April 22, 2015 / 10:27 AM / 5 years ago

The hallowed turf where rugby grew its roots

LONDON (Reuters) - Simon Brown’s ‘office’ is so steeped in rugby history that some of the sport’s biggest names recently turned up for a visit and could not resist pocketing a few cheeky souvenirs.

A statue of William Webb Ellis, who is widely credited with inventing the game of rugby, stands outside Rugby School in central England, March 18, 2015. now, on September 18, the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Britain. REUTERS/Neil Hall PICTURE 1 OF 25 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "THE HOME OF RUGBY" SEARCH "RUGBY SCHOOL" FOR ALL IMAGES

Ex-Harlequins prop Brown is the Director of Sport at the esteemed Rugby School and spends much of his working week on the idyllic surroundings of The Close, an eight acre expanse of playing fields flanked by the school’s imposing neo-Gothic chapel and the battlemented skyline of School House.

It was there in 1823 in a game then named football, but more closely resembled a mob fracas, that a pupil named William Webb Ellis caught the ball and, rather than retreat and attempt a kick at goal, ran with it - breaking the ‘rules’ and planting a seed that would grow into modern-day rugby.

That is the romantic version anyway and, whether Webb Ellis knew exactly what he’s started or not, is why no visit to this year’s World Cup would be complete without spending a little time in the sport’s spiritual home.

When French club Racing Metro were in England for a European Cup match this season their players made a pilgrimage to Rugby School and a few tears were shed.

“They were taken by the history here,” Brown told Reuters on a bitingly cold early Spring day in the Midlands as some of his under 14 players went through their routines in replica long flannels, white shirts and red caps while being filmed for a documentary to be shown during the World Cup.

“They took a little bit of the grass. That was extraordinary because you had some of the world’s best players in one place, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, a whole variety of players.

“Manu Tuilagi also came to visit and was really moved.”

They visited the Chapel building where former headmaster Thomas Arnold in the early 19th Century used to indoctrinate his pupils in the morals of muscular Christianity.

Arnold’s ideals of athletic chivalry were romanticized by author Thomas Hughes in the pages of ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ — a novel that inspired Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of the Modern Olympics — and were exported across the old Empire.

A simple plaque celebrates the connection between Rugby School and the Olympics, one of many interesting artefacts that can be found when strolling around the grounds of one of England’s oldest independent schools.


But for rugby enthusiasts, no visit to what some regard as the spiritual home of the sport is complete without dropping into the small museum lovingly managed by the school’s official archivist Rusty MacLean.

Amongst his prize exhibits are the first set of written rules for rugby union, then simply known as football, penned by a committee of boys knows as the Big Side Levee in 1845.

There were 37 rules in all and many are still recognisable today, such as offside, knock on and fair catch (mark).

Some are plain curious.

“A player having touched the ball straight for a tree, and touched the tree with it, may drop from either side of it if he can...” states Rule 18.

A “try” in those early days was the process whereby after a touch down a player was permitted to kick at goal.

If the kick failed no points were scored, hence the necessity to kick the ball, usually a pig’s bladder covered in leather in those days and rounder than the modern ball, over the bar to avoid the massed ranks of junior boys blocking the goal.

“It was a very different game then. You could have over 300 boys on the pitch, teams could be of very different sizes,” MacLean said, pointing to an 1839 drawing of a match between School House (75 players) and the Rest (225 players) with Thomas Arnold and Dowager Queen Adelaide watching on.

“Matches could last six or seven days, no games clothes, you just played in jackets, waistcoats, breeches and boots... it was fairly fluid shall we say.”

Slideshow (14 Images)

Rugby School began the tradition of handing out “caps”, playing in matching kit — School House wore white shirts and shorts later adopted by England and the British Lions — and halftime intervals.

On the ceiling of MacLean’s museum there is a cart-like contraption known as the “death cart” which was used to trundle injured players off The Close.

The nearest this year’s multi-million pound World Cup will get to Brown’s office will be 25 miles away in Leicester, one of the host grounds, but the spirit of the tournament has its roots firmly entrenched at Rugby School.

Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris

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