With the Rugby World Cup almost upon us – it begins on Friday morning (UK time) – it is currently the ‘Phoney War’ moment during which the media to provides us with a blizzard of copy about every aspect of the country, the culture, the competing teams and indeed every pundits’ predictions.
Overnight I spotted this piece penned by Michael Aylwin detailing the findings of a recently published book on 21st Century rugby union – Unholy Union: When Rugby Collided with the Modern World – which picks up the truth that the story of how William Webb Ellis ‘invented’ the sport of rugby union at Rugby School by running with the ball and argues that his name should now be removed from the RWC trophy – see here – THE GUARDIAN
Upon reading it I recalled a passage I had read in a book – For Poulton And England by James Corsan (Matador 2009) – nearly a decade ago now which gave further details on the workings of the 1895 Rugby School committee which examined the early origins of rugby football. With some difficulty I managed to find a copy of it gathering dust in the corner of my study floor and present it here to the potenital interest of Rusters with a sporting bent:
‘Every rugby fan knows the legend of how in 1823 the Rugby schoolboy William Webb Ellis allegedly caught the ball and ran towards the opposition goal line in contravention of the rulers of the time. It is important to note that the watershed departure in this outrage was the running with the ball, not the handling of it: for example, Rule 8 of the first rules Rules of Association Football (soccer), published in 1863, specifically allowed players making ‘a fair catch’ whilst making a mark with the hell (a combined act called a ‘mark’ in rugby parlance) to have a free, unhindered, kick. Although William Webb Ellis did exist – and his name now of course adorns the trophy presented to the Rugby World Cup winning team – the tale of his seminal role in the game is a fabrication all too eagerly adopted by a committee of old Rugbeians formed in 1895 as part of a campaign to secure Rugby School’s claim to be the sole originator of the handling form of football. A member of the committee, historian Matthew Bloxam, maintained that, in Webb Ellis’s time, and attempt to run toward the goal would have provoked an nstant ‘hacking over’ from the opposition, and possibly worse. Thomas Hughes [author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays] seemed to concur. He told the committee, apparently without irony, that ‘a jury of Rugby boys of the day would almost certainly found a verdict of justifiable homicide’ if a transgressor had been killed in such circumstances.’
For me, one of the key matters of interest is contained in the second sentence: in Rugby School in the 1820s … and even in association football until towards the end of the 19th Century … handling the ball was perfectly legitimate.
It was the running with the bloody pill that caused the sea-change.