Reverend William Webb Ellis




William Webb Ellis is credited with the invention of the modern game of rugby. While at student at the Rugby school, an English boys' preparatory school in 1823, Ellis is reputed to have caught a ball kicked in the air during a game that was played as a local variation of soccer. After catching the ball, Ellis is said to have run forward towards his opponent's goal in an effort to score. The forward movement with a ball handled in this fashion has been frequently cited as the revolutionary act that gave rise to the game of rugby.

A plaque commemorating Ellis and his actions in 1823 was erected at Rugby. After graduating from Rugby, Ellis went to Oxford, where he was a highly regarded cricketer. He was subsequently ordained as a minister in the Church of England. Ellis appears to have had no further connection to the development of rugby (also known as rugby football) after entering Oxford.

While it is highly probable that Ellis played a game that is an ancestor to modern rugby while at Rugby school, it is highly doubtful that Ellis was either its inventor or its developer. Research has illustrated that for as long as 50 years prior to Ellis coming to the Rugby school, students were playing a number of variations of soccer (football) where the players were permitted to play the ball with their hands. The rules of these local Rugby school games were constantly changing; for example, there was no apparent limit on the number of players permitted to take part in a game. It is impossible to credit Ellis as being definitively the first player to catch a ball and move forward, there is little question that someone made a forward run with a ball in the fashion attributed to Ellis in the Rugby school games at some time between 1820 and 1830. It is also noted that the local game played at Rugby had no special ball, as a conventional soccer ball was used. The modern rugby ball was not designed until many years later.

The ability of a rugby player to catch the ball and to move forward down the field after the catch was established in the first codification of the rules of the game in 1845.

SEE ALSO Rugby; Soccer.