6 Nations From muddy mayhem to perfect pitch – the story of rugby down the years

We’re kicking off the 2018 Rugby Union Six Nations Championship with an affectionate look at the game’s colourful history …

Mountfield 6 nations rugby
Image by Ben Hershey (Unsplash)

Remember when rugby matches used to be played on muddy quagmires? When, by the end of the game, there was hardly a blade of grass still to be seen and all the players would leave the pitch caked in mud?

How things have changed. In December 2017, the French club side Racing 92 inaugurated its new indoor stadium which has an artificial pitch and a permanently closed roof. No chance of rain or mud here!

It’s just the latest development in a sport that, like so many other things, appears have been started by the Romans 2,000 ago, when they played a game called harpastum.

A rugby-type game was later documented in France and Britain, where players were at times guilty of over-exuberance.  In England, the game was blamed for causing injuries and even death! Laws were passed in medieval and Tudor times, banning the “devilish” and ‘beastlie’ game, which often involved hundreds of men from neighbouring communities.

The game became somewhat more refined in the 1800s, although there was still no rugby pitch to speak of – it was usually a case of two teams of indeterminate numbers doing battle in fields. The most famous fields were in Rugby.

Rugby School in Warwickshire had moved to its new site in 1749. It was a large plot, with three rough fields for sporting activities. It was on these fields that the game was to undergo its biggest change in 1823. At this time, teams could have as many as 200 players and the ‘try line’ at Rugby was a tree. Teams had to reach their opponents’ line (or tree) to have the chance to ‘try’ to kick a goal – again, this would involve the tree. If they successfully dropped the goal, they would earn a point.

Unsurprisingly, games could last for days without a point being scored!

Having so many players on the other side made reaching the line difficult. As did the rule which said that players were not allowed to carry the ball. They could kick the ball, like football, but carrying the ball was a complete no-no.

Not exactly a winning spectator sport. No wonder local lad William Webb Ellis decided to shake things up a bit in 1823 by collecting the ball and running with it. Sometimes rules are there to be broken. It became an accepted part of the game and was written into the laws in the 1840s.

In other major changes, the round ball became oval, rugby split into two – Union (15 players) and League (13) – and the rule-makers agreed the game would benefit from more points being awarded.

As for the Six Nations Championship, this grew from the Home Nations, first staged in 1883, to the Five Nations with the addition of France, and finally, in 2000, to its current format with Italy becoming the 6th team.

Which seems like a perfect full circle, given that the Romans probably gave us the game in the first place!