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Updated: 18/05/2006

History of Rugby Union

The major changes in Folk Football occurred in the schools and Universities. The value of sport in children's upbringing was becoming popular and was fostered by "Tom Brown's School Days". Each school or institution had their own set of rules which often changed depending on the circumstances and a person of today would hardly recognise the games as soccer or rugby. In 1823 at Rugby school William Webb Ellis (or some other student) gasped the ball and ran with it, however the first set of rules at Rugby School date from 1843. Eton school had preceded them by 2 years. In 1837 Cambridge University decided on a set of rules which disallowed handling of the ball.

Generally it is thought that the Cambridge rules led to soccer and the Rugby/Eaton rules to rugby, however the reality was that their was much comprise locally.

1991 Rugby School Cover

The above RG Bradbury Cover was issued on the 11th June 1991 to commemorate the World Cup. It includes the 1971 Stamp to commemorate the Centenary of the Rugby Union and the 1980 Stamp to commemorate the Centenary of the Welsh Rugby Union. The cachet shows the stone plaque at the School to commemorate William Webb Ellis.

In 1973 Monaco issued the stamp at below left to commemorate "The invention of Rugby" and William Webb Ellis along with a FDC.

William Webb Ellis Stone at Rugby School

In the 1850s several clubs were formed but the rules were still flexible and often were decided on the day. The clubs included Trinity College, Dublin (1853), Edinburgh Academicals (1857), Liverpool (1858) and Blackheath (1859). Rugby, Winchester, Westminister, Cheltenham and other schools were playing a game with predominantly running.

In 1857 the "Green Book" in Scotland may have had a written set of rules although the book may have been much latter.

In 1864 the first overseas clubs were formed with Sydney University in Australia and Trinity College in Toronto Canada.

1871 saw the formation of the Rugby Football Union and the first rules were agreed upon. The first international between England and Scotland was played. The Scottish Union was formed in 1873, the Irish Union in 1874, and the Welsh Union in 1880.

The International Rugby Board was formed in 1890. The New Zealand Rugby Union was formed in 1892 and the Argentinian Rugby Union in 1899. 1900 saw Rugby in the Olympics, the competition was won by France.

1879 and 1895 saw major defections with America and Canada playing under their own rules and the split and formation of Rugby League. The sport however became the major football code and a religion in South Africa, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, such as Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Island Tokelau and Tonga. It also remained popular in Great Britain, Ireland, France. Italy, Argentina and Australia although it was not the major code.

1987 saw the IRB follow soccer's lead and the First Rugby World Cup was held in Australia and New Zealand. It was followed in 1991 (NZ MS & Stamps) in the UK, 1995 in South Africa and 1999 back in the UK. The 2003 World Cup will be held in Australia.

Despite their small population, New Zealand have always been the dominant country in Union. Their famous team of the 1920s "The Invincibles" was commemorated in the 1992 Issue commemorating the 1920s. One of the members George Nepia was shown on the 1990 Health Stamp Issue. Health Stamps also had Union for a theme in 1967 with release of a Vertical MS, Horizontal MS and First Day Cover.

Like the Northern Hemisphere's Six Nations, the Southern Hemisphere evolved the Super 12 Competition with Clubs from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. In 1999 NZ post released a sheetlet, booklets and FDCs to commemorate their five clubs. The First Day Covers were The Highlanders, The Crusaders, The Chiefs, The Hurricanes and The Blues. The Booklets were The Highlanders, The Crusaders, The Chiefs, The Hurricanes and The Blues. The Crusaders won the 1999 Championship and a cover with a thematic inkjet cancel was produced

On the 2nd July 2003 New Zealand issued six stamps, a Souvenir Sheet, a FDC (shown below) and 6 maximum cards, to celebrate their 100th year of test matches. Another souvenir sheet and cover with three of the stamps was issued for the Welpex 2003 Stamp Show and two of the stamps with souvenir sheet for the Hong Kong 2004 Stamp Show.
NZ Post also released a Miniature Sheet and Cover with one of the Sevens Stamps (see below) and two of the 100th Anniv. of Test Rugby Stamps for the Le Salon du Timbres 2004 exhibition in Paris.

2003 100th year of Tests Cover

On the 16th July 2003 the small Pacific Island Nation of Samoa released a set of 5 stamps and a FDC of Sporting Legends. These include Michael Jones "The Iceman" who played 55 tests for the NZ All Blacks.

The Rugby World Cup 2003 over 6 weeks in October and November was the third biggest event in the World after the Olympics and the Soccer World Cup. England beat the host nation by 3 points in a tremendous final.

Rugby Sevens is a "cut down" version of rugby which allows tournaments over a weekend with open play and quick scoring. A World series of Tournaments is sanctioned by the IRB. The Pacific Island nations are increasingly competitive with the bigger countries.

1 Stamps
1974 Rugby stamp The first stamp was issued in 1974 (shown at left) as part of the Non Olympic Sports Issue. The issue did not distinguish between union and league. There was no pictorial postmark but there was an official Australia Post Cover.

Australia's indigenous game, Australian Football, was also part of the issue. It was fitting considering that one of it's founding fathers, Tom Wills was educated at Rugby School.

The second stamp series was issued on the 8th June 1999 to commemorate 100 years of test rugby. The first official test match by Australia was against the British Isles on the 24th June 1899 at Sydney. Australia won 13-3.The issued consisted of a a se-tenant pair of 45c stamps, a single $1 stamp and a single $1.20 stamp. The se-tenant pair were available as a gutter sheetlet of ten with the Wallabies logo in the gutter. The 45c stamps were also released as roll self adhesive stamps. The Post Office Pack included the four sheetlet stamps. (Front and Back).

1999 Rugby Centenary Cover

The issue consisted of two FDC, the one above with the four sheetlet stamps and another with the two Peel & Stick stamps. The P&S stamps were issued in rolls of 100 with 5 segments of 20. The second and fourth segments end with the tab "Rugby Online"   and the first and third with "See our stamps" and the fifth with "only 10 left".

Australia Post also released four maximum cards and four postcards. They were both of similar design except the postcards were not postmarked and did not have a stamp. They showed John Eales, Matt Cockbain, Matt Burke and Daniel Herbert

2003 saw the release of the Stamps & Minature Sheet for the World cup in Australia. Each stamp value was also released as a minature sheet with a similar design in a booklet which included a postcard of the William Webb Ellis Cup and information about the countries represented. There were three maximum cards of the Ball, the Cup and the Rugby Paddock


A PSE was issued on the 27th May 1991 for the International Golden Oldies Festival in Perth.

3. Postmarks


Date Issue


Post Office


APM11420 06/06/82 Centenary Match between Qld and NSW Brisbane 4000
APM23260 27/5/91 1991 Int Golden Oldies Festival (above) Perth 6000
APM32160 8/6/99 1999 Centenary Rugby Union Test (above) Sydney 2000
APM32550 8/11/99 1999 World Cup Win Australia (Official)
1999 World Cup Win Australia
Sydney 2000
APM35750 8/10/03 2003 World Cup Australia Sydney 2000
APM35830 21/11/03 2003 World Cup ANDA Stamp Show Sydney 2000

4. Personalised Stamps.
John Eales A4 P stamp Souvenir Sheet.
RWC 2003 Special Event Sheet 50c stamp with Silhouette in margin
RWC 2003 Special Event Sheet 50c stamp with Generic Tab in margin
RWC 2003 Special Event Sheet $1.10c stamp with Generic Tab in margin
RWC 2003 Special Event Sheet $1.65 stamp with Generic Tab in margin
Boxing Kangaroo Booklet (overprinted for Qld Stamp Show) issued on 13/8/2004 with label showing Kangaroo playing Rugby. Australia post did not issue a FDC for the rugby label. This cover is by "Coversplease"