Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: rugby, game
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

game that originated (1823), according to tradition, on the playing fields of Rugby, England. It is related to both soccer and American football. The game is said to have started when a Rugby School student named William Webb Ellis playing soccer picked up the ball and ran downfield with it instead of kicking it. Other English schools and universities adopted the style in the mid-19th cent. In 1871 the English Rugby Union was formed to standardize the game. Rugby was introduced (1875) into the United States, but faded as football developed. In 1895 an argument in England over paying players led to a split between groups of clubs and two forms of the sport have existed since: the professional game (now called Rugby League) with 13 players per team; and the amateur Rugby Union, with 15 players. The rules differ slightly, but the basic idea for both is the same.

The rugby field is roughly 160 yd (146 m) long and 75 yd (69 m) wide, with goal lines 110 yd (101 m) apart and two in-goals (corresponding to football's end zones) 25 yd (23 m) deep. A halfway line divides the field, which is further subdivided by other lines parallel to the goal line. The goal posts have measurements similar to those used in American football, and the ball, although larger and more rounded, is similar to the American football.

Players may kick, carry, or pass (to the sides or to the rear) the ball; though tackling is permitted, blocking is forbidden. Unlike American football, rugby features almost continuous play; after penalties and out-of-bounds plays, however, a scrum (in which the two opposing lines of forwards kick the ball thrown between them) starts play again. Various points are scored for carrying the ball into the opponent's in-goal (a try), conversions (kicking the ball between the goal posts after a try), field goal kicks, and penalty kicks. A rugby match is in halves of 40 min, and may end in a tie.

Sevens is a form of rugby with seven players on each side and halves of 7 min (10 min for a championship or series final), but the field and most other aspects of the game are similar to regular rugby. There are Rugby League and Rugby Union versions of sevens, whose development dates to the 1880s; the Rugby Union version, rugby sevens, has become the more popular form internationally. There are also versions of rugby with nine and ten players on a side.

A Rugby League World Cup was first held in 1954 and a world cup for Rugby Union was established in 1987. Rugby sevens has become popular internationally since the 1970s; a world cup tournament was first held in 1993, and the sport was included in the Olympics in 2016. Outside the British Isles, the sport has been popular in Australia, New Zealand, parts of the South Pacific, South Africa, France, and Romania. Since the late 20th cent., it has gained a measure of popularity in American colleges, initially as a club sport, sometimes played in the spring by football players. Like soccer, there are women's leagues and women's World Cup competitions, and women's rugby sevens is also an Olympic sport.

  • See Williams, R. , Skillful Rugby (1980);.
  • Quinn, K. , The Encyclopedia of World Rugby (1991).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Rugby (Amateur)
Encyclopedia of Play in Today's Society

Different forms of football have been played for centuries in various societies. The rugby football codes, union, and league can trace their...

Full text Article rugby
Philip's Encyclopedia

Ball game for two teams in which an oval ball may be handled as well as kicked. There are two forms of the game, union and league, but the...

Full text Article rugby
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

Football sport made up of two variant codes—rugby union and rugby league. The sport was first developed in the 1820s at Rugby School in England. In

See more from Credo