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The golden age of the Rugby Moustache

The golden age of the rugby moustache it seems reached its zenith in the decades of La Belle Époque during and after the turn of the 20th century. They were the simply ‘must haves’ of their day, everyone wore one.

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Glimpsing those fading sepia photographs of International teams we see players proudly looking back at us, sporting their moustaches. Forgotten names out of rugby history, like Arthur (monkey) Gould (Wales) considered the first welsh rugby superstar, A R (Sconnie) Smith (Scotland) an Oxford rugby blue, Temple Gurdon (England) a Cambridge blue, Louis Magee (Ireland) who featured on early Ogden’s cigarette cards, ‘Dave’ Gallaher, who captained the 1905 New Zealand ‘originals’ All-Blacks British Isles touring team (only to die at Passchendaele in 1917 during World War One), and Paul Roos a University lecturer and ‘Springbok’ Captain of South Africa’s first UK tour the following year.

However, it was an enthusiastic rugby player, (of course with a splendid moustache) who did most to popularise the game in France but somehow he became a forgotten advocate. Until that is, he was rightly acknowledged, and became the second inductee (after William Webb Ellis) in the International Rugby Board (IRB) Hall of Fame in 2007.

The name of Baron de Coubertin (1863-1937), will always be associated with the revival of the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896. However Pierre de Frédy first love was for Rugby Football, but for unknown reasons his biographers mention boxing, fencing, rowing and horse-riding as his main sporting interests they failed to underline his interest in the game which he played, refereed and promoted. He was the first writer to describe rugby as ‘…truly the reflection of life, a lesson experimenting in the real world, a first-rate educational tool.’

 Pierre de Frédy, (later baron Coubertin) was the youngest child born into an aristocratic family in Paris. Schooled by Baron de Coubertin 2the Jesuits, he pursued a career as an intellectual, writing on a broad range of topics, particularly education – a subject he was deeply interested in. He married Marie Rothan in 1894 and the couple had two children. However, they both were disabled and delicate and were a constant source of worry.

Intrigued by what he had read about English public schools, particularly Thomas Arnold (1795–1842), Headmaster of Rugby, who he describes as ‘the leader and classic model of English educators,’ he visited England to see for himself. What he saw on the English playing fields, he later wrote in L’Education en Angleterre, (published by Hachette in Paris, 1888), organised sport can create moral and social strength.’ Not only did organised games help to set the mind and body in equilibrium, it also prevented the time being wasted in other ways.

First developed by the ancient Greeks, it was an approach to education that he felt the rest of the world had forgotten and to whose revival he was to dedicate the rest of his life.

Founder of the French game

On his return from England he became one of the founders of the rugby game in France, and set up the first French schools championship in 1890. He played rugby throughout the late 1880’s and was the referee of the first ever French championship rugby union final in March 1892 between Racing Club de France and Stade Français at the Stade Bagatelle, in the Bois de Boulogne.

In April the same year he was instrumental in bringing the first English club, Rosslyn Park to Paris, playing a match against Stade Francais. [Rosslyn Park beat Stade by 3 goals and 3 tries to nil]. This match attracted many spectators including the British Ambassador Lord Dufferin (1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava) and his wife. A special commemorative silver sculptured broach had been commissioned from Popineau Fils of Paris, and presented by Lady Dufferin to Rosslyn Park’s captain, now a prized possession in their clubhouse trophy cabinet. The Ambassador also stood champagne and sandwiches to both teams – another symbolic Anglo-French gesture.

Then in November 1892, Baron Pierre de Coubertin made his first speech at the Sorbonne University of Paris, calling for the revival of the International Olympic Games. Such sports exchanges, he said, would be the new free trade’ of Europe.

Rugby an Olympic sport

As founder of the International Olympic Committee, such was de Coubertin’s enthusiasm for the game that he made significant efforts to have rugby in the Olympic Games, and presided over the Rugby tournaments at the 1900 (France won), 1908, 1920 and 1924 Olympics. He summed up his vision of sport thus:

 “…the important thing in life is not to triumph but to compete…not victory but combat…not to have vanquished but to have fought well…not winning but taking part…”

 However following his retirement in 1925, rugby was dropped from the Olympic programme. Over ninety years later the seven-a-side version of the sport will now be introduced for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

Photos: Wikipedia Commons,

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