Rugby has been called the ‘Thinking Man’s Game’. Certainly it seems confusing with all those rucks and mauls. How many of us have had to explain this to a girl-friend or ‘maiden aunt’ only to realise that – whilst we sort of knew it – we couldn’t really explain it clearly? We are not alone. Nothing is new. In PG Wodehouse’s book ‘Very Good Jeeves’ written in the thirties, there is a scene in the chapter ‘The Ordeal of Young Tuppy’ when the truth dawns …
Rugby football is a game I can’t claim absolutely to understand in all its niceties, if you know what I mean. I can follow the broad, general principles, of course. I mean to say, I know that the main scheme is to work the ball down the field somehow and deposit it over the line at the other end and that, in order to squelch this programme, each side is allowed to put in a certain amount of assault and battery and do things to its fellow-man which, if done elsewhere, would result in 14 days without the option, coupled with some strong remarks from the Bench.”
Of course the fictitious match between ‘Upper Bleaching’ and ‘Hockley-cum-Meston’ had been well described, as Wodehouse had learnt his rugby at Dulwich College. He gained his school colours for the 1st XV in 1900, and would have certainly understood the confusion of those heroic girlfriends and wives who loyally stood on duckboards during winter Saturday afternoon’s watching manoeuvres the purpose of which was wrapped in impenetrable mystery. After leaving school Wodehouse joined the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (now HSBC) and continued to play for their London XV.
To understand rugby and the passion it stirs, it would help the casual reader (and possibly the enthusiast) to know a little of its history. It is an eclectic story of how rugby came into being, and evolved over the years. It’s also about some of its players, who were innovative, brave, eccentric and helped establish a game, which is much more than just a mere winter pastime for muddied oafs, as Kipling described. This just might allow the reader to gain insight into why boys and even old boys play up, and play the game.
A state of mind
As Jean-Pierre Rives one time French rugby captain declared, “The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind, a spirit.” Jeremy Guscott, the ex-England international, whose surprise drop goal in the dying minutes clinched a victory for the 1997 British Lions in South Africa, continued the theme by saying: “Deep down, most good rugby players are free-spirited.” There is this spirit and thread of non-conformism running through the history of the game and the players who played it.
Legend has it that a boy called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball during a football match at Rugby School in 1823, which probably confused his friends at the time. In those days ‘football’ meant just that – using your feet to kick the ball. In the mayhem that followed, the boys of Rugby School realised how much fun they could have with the game that young William had unexpectedly created. It was a thrill to run with the ball (made by local boot maker William Gilbert, whose name still appears on rugby balls today), to test one’s strength against others’ and to meet a more physical challenge.
The rugby story was immortalised in ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ published in 1857 by Thomas Hughes who had also attended Rugby School some ten years later. The game caught on and by the 1870’s the rules (although they were called laws) had been codified, the Rugby football Union established and the first international England v Scotland had been played.
Baron de Coubertin a Frenchman, had been much intrigued by what he had read about English public schools, particularly Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby. he became an enthusiast and did much to promote the game in France from the 1880’s. He was to write later,
‘What is admirable in (rugby) football is the perpetual mix of individualism and discipline,
the necessity for each man to think, anticipate, take a decision and at the same time
subordinate one’s reasoning, thoughts and decisions to those of the captain.’
The game thus established, a plaque was erected in 1895 at Rugby School bearing the inscription: ‘This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game A.D. 1823’. His name now firmly established in rugby union folklore, the legend had been born.
What became of William?
After leaving Rugby School in 1826, he went to Brasenose College, Oxford. He played cricket for his college, and the University graduating in 1829. He entered the Church and became chaplain of St George’s Chapel, Albemarle Street, London and later was rector of St. Clement Danes in The Strand.
He never married and died in the south of France in February 1872 aged 66. His passing slipped into obscurity. Then in 1958, his grave in “le cimetière du vieux château” on the hillside over looking Menton in the South of France was rediscovered by sports journalist Ross McWhirter. (The grave has since been renovated by the French Rugby Federation.)