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Rugby football can be traced to three documented events: the publishing of the first set of written rules in 1845; the Blackheath Club decision to leave the FA in 1863 over the rejection by the FA of the rules of running with the ball in hand and hacking; and the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871. The game was known simply as rugby (football) and it was not until the schism with rugby league in 1895 over broken time payments that the moniker rugby union was generally applied to differentiate it from the 13 man code. Rugby union stuck to its Corinthian ideals of amateurism and it was not until the end of the 20th century under growing commercial pressure that the game turned professional.

Playing football has a long tradition in England and football had probably been played at Rugby School for two hundred years before three boys published the first set of written rules in 1845. The rules had always been determined by the pupils and not the masters and they were frequently modified with each new intake. Rules changes, such as the legality of carrying or running with the ball, were often agreed shortly before the commencement of a game.

There were thus no formal rules for football during the time William Webb Ellis was at the school (1816-1825) and the legendary story of the boy "who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it" in 1823 is apocryphal. The story first appeared in 1876, some four years after the death of Webb Ellis, and is attributed to a local antiquarian and former Rugbeian Matthew Bloxam. Bloxam was not a comtemporary of Webb Ellis and vaguely quoted an unnamed person as informing him of the incident that had supposedly happened 53 years earlier. The story has been dismissed as unlikely since an official investigation by the Old Rugbeian Society in 1895. However, the trophy for the Rugby Union World Cup is named "Webb Ellis" in his honour, and a plaque at the school commemorates the 'achievement'.

Rugby football has strong claims to the world's first and oldest "football club": the Guy's Hospital Football Club, formed in London in 1843, by old boys from Rugby School. Around the anglosphere, a number of other clubs formed to play games based on the Rugby School rules. One of these, Dublin University Football Club, founded in 1854, has arguably become the world's oldest surviving football club in any code. The Blackheath Rugby Club, in London, founded in 1858], is the oldest surviving non-university rugby club.

In December 1870 Edwin Ash, Secretary of Richmond Football Club published a letter in the papers which said, "Those who play the rugby-type game should meet to form a code of practice as various clubs play to rules which differ from others, which makes the game difficult to play." On January 26, 1871 a meeting attended by representatives from 21 clubs was held in London at the Pall Mall Restaurant.

The 21 clubs present at the meeting were: Blackheath, Richmond, Ravenscourt Park, West Kent, Marlborough Nomads, Wimbledon Hornets, Gipsies, Civil Service, Law Club, Wellington College, Guy’s Hospital, Flamingoes, Clapham Rovers, Harlequin F.C., King’s College, St Paul's, Queen’s House, Lausanne, Addison, Mohicans, and Belsize Park. The one notable omission was the London Wasps. A representative of the Wasps club was sent to attend the meeting, but due to a misunderstanding, was sent to the wrong venue at the wrong time on the wrong day. A more popular story is that the Wasps representative arrived at a venue of the same name, and after consuming a number of drinks, he was too drunk to make his way to the correct venue once he realised his mistake.

As a result of this meeting the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded. Algernon Rutter was elected as the first president of the RFU and Edwin Ash was elected as treasurer. Three lawyers who were Rugby School alumni (Rutter, Holmes and L.J. Maton) drew up the first laws of the game which were approved in June 1871.

The first international rugby union game was played at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh on March 27, 1871 between England and Scotland. It was won by the latter, though England got revenge at the Kennington Oval, London in the following year.

In 1884 England had a disagreement with Scotland over a try that England had scored but the referee disallowed citing a foul by Scotland. England argued that the referee should have played advantage and since they made the Law, if they said it was a try then it was. The International Rugby Football Board (IRFB) was formed by Scotland, Ireland and Wales in 1886 but England refused to join since they believed they should have greater representation on the board because they had a greater number of clubs. They also refused to accept that the IRFB should be the recognised law maker of the game. The IRFB agreed that the member countries would not play England until the RFU agreed to join and accept that the IRFB would oversee the games between the home unions. England finally agreed to join in 1890. In 1930 it was agreed between the members that all future matches would be played under the laws of the IRFB. In 1997 The IRFB moved its headquarters from London to Dublin and a year later the International Rugby Football Board dropped the 'F' to become the International Rugby Board (IRB).

Changes to the laws of the game have been made at various times and this process still continues today. The number of players was reduced from twenty to fifteen-a-side in 1877. Historically, no points at all were awarded for a try, the reward being to "try" to kick the ball over the posts. Some historians record the first international between Scotland and England finishing 0-0 for this reason. The first points scoring system was created in 1889.

The balance in value between tries and conversions has changed greatly over the years. Until 1891, a try scored one point, a conversion two. For the next two years tries scored two points and conversion three, until in 1893 the modern pattern of tries scoring more was begun with three points awarded for a try, two for a kick. The number of points from a try increased to four in 1971 and five in 1992. Penalties have been worth three points since 1891 (they previously had been worth two points). The value of the drop goal was four points between 1891 and 1948, but three points at all other times. The goal from mark was abandoned in 1971, having been worth three points, except between 1891 and 1905 when it was worth four.

Until the late 1860's rugby was played with a spherical ball with an inner-tube made of a pig's bladder. In 1862 Richard Lindon introduced rubber inner-tubes and because of the pliability of rubber the shape gradually changed from a sphere to an egg. In 1892 the RFU endorsed ovalness as the compulsory shape. The gradual flattening of the ball continued over the years. In the 1980's leather-encased balls, which were prone to water-logging, were replaced with balls encased in synthetic waterproof materials.

On August 29, 1895 at a meeting at the George Hotel, Huddersfield, twenty clubs from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire decided to resign from the RFU and form the Northern Rugby Football Union which from 1922 would be known as the Rugby Football League. In 1908, eight clubs in Sydney broke away from union and form the New South Wales Rugby League. The dispute about payment was one which at the time was also affecting soccer and cricket. Each game had to work out a compromise; Rugby was the least successful at doing this. It would be a century before union legalised payments to players and would allow players who had played a game of league (even at an amateur level) to play in a union game.

On August 26, 1995 the International Rugby Board declared rugby union an "open" game and thus removed all restrictions on payments or benefits to those connected with the game. It did this because of a committee conclusion that to do so was the only way to end the hypocrisy of Shamateurism and to keep control of rugby union.

1883 First Home nations Championship between England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
1910 The Home Nations Championship becomes the Five Nations Championship when France joins.
1987 First Rugby World Cup.
1996 The Tri Nations Series begins between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
2000 The Five Nations becomes The Six Nations Championship when Italy joins

1987 New Zealand defeated France 29-9 at Eden Park, Auckland, in the first Rugby World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand.
1991 Australia defeated England in the final 12-6 at Twickenham, London, in the second Rugby World Cup held in British Isles and France.
1995 South Africa defeated New Zealand in the final 15-12 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg (after extra time) in the third Rugby World Cup held in South Africa.
1999 Australia defeated France in the final 35-12 at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff in the fourth Rugby World Cup held in the British Isles and France.
2003 England defeated Australia in the final 20-17 at Stadium Australia, Sydney (after extra time) in the fifth Rugby World Cup held in Australia

1925 All Blacks tour of Britain, France, and Canada. The New Zealanders remained undefeated throughout the tour, earning the title 'The Invincibles'.
1956 Springboks tour of New Zealand. South Africa suffer their first ever test series loss.
1971 Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand. The only Lions team to have ever won a test series in New Zealand.
1971 Springbok tour of Australia marked by protests.
1973 the Barbarians defeat All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park in "that game"
1974 Lions tour of South Africa – the notorious 99 call


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