Rugby union originated from one of the various football codes played in English public schools in the 19th century. At Rugby School, catching the ball, a pig bladder encased in leather, was permitted. The catcher was unable to run forward with it, though he could back up and kick while all the other players stood frozen. In 1823, the daring 16-year-old William Webb Ellis (after whom the rugby union world cup is named) broke with tradition, and ran with a caught ball to his opponent's goal.
Whether his rebel act was accepted immediately is unclear, but within a few years other boys had tried it, and by the 1840s it had become the norm. Rugby Football, as it became known, was spread beyond the school's gates by its old boys. The union was formed in 1871 when representatives of 22 clubs and schools met to codify the rules. The first international, later that year, saw Scotland beat England by one try and one goal to one goal.
After a split in 1895, when northern professionals left to form the Rugby League, a Corinthian spirit flourished until 1995, when the union, too, turned professional. Today, rugby union is played in 130 countries and the game's organising body, the International Rugby Board, hopes to reintroduce it to the Olympics, where it has not been played since the 1924 Games in Paris.
Reverberations surrounding the transition from a gentleman's game, run by well-meaning amateurs, into a fully professional business are still felt around the sport, and the question is whether a need remains for two professional codes – especially with players moving between league and union. The next few years, leading up to the 2003 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, could see further changes in the game.
To the uninitiated, rugby seems little more than a baffling successions of human pile-ups. Once understood, though, the game transforms into a free-flowing spectacle of running, slick handling and powerful tackling. The 15-a-side teams divide into two units: forwards, whose job is to win possession either in loose play or at set-piece confrontations (scrums); and backs, who either kick for position, or run, hoping to make it to the opposition's goal line to score a five-point try. The backs also tend to provide the specialist kickers, who can score three-point penalty goals, through the distinctive H-shaped posts.
For more information the International Rugby Board can be contacted at 00353 1240 9200 or visit the organisation's website at www.irfb.com. The Rugby Football Union (the UK's governing body) has a site at www.rfu.com or can be phoned at 020 8892 2000. The Web version of 'Rugby World' (a long-running magazine) is at www.rugbyworld.com. For an online supplier of kit you could try: www.rugbykitdirect.com or fax 01458 851465
The Rolls-Royce of rugby ball manufacturers is the James Gilbert company, which, from its factory in the town of Rugby, supplies balls for all competitive levels of the game. The balls are hand-made using a sophisticated leather-treatment process, with the four panels of the ball double-stitched using a six-stranded thread of hemp and wax. Employing a "unique patented balanced bladder" technology, the top balls are encased in a polyester and cotton laminate finish, to provide extra grip. Top balls retail at around £50.
Your position on the field will dictate the sort of boot that best suits your needs. Front rows (at the front of the scrum) require maximum ankle support, and will select a high-topped boot, while the rest of the forwards will look for a mid-cut boot, offering a good balance between ankle support and flexibility. The more streamlined backs will opt for a low-cut offering, designed for maximum mobility. Extra protection can also be gained by taking a hard-toe shoe as opposed to a soft one. Expect to pay at least £50 for a decent pair.
Made from either durable cotton or more breathable modern fabrics, the rugby shirt has taken on a life of its own away from the pitch as a fashion item. Expect to pay from £20 to £45. Shorts (around £15) can feature reinforced crotch to protect the players' kit from the vagaries of the scrum, and, for line-out jumpers, an additional sewn-in harness helps with giving the player a lift. A fiver will get you matching stretch nylon socks.
Doubtless much to the chagrin of the old-timers, who relied on a shock of hair to protect their skulls, modern rugby union players tend to wear headguards. Made of leather or – more sophisticated and lightweight – modern synthetics, they retail at around £40. For a similar price, shoulder and upper-body padding provide protection in the tackle. Made-to-fit gumshields offer the best oral protection in this contact sport, and it is advisable to consult with your dentist before choosing.