A History of Rugby League in the UK

The history of the Rugby League in the United Kingdom can trace its roots to the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871. The game of rugby found the greatest following, at the time, in the Northern English counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. The Northern clubs who enjoyed rugby were mostly made up of the working class who enjoys a good rout, while the Southern rugby clubs were composed of the more aristocratic middle class. The divide between player classes carried over to the leagues that began to spring up in Australia and New Zealand.

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There was a serious disassociation of rugby leagues between 1892 and 1895, when the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed. The Rugby Football Union took exception to the forming of a Northern League, which was formed due to the allegations of improper compensation of players of some clubs for missing work to play in league events, and issued sanctions against the official, players and clubs which formed the Northern Union. The phrase, “rugby league”, was first officially used in 1901, with the Northern Rugby Football Union becoming the officially recognized Northern Rugby Football League in 1922.

During the gaming period in which the Northern Rugby League was formed, league championship games were played between the Lancashire and Yorkshire based clubs for a nationwide Challenge Cup award for the winner. In 1905, the separate Lancashire and Yorkshire cups were added to the Challenge Cup and the league championship. At this time there were four cups available for any club to win, with the ultimate goal of all clubs to win all four cups. During the First World War, Britain discouraged all professional sports for the duration of the war, although rugby play continued with fewer restrictions in Australia.

During the Second World War, Britain was much less restrictive with professional sports and allowed continued competitions, with only restrictions on travel between leagues. The Northern League and the traditional Union even competed in a fundraiser event to raise money for the Red Cross. At the conclusion of the Second World War, sporting events in Britain enjoyed a boom in spectator attendance at competitive events, with the first televised match held on Saturday 10 November 1951. The most highly attended event was a match held on 5 May 1954, with and estimated 102,575 spectators in attendance for the match between the Halifax and Warrington rugby clubs.

Throughout the history of all rugby play, rules continue to evolve and the structures of the teams throughout the world continue to evolve with it. As part of the agreement between the major rugby competitive markets, the season was switched in Britain from winter to summer in 1996. To meet standards set by the seasons, all British, Australian and New Zealand games are now played between March and October, with international tournament play generally occurring in November of each year.

Though the sport of rugby, as an international sport, has seen its share of hard times such as the near
disastrous 2000 World Cup tournament, it remains a globally attractive sport. With millions of spectators around the world each year, the 2008 World Cup turned a tidy profit for the league and was declared a huge success. The modern Rugby League European Federation, the European Super League, was established during the first decade of the new millennium and has gone toward advances in both the quantity of international competitions as well as the quality of play. The game of rugby in the UK, and around the world, will continue to evolve to the irreverent joy of all those who follow the sport globally.