IRB Hall of Fame: Rugby School

A view of Rugby School from The Close, the playing field where according to legend Rugby was invented

The Legacy

Rugby school has left a considerable legacy in terms of the Laws of the Game, terminology, half time change of ends, the ball, the cap and, as far as the England team are concerned, the white of their jerseys.

Half time change

The first “foreign” match played by Rugby School was on 16th. November 1867.
It was a 20-a-side match and the school 20 played A.C.Harrison Esq.’s 20 on the Close.
School captain was H.W.Badger and the opposition consisted of eighteen Old Rugbeians and two Old Wykehamists.
After thirty minutes the teams changed ends to allow the visitors an equal share of the strong south-westerly wind.
It is believed this is the origin of half time and players changing ends after the interval.
Mind you, this was a marked departure from the old days when a match could lasted for up to five days.

The Try

In the early days – at Rugby School a match was won by the side obtaining two goals - scoring was very much a reflection of a side’s ability to kick, rather than run and the favoured option was the drop-goal.
Running-in and touching the ball down between posts – which in today’s language is called a try - was just a way of creating an opportunity for taking a kick at goal.
A failure to land the ball between the uprights rendered the touchdown – as it was then called - valueless.
This is why so many matches during the 1850s and 60s ended in a draw, although the number of touchdowns (tries) scored was considerable.

The Ball

It was William Gilbert, a boot and shoe manufacturer in the town of Rugby, who is credited with the making of the earliest rugby balls to be used in the school football game, at the beginning of the 19th century.
In 1851, a rugby ball made by the second Gilbert, his nephew James, was displayed at the London Exhibition and the wooden frame holding the ball and carrying the School Houses emblems made from leather is still on display in the old shop across the road from the school.
His son James John Gilbert further developed the ball-making business.
It was made of leather sown around a pig’s bladder, which gave the ball its distinctive oval shape.

The Cap

The School House team of 1839 was the first side to adopt a uniform.
All their players wore red velvet caps during a match attended by the Dowager, Queen Adelaide in which Thomas Hughes the author had played. The velvet cap became a sign of attainment at Rugby school and was adopted as such by clubs then by England and other Unions a symbol of national and international achievement.
Every international player who represents his country receives his cap on this occasion.
France award an international cap after three appearances for the country.

The Rules (Laws) of Football

The Rules of Foot-ball at Rugby School have evolved from the rough and tumble of village foot-ball played in the early days, to the increasingly “scientific” game of the mid and late 19th century.
Every rule changed slowly over the years through the endeavour of generation after generation of Rugby School pupils.
This is probably why the reported ‘run’ of William Webb Ellis is unlikely to have had an immediate impact on the game, though it had been somewhat recorded by the teenage Matthew Bloxam.

How and why?
Perhaps simply because Ellis might have been object of some comment at the Bloxam family table.
Perhaps the source was the youngest brother John Rouse, who could have attended the Bigside match that year and therefore produced an eye witness account of the alleged malpractice, to the astonishment of the gathered family.
Or maybe it was the Reverend himself, who also underlined an alleged ‘propensity’ for unfair practices in his academic work of young Ellis, which reach the posterity thanks to Matthew’s good memory.

It is quite likely that running with the ball was tried time and again and its merits and demerits debated at nauseam, though never recorded, at the Bigside Levee on the Island.
The fact that there is no factual evidence that Ellis had “picked up the ball and ran with it”, other than the Bloxam account does not necessarily prove that it has not taken place.
On the other hand, does it matter?
The way the Rules shaped is the direct result of many thousand of anonymous schoolboy contributions over many decades.

The first written mention of foot-ball at Rugby School dates from the late 18th century from the memoirs of a former pupil, while in school, the first appeared then school publication “The Rugby Magazine” in 1835.
It took about 10-15 years before running with the ball became common practice at Bigside matches, though there is no explanation of how this happened over the years, nor is there any historic evidence.
The name of WW Ellis is mentioned for the first time by Bloxam 53 years after the alleged deed, and it is clear from his writing that a certain animosity or even dislike from the school days had persisted over the years.
When he mentioned Ellis as the first to pick up the ball and run with it, Bloxam does not praise him as the “inventor” of the running game; he actually denounced him as a purveyor of “unfair practices” that is a cheat in today’s language.
There is no evidence that Ellis, who became a well-respected clergyman, was ever aware of all this fuss, as he died in 1872, one year after the first international between Scotland and England.

Arguably the most significant decision in the Rugby Football Rules saga was to write them down and soon print them in a booklet format, securing their distribution to other schools and lands, as the game spread slowly across England and then the world.
The Rules of foot-ball at Rugby School were written down for the first time in 1845 at the initiative of the then Head schoolboy and Foot-ball captain Isaac Gregory Smith.
He asked three senior players Walter Waddington Shirley, William Delafield Arnold and Frederick Leigh Hutchins to write down the previously unwritten rules.
They did that in three days and another schoolboy Charles Harcourt Chambers illustrated the new Rules, the first ever images of foot-ball at Rugby.
Running with the ball was one of Rules.
When WW Shirley became captain the following year the Rules were amended and rewritten.