Rugby—officially known as Rugby Union Football— is the original form of football (and the actual parent of American football. Rugby Football was derived from what is more popularly known in the U.S. as Soccer. It began at Rugby School in 1823 when a young player named William Webb Ellis became frustrated with kicking the ball around on the ground, picked it up and ran it into goal. The next time he tried it, two of his opponents “tackled” him into the ground as he crossed the goal, and a great tradition began.
Even in the 19th Century, rugby soon became popular everywhere in Europe and in many British Crown Colonies—wherever the culture was spread. Today, soccer is known in the United Kingdom as a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans. And rugby is looked upon as a “hooligan’s game played by gentleman.” So the tradition continues, and anyone who has played rugby football for any length of time will tell you that rugby is an international brotherhood, and that there is a closeness and a sense of fraternity in rugby that you will experience in no other sport.
Rugby is akin to American Football in that it is played on a pitch (or field) with goalposts similar in conformation to an American football field. A rugby pitch is approximately 150 yards long by seventy-five yards wide. There are 15 players on a side (or team)—eight forwards and seven backs—but there is only one referee. Play is fluid and flowing with a great deal of lateral passing and kicking forward. However with rugby, unlike American football, you can maintain possession of the ball as long as you can hang onto it. The only way you lose it is to have it taken away from you by an opponent, by kicking out of bounds (or “into touch”), or by getting a penalty against your team. In rugby, you score by touching the ball down in the opponent’s end goal (hence the etymological origin of the word, “touchdown”). A touchdown in rugby is called “a try,” and tries count for five points with conversions counting two.
In fact, English Rugby is the actual parent of American Football. Rugby football was brought intact to America in the 1860s and was beginning to catch on as a team sport there, when an engineer named Walter Camp redesigned it, reduced the size of the field, added five more officials, stopped the action with a series of plays called downs that ended when a player was tackled, and generally made the sport duller, slower, and more conducive to commercial breaks during frequent timeouts. (So that’s what happens when an engineer gets hold of anything!) Hence the birth of American Football; or what is known to the rest of the world as “Gridiron.”