Rugby is a much-misaligned discipline. It’s one of the most underrated sports of all time; those who don’t watch rugby and don’t follow it closely think it’s just men running at each other, but this is a gross understatement. Watching closely, you can catch a deep, rewarding game of tactics and athleticism; it may be a contact sport, but that doesn’t make it any less refined than its more commonly-appreciated peers like football and basketball. In the spirit of helping to debunk rugby’s reputation as a violent sport, here are 10 fun facts about rugby.
1. Only one Welsh player has won IRB Player of the Year
In 2008, Welsh winger Shane Williams was awarded the IRB Player of the Year award (the IRB has since undergone a name change, but it’s still the same governing body). He’s the only Welsh player ever to have won the award, despite the fact that the Welsh team is one of the Six Nations and is widely regarded as an excellent side. Williams told Betway his success was down to both playing “tough rugby” and to experiencing “a massive amount of luck”. We think he’s being modest.
2. There was no pro rugby until 1995
Rugby didn’t turn professional until as late as 1995, if you can believe that. While sports like football, tennis, and even golf have enjoyed major professional organising bodies to help them achieve legitimacy, rugby wasn’t recognised as a professional sport until 1995, when the then-IRB made the decision to lift rugby into the upper echelons. Players could claim small stipends before 1995, but they weren’t able to be paid the kind of salaries they deserved as professional athletes.
3. New Zealand has a winning record against every team
There isn’t a single rugby team in the world that New Zealand has played against which it doesn’t have a winning record. Impressively, since records began, the All Blacks have managed to rack up an overall win rate of more than 75%, which easily puts them in the upper echelons of all teams worldwide. Of all 22 teams that the All Blacks have faced off against, every single one of them has lost to New Zealand more times than they have won. No wonder everyone fears the All Blacks.
4. The first ever rugby game took place between England and Scotland
Way back in 1871, the first game of association rugby took place between the ever-acrimonious nations of England and Scotland (well, when it comes to sport, at least). Of course, since rugby has its roots in academic play, this wasn’t the first ever game of rugby, but it was the first official game organised by a separate body. If you’re interested in the result, Scotland managed to emerge victorious, which is to be expected given that the game took place in Scotland.
5. The All Blacks perform a Haka before every game
The Haka is a traditional Maori war dance, and the New Zealand rugby team performs it before every one of its games. This tradition started back in 1888, but wasn’t performed at home games; the All Blacks only performed it at matches where they wouldn’t be playing at home until 1986, where they incorporated it into their pre-game routine. It’s a song entitled Ka Mate, for which the lyrics translate to a rousing cry for victory and bravery in the face of battle.
6. New Zealand doesn’t have the most Olympic rugby medals
While New Zealand’s prowess in rugby is undisputed, the All Blacks don’t actually have the most gold medals when it comes to Olympic rugby. That honour goes to Fiji and the United States, who have two each; the sport wasn’t played between 1924 and 2016 at the Olympic level, so there hasn’t been much time for countries to accumulate medals. New Zealand is tied for the most medals overall, though, with one gold and two silver, putting it level with Fiji in terms of sheer numbers.
7. Rugby balls are oval because of pigs’ bladders
Originally, rugby balls contained pigs’ bladders, which is what made them buoyant and bouncy. This is also the reason that rugby balls are oval; it’s because a pig’s bladder is also oval, so it was easier to build the shape of the ball around that organ. Naturally, today, we use synthetic bladders that we can create specifically for rugby, but the origin of the ball itself is pretty grisly. Another fun fact: people used to inflate the pigs’ bladder balls before the game using their mouths. Yuck.
8. Basketball was invented by a rugby coach
James Naismith was a talented athlete and inventive thinker, and during one particularly harsh New England winter drought, Naismith was told to invent a game that could keep his YMCA students warm and keep up their exercise levels. He devised a game in which people threw balls into baskets, which is the game we know today as basketball. Naismith was, among other things, a rugby coach, so we can thank the game of rugby for basketball existing today!
9. A French player once missed a game because of a sandwich
Have you heard the sad, strange tale of French player Gaston Vareilles? He was due to make his international rugby debut against Scotland all the way back in 1910, but he missed the game, and we have to say it was almost certainly his own fault. He headed to the buffet during a stop to acquire a sandwich, but the queue extended so far that he missed his train when returning, meaning he was never able to make it to the game. Suffice it to say Vareilles did not play international rugby again (or ever!).
10. Opening Rugby World Cup matches always use the same whistle
Like many sports, rugby is steeped in tradition, and nowhere is that more true than when it comes to the whistle used for the opening game of the Rugby World Cup. This whistle is often christened the “Gil Evans whistle”, as it’s named after Gil Evans, who was the Welsh referee who first used it back in 1987. Since then, the same whistle has been used for each opening game. Subsequent games don’t use the Gil Evans whistle, but opening the game with it is probably thought of as a good luck charm.