As the Rugby Football Union celebrates its 150th year, we examine six influential governing bodies and their roles in the history and development of Rugby Union since 1871.
Part 1- The Rugby Football Union
It is not known which telegram or conversation among gentlemen led to the birth of international rugby in 1871, but it is clear that polite society was abuzz. On the 4th December 1870, a letter was printed in the Times newspaper inviting representatives of football clubs to meet and form a code of practice for the handling code. Four days later another letter was printed in a different newspaper, the Scotsman, openly challenging the footballers of England to a contest in Glasgow or Edinburgh to be played in accordance with the rules of Rugby School.
The result of all this was a meeting, held at the Pall Mall restaurant on 26th January 1871. There representatives of 21 London based clubs established the Rugby Football Union (RFU). On March 21st 1871, a team selected by the RFU contested the world’s first international football contest. It was the start of an annual fixture that grew into the Home Nations Championship and continues to this day as the Six Nations Championship.
Since 1871, the RFU has been front and centre of almost every major development in the history of Rugby Union. It was the RFU that reduced international rugby from 20-a-side to 15-a-side in 1877. A disputed try against Scotland in 1884, however, led to the establishment of the International Rugby Football Board in 1887, which the RFU finally joined in 1890.
It was the RFU’s unbending commitment to the principles of amateurism that did most to fracture the sport into two distinct codes in 1895. Weakened for a generation, the RFU eventually rebuilt English rugby by constructing a stadium at Twickenham that remains one of the world’s most iconic.
The amateur status of its clubs and players allowed the RFU to call an immediate halt to all fixtures in the summer of 1914. The following year, the War Office produced a recruitment poster encouraging other sports to follow rugby’s ‘glorious example’.
In 1971, when the RFU celebrated its centenary it did so in magnificent style. 3000 guests from around the world attended a congress at Cambridge University, before a reception at the Westminster Banqueting Hall with the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister in attendance.
The RFU opposed the repeal of amateur regulations in 1995 but nonetheless adapted to the demands of professionalism by developing Twickenham Stadium as the commercial engine for investment in the sport in England. 150 years after its foundation, the RFU remains a central component of rugby’s identity.
Part 2- The Scottish Rugby Union