200 years of rugby

Written by Sterling Content
February 10, 2023


Written by Sterling Content
February 10, 2023

This year marks the 200th anniversary of rugby. The history of the sport, which is played by some 10 million people globally, dates from 1823, when a young football player named William Webb Ellis ran with the ball. From that happy accident, rugby has evolved into one of the most celebrated sports worldwide, currently played in more than 120 countries and supported by some 410 million fans.

In celebration of rugby’s 200-year milestone in 2023, the British Chamber of Commerce joined with chambers of commerce representing Canada, France, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to host a special event attended by a wide range of professionals from the world of rugby, as well as rugby enthusiasts and supporters.


South African Ambassador to Japan Lulama Smuts Ngonyama invited attendees to consider the impact that rugby has had on individuals, communities and nations over the years it has been played. He recalled his jubilation at South Africa overcoming England to scoop the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. By doing so, the Springboks secured their third Rugby World Cup victory—equal to New Zealand’s record—and became one of many important moments in South Africa’s rugby history.

Ngonyama noted South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win at its home stadium in Johannesburg. It was a hugely symbolic moment in South African history, marking the nation’s first major sporting event since the end of its apartheid regime in 1991.

“It was history-making in my country,” he said. “In my mind and the mind of many people in South Africa, rugby became a game for peace, reconciliation, friendship building—even nation-building … everyone celebrated in all corners of my country because of rugby.”

Ngonyama paid tribute to Webb Ellis, whose initiative and innovation has created a huge legacy.

South African-born Frans Ludeke, head coach of Kubota Spears Rugby Team, also reflected on what the Springboks’ 1995 win meant to his nation.

“In 1995, rugby played a significant part in the history of South Africa to help unite our country and that opened doors all over the world for all South Africans,” he said by video message. “Rugby is more than just a game; it is a way of life, a source of inspiration and a means to bring people together.”

South African international Kwagga Smith, who has entered his fifth season with Shizuoka Blue Revs, agreed, adding that rugby is hugely important to people all over the world. Speaking by video message, he expressed his hope that the sport would continue to be played more and more globally.


Fascinating history

Rugby owes its name to Rugby School, located in the Warwickshire town of Rugby, England. Founded in 1567, Rugby School is where Webb Ellis set the creation of rugby in motion; he caught a ball that was kicked to him and decided to run with it to the goal line rather than kick it.

This start to rugby shows that “small matters lead to great results,” said Peter Green, executive head master of Rugby School Group. “Webb Ellis is the unusual hero of our great game.”

Indeed, the first ever rugby club was formed by a graduate of Rugby School and the England rugby team’s uniform colours today pay tribute to Rugby School. Moreover, it was a graduate of Rugby School who introduced rugby to Japan in the mid-19th century, thereby starting Japan’s long relationship with the game.


Japan and rugby

As Japan prepares to pass the baton of hosting the Rugby World Cup to France ahead of the 2023 tournament starting in September, rugby-related professionals across the nation are reflecting on Japan’s success in hosting the 2019 tournament.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup made history as the first tournament ever to be hosted in Asia and by a country other than a “traditional rugby power.” It was considered by World Rugby as representing “an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the development and profile of the sport across the world’s most populous and youthful content.”

Speaking at the chamber event, Koji Tokumasu, former president of Asia Rugby and former general manager of the 2019 Rugby World Cup Organizing Committee, said Japan faced almost insurmountable challenges in being named host of the Rugby World Cup. Not least of these was the language barrier, Japan’s lack of track record and the long, established history of rugby in “traditional rugby nations.”

Still, the stars aligned and, with a huge amount of behind-the-scenes efforts, Japan was selected and went on to host the most economically successful Rugby World Cup ever, with nearly £4.3 billion generated in economic output according to The economic impact of Rugby World Cup 2019  report published by EY in 2020.

“The 44-day global celebration of rugby, hosted across 12 cities the length and breadth of Japan, captured the imagination of a nation and fans around the world. It was the most competitive, best attended, most viewed, most socially engaged and most commercially successful of the nine men’s tournaments to date and the biggest sporting event of 2019,” said the report.

The impact was felt deeply at a grassroots level, too, according to Naotoshi Takahashi, managing director of Kashiwa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who said local people really got behind the All Blacks who attended a pre-tournament training camp in Kashiwa.

“We want that passion for rugby to continue to grow and aid our community-building efforts,” he added.

Fellow Chiba native Okito Yoshida of Chiba Rugby Football Union agreed, noting that rugby can act as a bridge to connect people from all parts of the world.

With such a strong track record and powerful legacy in the past two centuries, the sport of rugby is sure to continue to make a meaningful impact on people and places for many years to come.