While sports such as football (or ‘soccer’ for our American readers) may overshadow rugby across the globe, there’s no doubt that the latter retains a cult following of millions.
Across its two main codes of Union and League, we’ve certainly seen the sport of rugby collectively grow from humble beginnings into something global that’s adored by millions, with Rugby Union particularly popular in nations throughout the Southern Hemisphere.
Here, we take a look at this dramatic rise by reviewing some of the key moments in the sport’s history and some of today’s fascinating stats, to reveal what it is that has shaped the game to become the sporting powerhouse that it is today.
Rugby’s origins – How it All Started
As any rugby aficionado will know, the sport is said to have its origins in the English namesake town of Rugby back in 1823, when William Webb Ellis allegedly picked up the ball during a football match and began running towards the opposition.
From this rugby was born, as the idea quickly gathered momentum and became wildly popular in public and private schools nationwide.
It was some 40 years later in 1863 when a group of English boarding schools drew up the first ‘official rules’, and in 1871 the RFU was created. Rugby League was formed in 1895 when a number of clubs in the north of England broke away from the RFU, changing the rules of the game and beginning this new branch of the sport.
But why the breakaway? Well, rugby was initially designated as an amateur sport, which meant that players weren’t remunerated for their appearances. This was due to the sport’s popularity among middle-class players in the south of England, the majority of whom were able to play during their leisure time.
Conversely, rugby emerged as a working-class sport in the north of England, and clubs were known to compensate players who often has to miss work to participate.
In 1892, formal charges of professionalism were laid against clubs in Bradford and Leeds, after both paid their players to cover the costs incurred by missing work. In August the following year, Huddersfield were accused of offering cash inducements to two players as a way of encouraging them to move clubs, which was also completely contrary to the strict rules imposed by the RFU.
Over time, this sense of frustration and a lack of fair play began to take its toll on norther clubs, who committed to forming their own professional league and code.
Subsequently, August 27th 1895 saw the official formation of the ‘Northern Union’, giving birth to the code of Rugby League and an exciting new schism in one of the world’s most beloved sports (the name Rugby League was officially coined in 1922).
Rugby’s popularity across the world
Both codes were adopted by other countries across the 19th and 20th century, with the British Empire playing a part in passing on the Union game to nations which fell under the its rule at the time. With League, similar breaks away from overseas RFU equivalents began happening as countries like New Zealand and Australia learned of the breakaway teams back in England.
For other nations outside of the Empire, but where rugby is now popular (such as France and Italy) the sport mainly caught on by word of mouth. It was recorded as early as 1870 in France and in just a few decades was the most popular game in most of the major French cities. In Italy it took until the 1920s to gain a real foothold.
As more nations formed international sides and more exhibition matches were played over the 20th century, the global appeal of Union and League continued developing.
Fast forward to 2022 and we have World Cups in both sports, thousands of individual clubs, around 10 million collective registered players and a fanbase in the hundreds of millions.
Interestingly, both rugby codes are now completely professional too, with Union having been declared an ‘Open’ game (accessible to both amateurs and professional players) in the wake of the ground-breaking World Cup of 1995. This occurred nearly 100 years to the day that the original sport was split into two distinctive codes, and once again the decision was taken to ward off a potential breakaway or exodus from the sport.
More specifically, many of the stars of RWC 1995 (including New Zealand superstar Jonah Lomu and the iconic South African winger Chester Williams) were being courted by leading Rugby League clubs around the world, who could offer significant remuneration and large contracts.
Since then, Union and League’s popularity has continued to thrive as well, despite the challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, for example, the RFL posted profits of £1m and according to recent reports rugby has now over taken cricket to be the most watched sport in countries like New Zealand.
A lot of this growth is also down to the commercial and marketing opportunities we now have available. Advertising, a greater choice of TV channels, the use of social media and growing numbers of rugby sites and blogs have offered global audiences’ greater insights and better access to the game.
You can check out Rugby Onslaught here to see what we mean, but there’s no doubt that both codes of rugby have become increasingly marketable throughout the digital age.
What Does the Future Hold for the Sport?
Hopefully we will see this upward trend continuing for both League and Union, especially from an online and accessibility perspective.
What’s more, as many the seasons and competitions across the world have almost returned to normality now post-COVID, fans may well be looking to make up for lost time and then audience participation and engagement may subsequently begin to grow once more.
The upcoming Rugby Union World Cup in France is also catching the attention of existing and a potentially new generation of fans. Scheduled to take place in the autumn of 2023, this iteration of the tournament is expected to be one of the most widely watched in the history of the sport and across a huge range of demographics!