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Published: April 14th 2022
Webb Ellis Statue
I have embraced many sports on our journeys round the globe, but one remains completely alien. I say that having ventured to watch it on occasions, although I stress that it was never the main attraction of the trip. Romania v Spain in Bucharest springs to mind. Auckland v Waikato in New Zealand. Eden Park impressed. Barbarians at both Murrayfield and Twickenham, courtesyof of sponsor tickets from work. You can't really complain, when it is free. We are talking rugby. Rugby Union to be precise.
Rugby in my mind was always a game played by posh kids at private schools. Well outside South Wales, where it has a universal appeal. At a normal Comprehensive school, we were football - only football. The egg chasing was left to the rich kids at their private schools.
I find myself this morning in Rugby. Rugby, Warwickshire. Home of the game. Vera was on route go meet her first Mum and Dad later in the day. She looked puzzled, as we alighted the car on a very pleasant side road in the heart of the Rugby Union territory. Rugby gives no clue as to the most traditional centre, as you approach. The trappings
of modern society are immediate near the northern entrance - another huge Amazon warehouse or distribution centre. A road closure prompted an unplanned detour, before were back on track near the town centre. Non-descript retail park and suppermarket land merged. The LCFC graffiti on a bridge highlighted the internal confusion in a town that us the birthplace of Rugby Union. A town in Warwickshire with roots in another sport, proclaiming loyalty to football's Leicester City in another County.
The leafy suburb just south of Rugby town centre is home to Rugby School. The school was founded in 1567, after funding was left in the will of a certain Lawrence Sheriff. A Rugby native, he went on to amass a fortune as a grocer. His customers were the elite of the day, including Queen Elizabeth I. I would stress he had relocated to London and wasn't running some form of early day Waitrose online delivery. Sheriff's legacy was to provide a free grammar school education for the boys of Rugby and thus the school bumbled on for a few centuries before becoming the institution it is today. Whilst the school undoubtedly contributed to history with it's alumni, including a former
Thomas Hughes Statue- Author of Tom Brown's Scool Days
Prime Minister in Neville Chamberlain, the most lasting "gift" is that of the game of rugby. The roots of the game are the stuff of legend. Literally. There is no specific documentation to confirm the foundation of the game and it is only reputed to be that a certain William Webb Ellis picked the ball up during a game of football and ran with it. The year was 1823. Picking up the ball was allowed at the time - running with it was forbidden. The stories actually emerged sometime after the death of Webb Ellis and were attributed to another ex-pupil in his memoirs. Whatever the truth, myth or otherwise, the modrn day egg chasers play for the Webb Ellis Trophy on the world stage.
The wide open spaces to our left were the field on which the boys of 1823 would have played. I envisaged something akin to a school field, but perhaps with an upmarket changing pavillion and small seated stand for good measure. There was none apparent. Indeed, there was no hallowed turf either. The earth was piled and and a few tractors and other heavy machinery parked to one side. The season must have been
Rugby School Gates
over and the turf had been ripped up in preparation for the new season in the autumn. I contemplated some photographs, but the warning signs indicated no further encroachment should take place on to school land. The original or at least oldest remaining sections of the school buildings lay on the far side. All was quiet. It was the weekend and the Easter School holidays. The wealthy pupils would no doubt be enjoying themselves with a spot of late season skiing. The original ethos of the school as envisaged by Lawrence Sheriff to provide free education for ghe local boys has now morphed into some hefty fees. The current boarders pays £12,000 plus a term and even day pupils rack up £7,000 fees per term! I am surefor some it is family tradition and for others a guaranteed springboard to their Oxbridge and career prospects.
I turn my attention to the statue of Thomas Hughes on the opposite side of the street. The author of Tom Brown's School Days is mounted on a white plinth in the grounds off Barby Road. He based his 1857 novel on his experiences as a pupil at the school in the 1930s. The
Webb Ellis Cup
school bully, Flashman, was a main character and a stereo type of the Victorian school system. The Temple Speech Room on the corner was shrouded in shade. It is now used as an events venue. The Macready Theatre opposite was bathed in sunlight and looked a whole lot more attractive. The A428 road is known as Lawrence Sheriff Street at this point and a plaque in his honour is attached to a wall of the School House.
The most photographed scene in Rugby is probably that at the junction of Dunchurch Street. The William Webb Ellis statue sits on the corner in front of the school building. The statue is in full flight, running with the ball. It has been in place since 1997 and was attracting zero interest this morning. Similarly, the shutters were firmly down on the Webb Ellis Museum opposite. It was here that shoe and bootmaker, James Gilbert, made the first rugby valls in 1842. A must for all fans of the game apparently.
The town centre was all quiet. There was a delapidated feel to the business premises and the familiar To Let signs of the average UK high street were much in
evidence. It was difficult to balance the wealth of those of who could afford the school fees across the road and the retail offerings. The covered shopping mall Rugby Central was adorned with a huge rugby ball symbol. A few taxis waited for the limited passenger circulating near the Victoria Jubilee Clock Tower. St Andrews Town Church grounds were a buzz of activity. Real donkey rides were underway. We circled back around the nearby cemetery to the birthplace of WW1 poet, Rupert Brooke.
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