England: The fields where rugby was born

By David Leggat

Old boy spirit is still strong at England's home of rugby, writes David Leggat.

Rugby School in Warwickshire was where Webb Ellis made his famous illegal play, which became part of the rules of the game. Photo / Bloomberg
Rugby School in Warwickshire was where Webb Ellis made his famous illegal play, which became part of the rules of the game. Photo / Bloomberg

"You're late."

"Excuse me?"

"We were expecting you last week."

A scheduling hiccup, allegedly, and an unpromising start to a trip around rugby's most famous landmark. Still, it was well worth the good-natured scolding.

As you drive through the Warwickshire town of Rugby, there is little to suggest a second visit would rate as a must.

It is not particularly pretty but it is a one-industry town. The clue comes as you approach Rugby School - you pass the entrances to Webb Ellis Business Park and Webb Ellis Industrial Estate.

This school is where the game of rugby was born (there is a notion that perhaps Rugby wasn't the originator of the game at which New Zealand are, once again, world champions, but that's for another day).

Among England's top public schools, Rugby - motto Orando Laborando ("by work and prayer") - started in 1567 on 3.2ha in London, but moved to its current site in 1750.

Its most famous student arrived in 1816, after his widowed mother Ann decided to improve his, and his brother Thomas', education.

Young William Webb Ellis was evidently thought of as "an admirable cricketer", later going on to play for Oxford University, but when it came to rugby he was "generally regarded as inclined to take unfair advantages".

The legend is that in 1823, during a game of football, Webb Ellis suddenly picked up the ball and ran with it. The actual spot on which Webb Ellis bent down and scooped up the ball is not known. The ground on which rugby's most famous moment happened, is. There is a plaque at the point closest to where the pitch was 188 years ago.

Outrage followed but over time running in a try became legal, the 15-a-side game took shape and Webb Ellis is thought of as the father of the game. He was inductee No1 when the International Rugby Board inaugurated its Hall of Fame.

The school's small museum has the original manuscript of the first written rules of "Rugby Football, devised and written by the boys in August 1845".

There is the stone tablet inscribed with the game's most famous words: "William Webb Ellis, 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, AD 1823."

In those pre-detergent days, all players wore long whites as that was the easiest colour to boil clean. One of the traditions of English rugby was that the national union had to seek permission of Rugby's head boy to wear their all-white colours.

There is an old line that soccer was a gentleman's game played by ruffians; rugby was a ruffian's game played by gentlemen. The early boots used for rugby were known as "navvies", designed to cut opponents' shins.

Rugby's famous old boys include British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, authors Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), Salman Rushdie and celebrated poet Rupert Brooke, turn-of-the-20th-century English cricket captain Sir Pelham Warner, and England rugby hero Ronnie Poulton Palmer, who played 17 tests before being shot in 1915 during World War I.

There is a statue of Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's School Days, looking out across the fields. The rugby match in the film of the novel was played on the grounds.

There is an Olympic link to Rugby School, too. Its most famous headmaster, Dr Thomas Arnold, insisted physical education be a key part of the curriculum. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics in 1896, wrote that "it was to Arnold that we turned more or less consciously for inspiration".

Arnold died at 47, and is the only person buried under the school's impressive chapel.

And Webb Ellis? He became an Anglican clergyman and died at Menton on the French Riviera, his place forever assured in sporting folklore.

Britain's Riot Act was last read at Rugby. Boys who made firecrackers said they had bought the gunpowder in the town. The shopkeeper said he hadn't sold it to them and the boys were flogged.

They rioted in protest on an island then on the school grounds. No shots were fired but three boys were expelled. Once went on to become an army officer, and claimed Rugby had taught him the perils of leading his men into a position from which there was no way out.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific operates two flights a day from Auckland to London, via Hong Kong. Rugby can be reached by train from London.
Further information: rugbyschool.net/shopandtours

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