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Paul Rouse, a Professor of History at UCD, was on Off The Ball and explained the history behind Webb Ellis the creation of rugby.

Most rugby fans know the story of William Webb Ellis, a schoolboy who picked up the ball in Rugby School in England and ran with it in the 1820s, therefore inventing the game of rugby.

However, Rouse was on hand to tell a different version of events about how the game of rugby was created.

“Of course the competition currently on is playing for the William Webb Ellis Cup and has been since it’s inauguration in 1987 as the Rugby World Cup.

“Which is a magnificent way to honour the founder of the game - with the slight difficulty that it’s all rubbish.

“We actually don’t even know if he ever picked up the ball and ran with it,” Rouse said.

While Webb Ellis was a real person who did attend Rugby School it was another student named Matthew Blocksom who invented the story of Webb Ellis picking up the ball.

“He wrote a letter to the Rugby School Magazine in 1876 to say that William Webb Ellis had picked up the ball and run with it in 1824 in his first letter and therefore he invented the game called rugby.

“He wrote a letter at the time because there was a debate in England about what the true form of football was,” Rouse explained.

Rugby was more popular than soccer at the time in England and was massively popular with working-class people in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north of the country.

Blocksom wrote the letter to claim the game for upper-class people, as Rugby School was an ‘elite’ school.

This desire to keep the game for wealthy people was widely held and even the administrators in charge of the game aimed to discourage working-class people from playing.

“One of the then presidents of the RFU said in the early 1890s, ‘If the working man cannot afford to play the game he should do without it,’” Rouse said.

This lead to a split in rugby in 1895 between those who wanted to professionalise the game so working-class people could make a living from it and those who wanted to keep it amateur so it would be the game of the aristocracy.

While the topic of professionalism is no longer an issue, that split is still in place today and is the reason for the two codes - Rugby Union and Rugby League.

 

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