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Rugby History

Rugby: How it started – possibly!

Rugby, or so the story goes, started at Rugby School in the English county of Warwickshire when, in 1823, William Webb Ellis changed the nature of sport forever by “picking up the ball and running with it.”

Rugby football, as opposed to association football, was born.

William Webb Ellis’s contribution to the creation of the game of rugby is nowadays enshrined by the contest, every four years, for the William Webb Ellis trophy, the glittering prize for the winners of the Rugby World Cup.

But, however enticing a yarn Webb Ellis is, all corners of the globe can lay some claim to moulding a game that evolved into rugby. The Romans, the Chinese, the Egyptians and the Mexicans all have records of some form of ball game.

And here in Scotland, towns and communities, would fiercely contest ba’ games, going as far back as the 18th century.  Ba’ games between parts of towns and villages – usually the Uppies v the Doonies – are as much a part of life in communities like Jedburgh and Kirkwall today, as they were back in the mists of time.

The 200th anniversary of the Carterhaugh Ba’ game – was celebrated in the Yarrow Valley in the Borders in 2015.

The first ba’ game there in 1815 was organised by the renowned Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott, the Ettrick Shepherd, poet James Hogg and the fourth Duke of Buccleuch, and was accompanied by pipes, banners and “wild celebrations”, as some 1,000 men participated in the game between Selkirk and Yarrow.

Rugby in Scotland also owed a huge debt of gratitude to the schools and universities, which spawned former pupil clubs. Edinburgh Accies (1858), Merchistonians (1860), West of Scotland (1865) and Glasgow Accies (1866) played a key role in devising the game’s first laws – known as the Green Book.  All of these clubs pre-dated the formation of the then Scottish Football Union in 1873.

The meeting to consider the formation of a Union in Scotland was held immediately following the third ever rugby international, another Scotland v England affair.

The matches in 1871 and 1872 had been won by the host nation – Scotland at Raeburn Place in 1871, England at Kennington Oval in 1872 – so as a warm-up for such erudite discussion the 1873 match ended with a far from appetising scoreless draw.

First Scotland Team, Scotland v England 1871

It was not without controversy, however. Contemporary reports say that heavy rain fell on the morning of the game and the pitch was the proverbial quagmire.

The English team wanted to improve their footing so sent their boots to a local cobbler to have leather bars fixed to the soles to enhance adhesion to the surface.  Perhaps gamesmanship was (excuse me) afoot (!) not all the boots were returned and the story goes that a number of the English team, including their star back, C W Boyle of Oxford University, had to play wearing one boot and one dress shoe!

The post-match affair featured lavish hospitality, clearly enjoyed by one member of England’s pack who was said to have been found by some of his team-mates around mid-night, driving a local mail carriage around the streets of Glasgow – a whole new definition to being posted missing.

That 1873 meeting did mark the genesis of what became the SRU with Edinburgh Accies, Glasgow Accies, Merchistonians, Royal High School FP, West of Scotland, Edinburgh University, St Andrews University and Glasgow University the founder member clubs.

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