The origin of rugby football is reputed to be an incident during a game of English school football at Rugby School in 1823 when William Webb-Ellis is said to have picked up the ball and run with it. Although the evidence for the story is doubtful, it was immortalised at the school with a plaque unveiled in 1895. Despite the anecdotal nature of the sport's origin, the Rugby World Cup trophy is named after him. Rugby football stems from the form of game played at Rugby School, which former pupils then introduced to their subsequent university. Old Rugbeian Albert Pell, a student at Cambridge, is credited with having formed the first 'football' team. During this early period different schools used different rules, with former pupils from Rugby and Eton attempting to carry their preferred rules through to their universities.
Significant events in the early development of rugby football were the production of the first set of written football laws at Rugby School in 1845, which was followed by the 'Cambridge Rules' drawn up in 1848. Other important events include the Blackheath Club's decision to leave the Football Association in 1863 and the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871. The code was originally known as "rugby football"; it was not until after the schism in England in 1895, which resulted in the separate code of rugby league, that the sport took on the name "rugby union" to differentiate it from the league game. Despite the sport's full name of rugby union, it is known simply as rugby throughout most of the world.
The first rugby football international took place on 27 March 1871, played between England and Scotland. By 1881 both Ireland and Wales had representative teams, and in 1883 the first international competition, the Home Nations Championship had begun. 1883 was also the year the first rugby sevens tournament at Melrose, the Melrose Sevens, which is still held annually. Five years later two important overseas tours took place; a British Isles team visited Australia and New Zealand—although a private venture, it laid the foundations for future British and Irish Lions tours; and the 1888 New Zealand Native team brought the first overseas team to British spectators.
Between 1905 and 1908, all three major Southern Hemisphere rugby countries sent their first touring teams to the Northern Hemisphere: New Zealand in 1905, followed by South Africa in 1906 and Australia in 1908. All three teams brought new styles of play, fitness levels and tactics, and were far more successful than critics had expected. The New Zealand 1905 touring team performed a haka before each match, leading Welsh Rugby Union administrator Tom Williams to suggest that Wales player Teddy Morgan lead the crowd in singing the Welsh National Anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, as a response. After Morgan began singing, the crowd joined in: the first time a national anthem was sung at the start of a sporting event. In 1905 France played England in its first international match.
No international rugby games and union-sponsored club matches were played during the First World War, but competitions continued through service teams such as the New Zealand Army team. During the Second World War no international matches were played by most countries though Italy, Germany and Romania played a limited number of games, and Cambridge and Oxford continued their annual University Match.
Rugby union was included as an event in the Olympic Games four times during the early 1900s. In 1973 the first officially sanctioned international sevens tournament took place at Murrayfield, one of Scotland's biggest stadiums, as part of the Scottish Rugby Union centenary celebrations. In 1987 the first Rugby World Cup was held in Australia and New Zealand, and the inaugural winners were New Zealand. The first World Cup Sevens tournament was held at Murrayfield in 1993. Rugby Sevens was introduced into the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and is due to be added to the Olympic Games by 2016.
Rugby union was an amateur sport until the IRB declared the game 'open' in 1995, removing restrictions on payments to players. However, the pre-1995 period of rugby union was marked by frequent accusations of "shamateurism", including an investigation in Britain by a House of Commons Select committee. Following the introduction of professionalism trans-national club competitions were started, with the Heineken Cup in the Northern Hemisphere and Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere. The Tri-nations, an annual international tournament involving Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, kicked off in 1996.
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