The origin of rugby football is said to be an incident during a game of English school football at Rugby School in 1823 when William Webb-Ellis is said to have picked up the ball and run with it. Although the evidence for the story is doubtful, it was immortalized at the school with a plaque revealed in 1895. Despite the unreliable nature of the sport's origin, the Rugby World Cup trophy is named after him. Rugby football stems from the form of game played at Rugby School, which former pupils then brought to university; Old Rugbeian Albert Pell, a student at Cambridge, is credited with having formed the earliest 'football' team. During this early period different schools implemented different rules, with former pupils from Rugby and Eton attempting to carry their preferred rules through to their universities.
Significant events in the early evolution of rugby football were the production of the first set of written football laws at Rugby School in 1845, which was followed by the 'Cambridge Rules' drawn up in 1848. Other important events are the Blackheath Club's decision to leave the Football Association in 1863 and the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871. The code was originally known as "rugby football"; it was not until after the separation in England in 1895, which resulted in the separate code of rugby league, that the sport took on the name "rugby union" to differentiate it from the league game. Despite the sport's full name of rugby union, it is simply titled "rugby" throughout most of the world.
The first rugby football international took place on 27 March 1871, competed between England and Scotland. By 1881 both Ireland and Wales had representative teams, and in 1883 the first international competition, the Home Nations Championship had started. 1883 was also the year the earliest rugby sevens tournament at Melrose, the Melrose Sevens, which is still held annually. Five years later two important overseas tours took place; a British Isles team visited Australia and New Zealand—although a private venture, it laid the foundations for future British and Irish Lions tours; and the 1888 New Zealand Native team brought the earliest overseas team to British spectators.
Between 1905 and 1908, all three major Southern Hemisphere rugby countries sent their earliest touring teams to the Northern Hemisphere: New Zealand in 1905, followed by South Africa in 1906 and then Australia in 1908. All three teams brought new styles of play, fitness levels and tactics, and were far more successful than critics had thought. The New Zealand 1905 touring team did a haka before each match, leading Welsh Rugby Union administrator Tom Williams to suggest that Wales player Teddy Morgan lead the crowd in singing the Welsh National Anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, as a response. After Morgan began singing, the crowd joined in: the earliest time a national anthem was sung at the start of a sporting event. In 1905 France played England in its earliest international match.
No international rugby games and union-sponsored club matches were competed during the First World War, but competitions continued through service teams such as the New Zealand Army team. During the Second World War no international matches contested by most countries though Italy, Germany and Romania played a limited number of games, and Cambridge and Oxford continued their annual University Match.
Rugby union was involved as an event in the Olympic Games four times during the early 1900s. In 1973 the earliest officially sanctioned international sevens tournament took place at Murrayfield, one of Scotland's largest stadiums, as part of the Scottish Rugby Union centenary celebrations. In 1987 the earliest Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand and Australia, and the inaugural winners were New Zealand. The earliest World Cup Sevens tournament was held at Murrayfield in 1993. Rugby Sevens was brought forward into the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and is due to be added to the Olympic Games by 2016.
Rugby union was an amateur sport up to the IRB declared the game 'open' in 1995, removing restrictions on payments to players. However, the pre-1995 period of rugby union was marked by usual accusations of "shamateurism", including an investigation in Britain by a House of Commons Select committee. Following the bringing forward of professionalism trans-national club competitions were started, with the Heineken Cup in the Northern Hemisphere and Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere. The Tri-nations, an annual international tournament involving South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, started in 1996.