have been met with “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing Webb Ellis”, placed in detention and made to write “Football’s are for kicking” 500 times on a blackboard.  In fact, at my school, dong something good on a sports field usually landed you in trouble.  At the age of 11, in one of my first rugby lessons, I completed a textbook tackle on a boy about twice the weight of me.  As I picked myself up I saw the teacher standing in front of me:


“NO, name?”

“errr  Day” (slightly louder)

At this point the teacher’s face went red and he screamed “NAME?”

Slowly the penny dropped, “Day, Sir” I said apologetically.

All respect for my excellent tackle was gone and I was firmly in the teacher’s bad books.  I was banished to the misery of “D Game”, a place inhabited by children unable to catch a rugby ball or fathom the concept of passing it backwards.  One small schoolboy error on my part and my chances of ever making it as a rugby player were banished forever.

So no, unless Webb Ellis went to a very liberal and forward thinking school, I can’t imagine his creativity will have gone down well with his teacher.  Besides, if he did pick the ball up and run with it, it’s still a pretty big step to get to the sport of rugby from that point.  It’s not as if he got 29 of his friends in on the ruse and carefully explained an 80 minute routine that would convince his teacher that a new sport had been discovered.

Back then, the balls were made of actual pig bladders inserted into a leather case.  Some lucky chap had the job of blowing air into the bladder in order to pump it up into a round shape.  The casing was then stitched together and hey presto there’s your ball.  Obviously, this didn’t lead to a perfectly round ball; instead games were played with something resembling an oversized plum.  There are no records of when the ball stopped being round, however it appears likely that the move to an elongated ball happened soon after the game was first played.  Tom Brown’s Schooldays was written in 1835 and contains a reference to a “new ball you may see lie there, quite by itself in the middle, pointing towards the school goal”.  Clearly, the ball was able to point in 1835, so had developed some sort of “end”.

It seems strange that given the unlikelihood of the Webb Ellis story being true; it has transcended through time and is even the name of the Rugby World Cup trophy.  In reality, it seems that rugby was started at Rugby School around twenty years later and the first rules were laid down by pupils.  However, these rules were adapted by other schools and universities and tinkered with.  This must have made matches pretty controversial and a nightmare for referees.  Amazingly, this difference in rules continued for almost 20 years and as seemed to be the norm with controversial issues in Victorian time, culminated in a letter to the Times.  The letter, from one Edwin Ash, suggested that an “across the board” code of practice be introduced to prevent confusion and controversy.  It seems amazing that it took twenty years for somebody to reach this conclusion.

Luckily, in 1871, Blackheath Club started the Rugby Football Union and with the help of 21 other clubs, some official rules were soon introduced.  There have been countless changes, but these rules from 1871 are essentially the framework of the sport we call Rugby Union today.

By this point a version of the sport had made its way to Canada and was being played in Trinity College Montreal.  Previously ball games had been played in North America, but the rules and logistics of these games were pretty vague.  An event called “Bloody Monday” was played every term by Harvard students from the 1830 on-wards, and appeared to incorporate aspects of both soccer and rugby.  However, “Bloody Monday” wasn’t governed by any strict rules and usually descended into a mass brawl.  So much so, that the event was banned by the school in 1860.

By the late 1860s, a game similar to the Rugby School version of the sport was being played at a number of Canadian colleges.   Harvard, meanwhile, adopted something more similar to soccer and took on the Rutgers in an organised game in 1869.  The game used a round ball, which was advanced by kicks and dribbles.  However, aspects of the game such as forming “flying wedges” around the ball and aggressively stopping opponents getting to the ball were clear departures from the traditional rules of soccer and were movements towards a brand new sport.

 It didn’t take long for Rugby to move across the border and in 1874, Canadian college McGill took on Harvard in 2 games, one using the soccer style rules that Havard had developed since the 1869 encounter with Rutgers and a second encounter using MacGill’s rugby style rules.  Predictably enough, Havard won the first game, however the second ended surprisingly in a 0-0 draw.  Despite this, the Harvard players preferred the MacGill version of the game and using an elongated ball.   So much so that Harvard decided to practice using the MacGills rules and later on that year they beat them in a game of “rugby” 3-0.

Walter Camp

Walter Camp

The following year Harward played Yale using the “MacGill” rules and the year after that the sport we know as American Football began to take shape.  The first rulebook was put together in 1876 by representatives from Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Colombia.   They met in Springfield, Massachusetts at an event known as the Massasoit Convention.  The representatives agreed to meet each year to review the rules and look to develop the game further.  Among the representatives present was a Yale man called Walter Camp.  He would go on to be known as the “Father of Football”.  If you’ve never seen a picture of Camp, then just ask a friend to sketch a picture of a Victorian man, chances are it will closely resemble Mr Camp.

Gradually the committee adapted the rules and moved the sport away from rugby and soccer.  Camp was at the forefront of these changes and introduced many of the rules that are still used today.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Camp had a ridiculously strong record as a head coach, losing just 2 out of 69 games during his 5 years as head coach of Yale Bulldogs.  Presumably, the fact that he had created many of the rules gave him a pretty good advantage.   If Camp had had any sense, he’d have kept the rule changes quiet from opponents.   There’d have been an endless stream of penalties as he’d bring out his rule book after every seemingly legal play.

“Ten Yard penalty for illegal formation”

“What, we had 11 on the field?”

“Ah, 11.  I think you’ll find Law 56, Sub Section 7.3 states that on 3rd downs in the opposition half, you must only have 10 players on Offence.”

As Camp and other innovators introduced more and more rules, the game moved further and further away from rugby.  However, the elongated ball remains to this day.  So, next time your team recovers a fumble after a lucky bounce or a punt stops near the goal line thanks to a sideways role, say a quick thank you to Rugby School.

Next Week:  How the game progressed from college fun to national obsession…

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