How to Bluff Your Way Through the History of Rugby

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To bluff your way through the early history of rugby, you really only need to remember one name. It’s a double-barrelled name, and that of course tells you everything else you need to know.

William Webb Ellis is the name — and he was, of course, a public schoolboy. Fortunately, it won’t be hard to remember the name of the school, because conveniently the game itself was named after it. Rugby Football was supposedly invented ‘on the playing fields of Rugby School’ and, to keep things nice and simple, the school was in a town also called Rugby.

According to a plaque at the school, it was 1823 when 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’, and thus the game of rugby was born. It might be noted here that this was the first recorded example of cheating at football (but certainly not the last).

Founder or bounder?

Webb Ellis gets a rugby ball manufacturer named after him as well as the World Cup trophy, so he certainly did all right out of it.

Whether he truly founded the sport is somewhat up for debate. A sub-committee of Old Rugbieans was formed at some point in the 1890s to consider the evidence. The records they found were conflicting and confused. He certainly existed, went to the school and subsequently became a vicar. He is buried in France and the French rugby authorities went to the trouble of restoring his grave, so the chances are he had something to do with the game. Frankly, you don’t need to worry about the details. All you need to do is occasionally drop his name into conversations or match reports.

For example, “William Webb Ellis? You played at school with him, didn’t you [insert name of oldest member of your club], or was he in the year below you?” Note that this isn’t a good idea if the member in question sits on the selection committee, or is a close friend of your employer.

Webb Ellis may or may not have invented the game, but his school would appear to have invented spin-doctoring. Having come up with the story, it stuck with it, etched it into a plaque and slapped its name all over the game. A trio of solicitors, who were also old boys from the school, were swiftly convened to draw up the rules, and to this day there is a museum and a lucrative little gift shop attached to the premises.

You should also know that Rugby School was where the fictional Harry Flashman, cad, bounder, coward, liar, cheat and libertine – all the things that make an effective rugby player – bullied and blustered his way through Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Had he actually existed, he would almost certainly have been responsible for rugby’s invention. Why? Because the game came about as a result of breaking the rules, and that was Flashy’s special gift.

For a spot of advanced rugby history bluffery, you need to be in the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. Tucked away behind the grand diplomatic buildings that flank Nelson and his pet lions is the site of the Pall Mall restaurant at 1 Pall Mall. Here was held the original meeting that formed the rugby union. Once again there is a plaque, so it must be true.

The first international tour

Rugby toddled along quite nicely from this point for a few years. Public schoolboys went up to Oxford or Cambridge and came back down again. Wherever they landed they formed a rugby club for something to do in their spare time when they weren’t playing cricket or running the Empire.

Chaps would challenge other chaps in other clubs to games. Tailors combined ever more garish-colored cloth to make blazers, caps and ties.

In 1888, the first British Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand took place. You might want to point out to any cricket bluffers you encounter that the reason for the first Lions tour was a direct result of the incompetence of those organizing the leather-on-willow game. For some unfathomable reason, two separate and competing British cricket-touring parties decided to head down under during the Antipodean summer of 1888. As a result, they ran into huge financial difficulties and hit upon the idea of organizing a follow-up rugby tour as a way to recoup their losses.

Telegrams were dispatched and an establishment flunkie was commissioned to recruit a team of players and pop them on a boat headed for the southern hemisphere. Three of the international cricketers stayed on, while a party of 19 rugby players – mostly northerners, with a smattering of Welsh and Scottish thrown in for good measure – made the six-week journey by boat. They had a few games of rugby, winning most of them, and then reportedly played a few games of ‘Aussie Rules football’ (est. 1859) and won some of those, too.

However, the key historical fact that will help the bluffer when discussing the hard-drinking antics of modern day touring parties is that on this first Lions tour, Robert Seddon, the captain, didn’t make it back home at all.

He drowned in a canoeing accident on the Hunter River, having set off on his own in something called a Gladstone skiff. So when the next touring international dives off a boat into Sydney Harbour or takes a golf buggy down the M4, you can eruditely remind people of the first Lions captain who gave his life on tour, and quietly sip your pint respectfully in his memory.

The two ‘codes’ of Rugby Football

You will also need to be sure to understand the historical circumstances surrounding the formation and early days of ‘rugby league’. Really all you need to know is that it is another form of the game, with different rules that lead to an awful lot more running around and considerably less intimate grappling.

Most people focus on the version of the game known as ‘rugby union’. It is possible to enjoy both; indeed, it is possible to play both (although people tend not to). It is not possible to talk about both as if they were effectively the same game. It might be played with the same oval ball, on the same sort of pitch, with the same posts, but there the similarities end. In scoring, tackling, possession, even numbers of players, there are fundamental differences. Never be ashamed to admit to not knowing what these are. Simply say if asked (about one or the other): “Not my code, old boy”. (Actually, don’t say “old boy” if you’re north of Milton Keynes.)

To understand how rugby league came about, you can comfortably rely on traditional British class stereotypes to see you through. As rugby became popular, it was inevitable that people other than the landed gentry would take it up. In the northern industrial towns, rugby became almost as popular as whippet racing, pigeon fancying and modeling for Lowry paintings.

Down south, rugby at the time was a strictly amateur pursuit. To pay a chap for playing the game was almost as ghastly a prospect as passing the port to the right. And should a chap get a pesky injury, well, one’s valet would be able to cover most of the basic errands and help administer the family estate.

However, up north some of the players had actual jobs which required the use of at least four fully functioning limbs. Pit owners didn’t take kindly to players hobbling up to work with a rugby injury. Moreover, there were large crowds prepared to pay to stand around a game of rugby, and the gate money could comfortably extend to compensating players for their time spent training, playing and recovering. But the southern officials would hear none of it. “Paying people to play would fundamentally change the nature of the game,” they harrumphed. Probably.

So a committee was convened (rugby people do like a committee) and it met in the George Hotel, Huddersfield.

The Huddersfield Examiner of 30 August 1895 records that the committee meeting lasted for three hours; it would have been longer but fortunately no one had yet invented Powerpoint. Eventually a committee member emerged and informed the awaiting gentlemen of the press that a breakaway league had been established specifically allowing for the principle of compensating players for ‘broken time’.

From this point onwards, very little of historical note seems to have happened – at least nothing that should trouble the seasoned bluffer. The two codes of rugby ambled off merrily down their own separate paths, introducing increasingly different rules as they went along. The northerners playing rugby league, with paying crowds to entertain, ended up spending more of the game running around and being interesting to watch. The southerners playing rugby union, largely for their own amusement, ended up rolling around in a heap with their fellow players for rather more of the game.

And so it went on for 100 years with nothing much terribly interesting happening until a chap called Will Carling turned up.

The onset of professionalism

In 1995, Will Carling was a reasonably successful England rugby union captain. He was rumored to occasionally hang out with the young and troubled Princess Diana, popping round with a couple of replica England shirts for her boys, as you do, and possibly even instructing her in the finer points of the ruck and maul, and even the tackle.

But that’s enough about royal patronage of the game. With his fellow international players, Carling was beginning to tire of the complex rules surrounding expenses and sponsorship that had to be navigated around in the course of one’s international rugby career. Rugby union was still officially an amateur sport, but financial arrangements were clearly being made by sides in their efforts to hold on to top-quality players. Cash was reportedly slipped into players’ boots after games and pretend jobs were created which allowed them to train and play rugby full time.

The secretary of the Rugby Football Union, a Mr Dudley Wood, had accused senior players of cheating – for trying to get round the rules. Carling, however, also had one other problem. He had a chin that looked uncannily like a small child’s bottom. So in a desperate attempt to ensure that he was remembered for something other than his facial features, Bumface Carling came up with the sound bite that ushered in the professional era of the game.

In the 1995 Channel 4 documentary Fair Game, Carling said: “If the game is run properly as a professional game, you do not need 57 old farts running rugby.” He was referring to the committee administering rugby made up of 57 elderly gentlemen who, to this day, still run rugby and now refer to themselves, with some pride, as the 57 old farts.

Carling was promptly dismissed as England captain, but equally promptly reinstated after a public outcry. The bubble had been burst, however. All the recently liberated genies steadfastly refused to go back into their former vessels of entrapment and the cats, now out of their respective bags, were running around scalded and causing all kinds of chaos. Rugby union gave up pretending to be an amateur sport and embraced its newfound professionalism.

Thus far the sky has not fallen in and the fundamental nature of the game hasn’t really changed.

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