This post was first published on rugby reloaded.com on 12 September 2010.
I've just noticed a discussion on the Total RL Fans Forum about what rugby was called before 1895. Was it simply called rugby, with the implication that the name ‘rugby union’ emerged later to reflect the split?
The simple answer, as someone on the forum pointed out, is that before 1895 most people would have referred to the game as football. That's because the Rugby and Association codes were seen as variants of a generic game called ‘football’.
It’s probably the case that ‘football’ did not become the exclusive property of the dribbling code until the inter-war years (for example, my grandfather, born in 1907, always referred to rugby league simply as ‘football’). What's more, even today Rugby School refers to the game it originated as football.
But using 'football' in such a broad way could obviously be confusing. So journalists would often identify a code by referring to the name of its governing body - the Association game (after the Football Association) and the Rugby Union game, often shortened to Rugby football. (And after the split, what we know as rugby league was referred to as Northern Union football, hence Bradford Northern’s name).
This can be seen in the title of the Rugby Union Football Handbook, first published in 1889 and, more famously, in Frank Marshall’s 1892 history of rugby Football: The Rugby Union Game.