Rugby: Visit The Town Where The Game Began

25 September 2015

Imagine there were a town called Soccer, home of the sport. It would be mayhem. You’d never get close for coach loads of Italians, Colombians and folk from Tyneside roaring through, chanting and taking selfies with statues of Maldini, Valderrama and Wor Jackie. Pandemonium. You’d turn around and go home.

Surprisingly, there is a town called Rugby, home of the sport.

It’s rather quiet midmorning. I had a coffee on a cafe terrace otherwise empty except for an old fellow tackling muffins. The town centre is lovely – buffed up, with trees and flowers – but I didn’t have to queue for anything, least of all the Rugby Museum, which is smaller than you’d expect but also free.

I found all this a puzzle. Certainly, rugby has fewer fans than soccer, but there are still millions. Where were they all? Why wasn’t Rugby hauling them in?

I talked to a couple of people. Clearly, up to the present, the town has had its mind on other things. Cement. Gas and steam turbines. Jet engines (Frank Whittle, inventor of the turbojet, trail-blazed around here) and railways. Lewis Carroll and Neville Chamberlain, both at Rugby School. Rupert Brooke, too. And holograms. Hungarian exile Dennis Gabor invented holograms at the local industrial giant British Thomson‑Houston.

 The town centre in Rugby (Image: Wikipedia)

Powerful Record For A Small English Town

The place has stacked up a formidable record for a market town in mid-England. Though rugby (the sport) kicked off in town, it has been only a bit of the mosaic.

Then I talked to a few more people. Times are now tougher. They’d rather like visitors.

No one’s going to come for the cement works – so, under the impetus of the imminent Rugby World Cup, they’ve seized the day. Rugby has properly grasped rugby. They’re going full blast on the whole World Cup thing.

For a start, though holding no Cup matches, Rugby has had itself named a “host town” because, well, it’s Rugby. Thus will there be a Fan Zone – giant screens, food, drink, the works – on Old Market Place on match days.

On non-match days, from until November 6, the zone becomes Rugby Village, with a startling program of events.

Meanwhile, they’ve boosted guided tours. I went around town with Christine Hancock, who could have done it blindfolded. We crossed the old pedestrianised centre. This is going for the coffee house, bistro and craft‑ale look – and is almost there, to the obvious surprise of the citizenry.

On Chapel Street, what’s now House of Cards was once “Tew, the Butchers” where Tom Brown went for beefsteak for his eye after a dust-up with Slogger Williams.

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The market place is around the fine clock tower. Beyond, in parkland, Frank Whittle is honoured with a sculpture I couldn’t fathom. Nearby, the solo statue of Rupert Brooke gives him the look of a sensitive soul bound to die young. Brooke’s father was a housemaster at Rugby School, which is why Rupert studied there.

The family home is further on, at 5 Hillmorton Road, a Victorian, bow‑windowed semi.

Set into the pavements across town are dozens of oval bronze plaques, celebrating key rugby figures and events. They’re fun to find, and admirably wide-ranging. Martin Johnson, Willie John McBride and Cliff Morgan are there, but so are Tonga’s Fakahau Valu and rugby league mega-legend Billy Boston.

Christine left me at Rugby School, which colonises much of the centre of town and is the nub of the question.

This year, you may take a specifically sporting tour of the public (ie, private) school for A$35, or A$55 with a gift pack. Public-school education doesn’t come cheap, even for 90 minutes.

In our time there, we visited the chapel, quads and big rooms loaded with the hardship and the privilege of noble lads’ learning.

 The William Web Ellis statue outside Rugby School (Image: Wikipedia)

The Web Ellis Story Is As Good As Any

But the raison d’être for the visit was the Close, the playing fields upon which, in 1823, pupil William Webb Ellis caught the ball during a game of football. He should have either run backwards with it or kicked it out of hand. Instead, he ran forward with it – thus, according to thumbnail histories, inventing the game of rugby.

Or, then again, not. The episode was mentioned only 50 years later, in an article by a chap who hadn’t been there and cited no sources. Webb Ellis apparently never thought he’d invented anything. He preferred cricket, became a vicar and died on the French Riviera.

But the Webb Ellis story is as good as any. And, whatever the details, the sport’s origins were in Rugby. The game’s name isn’t accidental.

 Rugby, where the game began, is finally embracing itself as a tourist destination (Image: Andrew Crowley/VisitEngland/ Rugby School)

Rugbeians dominated the early administration. Their wearing of caps initiated what became the international capping system. And if the England team wears white today, it’s because Rugby School’s first XV did then. Further cynicism is stilled by Graham Ibbeson’s terrific 1997 statue of Webb Ellis just outside the school.

Across the way, on St Matthew’s Street, they’ve been making rugby balls since the mid-19th century. Here’s home, too, to the little Rugby Museum, full of significant shirts and other memorabilia.

Then do as I did and transfer operations next door to the Rugby Tap micro‑pub. Colin Arthur’s place has no television, food, music or anything you’d call interior design.

What it does have are cask beers from local microbreweries, “Scrum” and “Webb Ellis” among them. There’s not much space. A coachload of Tongans would crack the place apart. But there are other pubs, and gallons of real ale.

Then again, arrive on time. For 2015, Rugby has got rugby right; you won’t be alone.


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This article was written by Anthony Peregrine from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.