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The game is said to have started when a Rugby School student named William Webb Ellis playing soccer picked up the ball and ran downfield with it instead of kicking it. Other English schools and universities adopted the style in the mid-19th cent. In 1871 the English Rugby Union was formed to standardize the game. Rugby was introduced (1875) into the United States, but faded as football developed. In 1895 an argument in England over paying players led to a split between groups of clubs and two forms of the sport have existed since: the professional game (now called Rugby League) with 13 players per team; and the more widely played amateur Rugby Union, with 15 players. The rules differ slightly, but the basic idea for both is the same.
The rugby field is roughly 160 yd (146 m) long and 75 yd (69 m) wide, with goal lines 110 yd (101 m) apart and two in-goals (corresponding to football's end zones) 25 yd (23 m) deep. A halfway line divides the field, which is further subdivided by other lines parallel to the goal line. The goal posts have measurements similar to those used in American football, and the ball, although larger and more rounded, is similar to the American football. Players may kick, carry, or pass (to the sides or to the rear) the ball; though tackling is permitted, blocking is forbidden. Unlike American football, rugby features almost continuous play; after penalties and out-of-bounds plays, however, a scrum (in which the two opposing lines of forwards kick the ball thrown between them) starts play again.
Various points are scored for carrying the ball into the opponent's in-goal (a try), conversions (kicking the ball between the goal posts after a try), field goal kicks, and penalty kicks. A rugby match is in halves of 40 min, and may end in a tie. Since 1987, when rugby World Cup matches were first established, nations have competed for the Webb Ellis Cup, named for the sport's supposed founder; outside the British Isles, the sport has been popular in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, and Romania. It has gained a measure of recent popularity as a club sport in American colleges, sometimes played in the spring by football players.