The Story of Rugby: How an elite took possession of the game and didn’t let go

Review: RTÉ’s history of the game pulls no punches, tackling colonialism, class war and sexism

Everybody knows how rugby began.

In 1823, during a boring old game of football, a young student at England's posh Rugby School named William Webb Ellis just picked up the ball and ran with it. Thus did this genuine "disrupter" invent a brand new game, putting his school firmly on the map while exposing its unforgivably lax refereeing standards. (Dramatic pause.) Or did he?

The Story of Rugby (RTÉ One, Thursday, 10.45pm), a charging six-part history of the game, recognises this is an extremely fishy origin story. But rugby, it seems, really can be as simple or as complicated as you like.

Take the programme's first words, issued by the terrifically terse Martin Johnson, a former Lion still full of pride: "Plan A is some big guys run hard," he explains. "Plan B is some big guys run hard." Plan C, he elaborates, "is some big guys run hard."

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That could be the strategy for this enjoyably exhaustive précis of the ugly game, which tackles its subject with force and speed. How exhaustive? “The invention of the ball ranks alongside the invention of the wheel,” offers one historian. Slow down, Einstein.

The invention of rugby is less a eureka moment (Phaidra Knight believes the William Webb Ellis story "like you believe in Santa Claus") than a slow mutation of sports, a coincidence of industrialisation, and an accident of socio-economic circumstances. To put it another way, how did those guys get big and what allowed them run hard?

Rugby grew out of several games, among them mob football (essentially a protracted street brawl) and the Italian game of Il Calcio (a tastefully brutal exercise in domination and homoeroticism).

Standardised and made reputable at Rugby School, promoted by that era's Harry Potter, Tom Brown's School Days (imagine Ireland winning the grand slam in quidditch!), and instinctively sniffy towards the more egalitarian soccer, rugby started as it meant to continue: as an elitist game for the few who could afford it.

When working-class players begin to receive surreptitious payments, 22 northern clubs were cast adrift from the southern-run Rugby Football Union. "They basically lop off two of their limbs," says historian Miranda Carter. "They'd rather weaken the game then let working-class players swamp it."

The programme may look as slick and glossy as an advert, but the story is thankfully unvarnished (later episodes address the international legacy of colonialism, oppression and gender division, among the ruck and maul of rugby’s history).

The story of rugby isn’t just about picking up the ball and running with it (as Santa did) but how a privileged and prejudiced milieu managed to drop it too.