1. Rugby Union — first codified in 1845

    Go to Rugby Union's history on this page

  2. AFL Australian Football League the Victorian game — first codified in 1859. Cambridge Rules. If running "bouncing" every 15 metres.

    In Australia, "Aussie Rules football" or Melbourne Football Club or VFL (Victorian Football League) became famous for its "no offside" rule and handball pass. Appealed to all the Irish in Melbourne and their, as yet uncodified, Gaelic football.

    Click here for the Wikipedia page on AFL's history.

  3. FA Football Assocn (Soccer) — first codified in 1863

    Click here for the FA Wikipedia page.

    Go to Soccer's history on this page

  4. NRL National Rugby League the Sydney game — first codified and launched in 1907-1908.

    Click here for the NRL Wiki page.

    Go to Rugby League's history on this page

Introduction - Early Ball Games

Various early ball games were played during the middle ages (5th to 16th century) and are sometimes referred to as folk football, mob football or Shrove tide football. Such games would usually be played between neighboring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would fight and struggle to move an inflated pig's bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. Authorities would later attempt to outlaw such dangerous and unproductive pastimes.

Also at public schools.

In the nineteenth century, the word "football" could signify a wide variety of games in which players attempted to move a ball into an opponent's goal.

Rugby Union

In 1895, a statue and plaque of William Ellis was erected at Rugby school.

Rugby School

First, the legend, and its background
In 1876 a story was published in a newspaper of a student, quoting another student, of having seen William Ellis (who died in 1872) running with the ball 53 years earlier in 1823. It wasn't until 1841 however that the practice was legalised by the school. Other students who attended Rugby School in the 1830s, e.g. Thomas Hughes of Tom Brown's Schooldays fame, had very different memories, saying it was James Mackie (1838-1839) who was known as being a famous "runner in". However, James was expelled, probably not a good role model for the school In 1895, a statue and plaque of William Ellis — click here was erected to celebrate Rugby Football's origin at the school.

Now for some facts
The first published rules of "football" in 1845 were those of Rugby School at Rugby in Warwickshire, 125 kms northwest of London. The rules permitted extensive handling of the ball.

Eton, Cambridge and Sheffield

It was quickly followed in 1847 by the published rules of the Eton field game at Eton, Berkshire 30 kms west of London. These rules were much more restrictive of handling the ball. You could catch it, but not run with it.

Then the Cambridge Rules, rumoured to have been created in 1848 at Cambridge University, 100 kms north of London.

Next at Sheffield Football Club, 260 kms to the north of London, rules that were codified in 1858, published in 1859.

FA Football Association (or Soccer)

By the time the Football Association met in late 1863, many different sets of rules had been published, varying widely on such questions as the extent to which the ball could be handled, the treatment of offside, the amount of physical contact allowed with opponents, and the height at which a goal could be scored.

The final version of the FA's laws was formally adopted and published in December 1863. Some notable differences from the modern game are listed below:

The rules made no provision for a goal-keeper, match officials, punishments for infringements of the rules, duration of the match, half-time, number of players, or pitch-markings (other than flags to mark the boundary of the playing area).

Major Changes

1866 – the award of a free kick for a fair catch is eliminated

a tape (corresponding to the modern crossbar) is added to the goals

and the strict rugby-style offside rule is relaxed: a player is onside as long as there are three defenders between the receiving player and the opposing goal. In 1925, this was reduced to two defenders (including the goalie). In 1990, the attacking player needs only to be level with the second last defender at that "microsecond" when the ball leaves the passing player's foot. 

Back to 1867 – The situation when the ball goes behind the goal-line is simplified: all rugby-like elements are removed, with the defending team being awarded a goal-kick regardless of which team touched the ball.

1870 – All handling of the ball is forbidden, previously players had been allowed to catch the ball. Half-time fixed, teams to change ends (until 1875 only if no goals have been scored).

1871 – Introduction of the specific position of goalkeeper, who is allowed to handle the ball "for the protection of his goal".

1872 – The indirect free kick is introduced as a punishment for a handball, the first mention of a punitive action for contravening the rules. The corner kick is introduced. Teams do not change ends after goals scored during the second half.

1873 – The throw-in is awarded against the team who kicked the ball into touch (previously it was awarded to the first player from either team to touch the ball after it went out of play). The goalkeeper may not "carry" the ball.

Carrying the ball in Rugby

Because the 1863 rule forbade running with the ball or holding the opponent (or tripping or kicking at his legs), the Blackheath and then other English rugby clubs who followed this lead, did not join the FA. In 1871 they formed the Rugby Football Union.

Similar developments in Rugby Union occurred in Australia, starting at Sydney University in 1864.

Scoring in Early Rugby Union

In the early days "runners in" didn't get points when they scored a "touch down". Instead, it allowed the team to "try" a kick at goal. This is the derivation of the word "try".

The International Rugby Football Board, formed in 1886, introduced a standard point scoring system that increasingly rewarded tries with points. 
They developed a lot more rules, especially with respect to "offside".  Click here for today's full list.

In 1887 in Ireland, Gaelic Football is finally codified. No offside rules, and just one "bounce" permitted when attacking.

In 1899, the Rugby Union English team first played against the Australian Wallabies.

Rugby League

In 1895, Rugby League was formed in England as a breakaway movement as the Northern Rugby Football Union, charging entry fees (on the grounds that the money could then be used to offset workers' injury expenses). Rugby Union at that time was strictly amateur, no fees.

The impact of Rugby League in Sydney and Brisbane in 1907-1908 was immediate. Its "Play the Ball" rule when tackled allowing spectators to see more of the ball, as well as professional match fees attracting top players meant many Rugby Union Clubs switched codes.

State of Origin and the Brisbane Broncos
With rugby league interstate matches, each team drew its players from the clubs based in that state. With professional football clubs in Sydney "pinching" the best players in Queensland for their clubs, Queensland as a state was regularly thrashed by NSW. From 1956 to 1981, there was only one Qld win in 1959. But in 1980 the first State of Origin was played (and Queensland won). In 1988 the Brisbane Broncos entered the Sydney league, NZ Warriors and Townsville Cowboys in 1995, Melbourne Storm in 1998, Gold Coast Titans in 2007, Redcliffe Dolphins in 2023, establishing the game more broadly.

Football in Canada and the USA — Gridiron

Early games had a variety of local rules and were generally similar to modern rugby union and soccer. By the 1860s, teams from universities were playing each other, leading to more standardized rules and the creation of college football. While several American schools adopted rules based on new soccer rules of the British Football Association, Harvard University held to its traditional "carrying game". Meanwhile, McGill University in Montreal used rules based on rugby union.

In 1874, Harvard and McGill University in Montreal organized two games using each other's rules. Harvard took a liking to McGill's rugby-style rules, and subsequently played several other US colleges over the next several years. In 1880 the line of scrimmage was added, and then in 1882 the system of downs, distinguishing the game from rugby.

1906 Among the most consequential changes was the adoption of the forward pass in this year, which allowed the quarterback to throw the ball forward over the line of scrimmage to a receiver. It gradually became one of the most defining features of the game.

Click here for Gridiron's "Offside" rule, applicable to the defending team, while with the attacking team, it's generally referred to as a "False Start".

Canadian football remained akin to rugby for decades, for a long time rarely using the forward pass after adopting it in 1929. In 2019, it still has a 110-yard field rather than the 100-yard field used in the US, 12-player teams instead of 11, and three downs instead of four.

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