The DNA of Rugby Football: A Short History of the Origin of Rugby Football

The DNA of Rugby Football: A Short History of the Origin of Rugby Football

by Gerhard Roodt


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This book is about how football was played in ancient times and worlds, from Australia and South America to China and Europe. It tells the story of how towns and parishes competed against each other. During the Industrial Revolution football moved from the streets to the schools. The book describes how rugby football started at Rugby School and how the schoolboys wrote the first laws in their schoolbooks. From there it grew into the modern international game we play and watch today. It also tells the story of other football games and how it happened that Rugby football and Association football (soccer) became two different sports.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781482808278
Publisher: Partridge Africa
Publication date: 08/07/2015
Pages: 284
Sales rank: 965,363
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.64(d)

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The DNA of Rugby Football

A Short History of the Origin of Rugby Football

By Gerhard Roodt

Partridge Africa

Copyright © 2015 Gerhard Roodt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4828-0827-8


Ancient Football Games

There have been reports of football games played by a variety of nations from the earliest of times. Some can however, not be considered frontrunners of today's football games but it is still interesting to see that from the earliest of times a ball was either kicked, caught or run with. Sports like "Harpastum" played by the Roman soldiers in the early days could have made an impression on the local people and it could have been a precursor for the football played especially in the British Isles today. "Marn Grook" played by the Australian Aborigines could have planted the seed for Australian Rules Football played today but this is doubtful. "Knattleikr" played in Iceland could have developed into something like Hurling played in Ireland because both sports involve hitting the ball with a stick.

Australian Aborigines:

When the British arrived in Australia, the aborigines already played a kind of game with a ball. In the aborigines' 40 000 year history, mention is made of this game and this would make it one of the oldest ball games known to historians. The name of the game is "Marn Grook" and in Gunditjmara (an aborigine language) the meaning is 'game of the ball'. The game primarily consisted of kicking, jumping and catching. It was widely played among the Australian aborigines. In the Australian states of Victoria, the tribes of Djabwurrung and Jardwadjali particularly played the game. The ball was the size of an orange, made of possum skin and stuffed. Teams consisted of between 50 and 100 players each. The ball was dropped and then kicked in the air. The only ball handling allowed was to catch the ball after the kick and no passing was allowed. Points were allocated to the player who jumped the highest to catch the ball.

In 1841 a certain Mr Thomas, an officer in Aborigine Affairs wrote the following on the game he observed during his roaming through urban Australia:

"The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kick it with his foot. The tallest men have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it. This continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise."

Tom Wills, one of the establishers of 'Australian Rules Football' played the game with the aborigines during the 1840's on his father's farm in Victoria.

Central and South America:

As early as about 1500 a kind of ball game was played by the inhabitants of Central and South America. The Olmec civilisation apparently was the first to play it but it quickly spread to the Teotihuacan, Mayan, Toltec and Aztec civilisations. In 1521 when Spain colonised Mexico, the game was prohibited.

The interesting aspect of this game is that from the earliest times it was played with a rubber ball. The ball was driven forward by kicking it with feet and knees and knocking it with hips and buttocks. The ball had to be kept in the air and was not allowed to touch the ground. The game was played on a court with a ring high up on a pole or against a wall and the purpose was to kick the ball through the ring. It was very difficult to score a goal and it is assumed that some or other point system would have indicated the winning team. The players wore a specially made and very uncomfortable shoulder piece that hung on them like an apron. They also wore protection around their knees and elbows.

In ancient South American civilisations the temple was built in a pyramid shape with steps and was located in the middle of the community. The king or ruler's residence was built very close to it. The court for the game was usually against the temple wall with sufficient provision for spectators. As the court and temple were built so close to each other, it is assumed that the game had significant religious meaning.

Usually only kings and the nobility were allowed to participate in the game and it was played only during important religious feasts. After the competition, one or more players of the losing team were sacrificed to the gods.

In 1528 Hernan Cortez took a number of the players to Portugal to demonstrate the game there. The introduction of a team sport played with a rubber ball must have made a huge impression on the Europeans but the game never took off there.


In Greek literature and history there are several mentions of a ball sport which probably refers to the same game. Antiphanes, a Greek author (388–311 BC) mentioned a team sport known as 'Phaininda', but it was also called 'Episkyros' or 'Sphaeromachia' or 'Ephebike' - a game played by 12 players in each team and where the ball was caught with the hands.

Around 180 AD, Julius Pollox described the game Episkyros in his 'Dictionary Onomasticon' as follows:

"Two teams are separated with a line made with a piece of chalk, and behind each team there is another line. The purpose of the game is throwing a ball over the opposite team without passing the line in the middle, trying to reach the line behind the opponent."

In his work on the Ancient Olympic Games, Tony Perrottet wrote the following on Episkyros which seems to be considered an Olympic sport:

"Developed by the Spartans. The field was large and marked with stones. The rules were obscure. The two teams tossed a small leather ball back and forth at each other and trying to drive each other over their defence line. There were some bone-crunching collisions."

Later on a game called 'Harpaston' developed. Harpaston literally means 'hand ball'. In classic Greek culture 'Harpaston' is described as a hard and brutal game. All the rules of the game could not be found but the following rules are known:

1) Points are gained if a player kicks or carries or throws the ball to a team mate over the opposite goal line.

2) The opposition would try and prevent it at any means possible.

3) The pitch did not have a fixed size.

4) There were no sidelines.

5) There was no limitation to the number of players participating.


The earliest form of ball game for which proof could be found, is a ball game played with feet. It dates back to the 2nd and 3rd Century BC. The game was called "Cuju" or "Tsu Chu". In a military text book from the times of the Han dynasty (206 BC to 24 BC) "physical education" was called "Tsu Chu". "Tsu" means kicking the ball with feet and "Chu" refers to a ball made of leather and stuffed. Initially the game was only played on the birthday of the Chinese ruler for him and his guests. Gymnastic movements for his soldiers were often based on the game and later dynasties used the game in the training of soldiers.

The game was played in a walled enclosure with 6 goals on each side which were protected by 6 of the 12 players in a team. The other six had to kick the ball around in their attempt to score a goal. Each game had a few umpires to judge the application of rules. An author from that era, Li You (55 to 135 AD) wrote the following on the game in "Jucheng ming" or "Inscription on the ball wall":

"The ball is round, the wall rectangular,
a symbolic image yin and yang
(the two teams).
Using the moons as a guide, they lay siege to one another.(12 players)
With six each, are balanced.(an equal number per team)
A head is named and an assistant appointed.(umpire)
Their interpretations of the rules must be constant.
Unprejudiced near or far.
There shall be no currying favour nor high-handedness
with an honest heart and balanced thoughts.
No one can find fault with wrong decisions.
If football is regulated correctly like this, how
much this must mean for daily life."

This song of praise of the game was hung from each goal post.

During the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD) a few changes were made to the game. They firstly replace the stuffed ball by an inflated one. The 12 goals were replaced by a net between two poles.

The ball had to be kicked through the net. The net was about 30cm by 40cm. The net was fixed to two bamboo sticks of about 9 meters long. Players participating in the game, had to have a lot of talent and skills. There also was a more robust version of the game where an opposing player tried to prevent kicks to the goals. A player could drive the ball forward by any part of his body, except the hands, which he used to keep players from the opposing side away.

The game was held in high esteem and initially was for the nobility only but after a while it found its way to the common Chinese man. The status of the game was then considered lower and therefore the nobility withdrew their support with the result that the game died out.

Today the game is revived and is regularly played as a tourist attraction.


In a document dated 611 AD mention is made of a football game played in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. The game played here was called 'Kemari'. The story goes that 'Kemari' was brought to Japan from China 1,400 year ago by the Asuka dynasty. Initially this game was also only played by the Emperor and his following but gradually blew over to soldiers and the rest of the population. The game also then died out but in 1903 Emperor Meiji established a society to have the game revived.

In a document from the palace of the Emperor dated 701 AD, mention is made of a gathering held on 5 May to discuss the game. The Heian Dynasty then laid down the rules for the game. The court was a square of about 6 by 6 metres. A particular tree was planted at each corner. In the south eastern corner, a willow tree was planted, in the north eastern corner, a cherry tree, in the north western corner a pine tree and a maple tree in the south western corner.

The ball was known as a 'Mari', with a circumference of 24 cm and made of deerskin. The hairs of the skin were on the inside and it was stuffed with barley grains and shaped in a ball. As soon as the ball hardened and kept its shape, the barley was thrown out and the ball was covered by horse leather and sewn together. Participants in the game had to wear clothes of the Asuka Period. This was the sporting gear of that time and to round off the picture (the uniform was called 'kariginu') every player had to wear a fancy hat.

Teams consisted of 4, 6 or 8 players and with the players shouting, the ball was kicked among them. The purpose was to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible. The kicker, the 'mariashi', had to kick the ball to a receiver. A good kicker made sure that the receiver could control the ball. The game is unique in that no points were scored and there was no competition among the players. No one lost or won the game.


A kind of ball game was played in Manipur, a district in India, since ancient times. It is called 'Yubi Lakpi' but is now also called 'Manipuri Rugby'. 'Yubi' refers to a coconut and 'Lakpi' means to grab. The game is played with a well-oiled coconut which made it very slippery.

The game was played on the palace grounds on the beautiful lawns or on the Bijoy Govinda temple grounds. The pitch was 45 by 18 metres and on the side where the king and his followers sat, a goal was erected of 4.5 by 3 meters in the middle of the goal line.

Teams consisted of 7 players. At the start of the game, the coconut was thrown in at the furthest side of the goal. Players had to try and catch it and take it to the goal. To score a goal, a player had to enter the goal from the front. Upon entering the goal, the player had to hand over the coconut to the king or umpire who then took it back to the furthest point of the pitch to get the game started again.

In ancient times the teams never had an equal number of players. The ball carrier's team mates were allowed to prevent the opposition from interfering with the ball carrier.

The Vikings:

A rough and robust game was played by the earlier conquerors of the British Isles. It is unknown whether this game was a precursor to the Orkney Island's 'Ba game' but there are significant similarities between the Iceland 'Knattleiker' (ball game) and the current 'Ba game' played on the Orkney Island.

Not much is known about the game today. It is however, well-known that the game was popular among both adults and children. At Lekskalvollane in Western Island tournaments were held that lasted up to 14 days. Several sources mention the game and the following rules seem to have applied:

• Players were divided into two teams.

• Teams consisted of two or more players.

• A hard ball had to be hit with a stick.

• The opposition had to catch the ball with their hands and throw or kick it.

• Physical contact was allowed where there were struggles for the ball.

• A game could last from dawn to sunset.

• Each team had to have a captain.

• Penalty kicks were awarded and there was a penalty box.

• The playing field was demarcated.

• Players had to wear specific clothing for a game.

• Games were played on ice or on grass.

The "Saga of Gisli the Outlaw" provides a description of the game written in about 950 AD.

"Those brothers-in-law, Thorsgrim and Gisli
were very often, matched against each other, and
men could not make up their minds which was the
stronger, but most thought Gisli had most
strength. They were playing at the ball on the tarn
called Sedgetarn. On it their was ever a crowd. It
fell one day when there was a great gathering that
Gisli bade them share the sides as evenly as they
could for a game.

'That we will with all our hearts!' said Thorkel,
'but we also wish thee not to spare thy strength
against Thorgrim, for the story runs that thou
sparest him, but as for me, I love thee well enough
to wish that thou shouldest get all the more honour
if thou art the stronger?'

Now they began the game, and Thorgrim could not
hold his own, Gisli threw him and bore away the ball.
Again Gisli wished to catch the ball, but Thorgrim
runs and holds him, and will not let him get near it.
Then Gisli turned and threw Thorgrim such a fall on
the slippery ice that he could scarce rise. The skin
came off his knuckles, and the flesh off his knees, and
the blood gushed from his
nostrils. Thorgrim was very slow in rising. As he
did so he looked to Vestein's house and chanted:
'Right through his ribs
My spearpoint went crashing: Why should I worry?
Twas well woth the thrashing'
Gisli caught the ball on the bound, and hurled it
between Thorgrim's
shoulders, so that he
tumbled forward, and threw
his heels up in the air, and
Gisli chanted:
'Bump on the back My big ball went dashing:
Why should I worry?
Twas I gave the thrashing'
Thorkel jumps up and says:'Now we can see who Is
the strongest or the best player. Let us break off the
game?' and so they did."

The Romans and Italy:

In Greece the Roman invaders found a ball game, developed their own version and called it 'Harpastum' or 'Arpasto'. Because the names were quite similar, the game probably developed from the Greek's 'Harpaston'.

'Harpastum' means "game of the small ball" as the ball's size was equal to the size of a Baseball ball. The game was played on sand or grass. Players had to be reasonably fit because the game required lots of speed, dexterity and strength. The game was often used in the training and fitness of the Roman soldiers. It is possible that the game was introduced to the English when that country was invaded by the Romans.

Not much is known of the rules but it must have been something between modern Rugby and American Football. It was a team sport with any number of players playing on each side. The playing field was neatly demarcated about the size of half a Rugby pitch.

Athenaeus described the game in the first century as follows:

"Harpastum, which used to be called Phaininda, is the game I like most of all. Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes said, 'Damn it, what a pain in the neck I've got.' He describes the game thus:' He seized the ball and passed it to a teammate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts of: 'Out of bounds,' 'Too far,' Right beside him,' 'Over his head,' 'On the ground,' 'Up in the air,' 'Too short' and 'Pass it back to the scrum'"

Galen, in 'On exercise with the Small Ball' describes 'Harpastum' as better exercise than wrestling or running because it involved every part of the body and it was a great way to work out a strategy.


Excerpted from The DNA of Rugby Football by Gerhard Roodt. Copyright © 2015 Gerhard Roodt. Excerpted by permission of Partridge Africa.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
Acknowledgements, xi,
Name of the Game, xiii,
1. Ancient Football Games, 1,
2. Ancient football in England, 20,
3. Mob Football, 43,
4. Rugby School and William Webb Ellis, 78,
5. The development of football after William Webb Ellis up to 1871, 87,
6. From the establishment of the RFU up to 1900, 148,
7. Rugby in other countries, 167,
8. Other football sports, 200,

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