We’ve come a long way since the middle ages to the modern age of pretty boys kicking a ball and big burly men in muddy fields. So it’s hard to imagine how both sports began life as a massive brawl between neighbouring towns with an unlimited number of players, all fighting for the possession of a pig’s bladder.
The saying goes that football is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians and rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen, but once football and rugby were one and the same under a number of slightly different names, all with slightly different rules. This game is best described as Mob Football – a game which involves a big mob and where virtually anything goes.
The origins of Mob Football are lost to time, but laid claim to by many nations from the ancient Greeks to the Celtic race, the Vikings and even the Romans. But in Medieval England, games of Mob Football were played between neighbouring towns and villages to often lay claims to land and settle disputes.
Mob Football was a chaotic affair with few rules and often hundreds of players on opposing teams, all taking part in a heaving mass of action as people fought to drag an inflated pig’s bladder using their hands, feet or by any means possible to a marker at each end of a town. It is also rumoured that instead of markers, sometimes teams would need to kick the pig’s bladder into the balcony of their opponent’s church.
Many centuries later, when the proper rules of football were being established and civilised, the creation of Rugby would be thanks to a cheating child named William Webb Ellis who took the ball in his arms with a blatant disregard for the rules and ran with it in 1823.
At this time, handling of the ball was permitted in football, but not whilst running towards the opposition’s goal. However Rugby Football became very popular largely due to the reputation and success of the Rugby School under Dr. Arnold with the innovation of running with the ball introduced to the rules before 1830.
What followed were numerous meetings by numerous committees, who were for the most part divided with regards to the rules, causing gradual division of the Football rules, which over time evolved into Football and Rugby as we know them today.
While the rules evolved into two different sports, so did the equipment, and the footballs themselves advanced from inflated animal bladders to round and oval shapes with leather coverings. Meanwhile, the first football boots were commissioned for King Henry VIII (most likely a rugby player from the looks of him) also developed into the screw-in stud Rugby boots where more grip is required for players in different positions as well as the modern football boots.
The two sports are practically unrecognisable as relatives, and the thought of David Beckham and Martin Corry playing the same sport is an amusing mental image.
Just remember that while we rugby players may enjoy pointing and laughing at the professional footballers writhing around on the grass in tears because someone messed up their hair during a tackle, let’s not forget that Football and Rugby were once not so different.