When the winners of the Rugby World Cup are crowned at the Yokohama Stadium in the 2019 Japan games they will raise in the Webb Ellis Cup in celebration, named after the boy who famously invented the game on the playing fields of Rugby School.
Although a wonderful and enduring tale, the Webb-Ellis myth is sadly not supported by historical evidence.
Legend has it that William Webb-Ellis, a “foundationer” at the public school was educated for free because he lived in the Warwickshire town, cheated during the game of football by catching a ball and running with it in 1823. He was 16 at the time and instantly gave birth to a new sport. Catching the ball was allowed under the school’s own rules of the game (soccer rules were not agreed on until 1863) but running was not.
His teacher was supposedly so impressed with what was later described as his “fine disregard for the rules of football” that they embraced his innovation.
But no contemporary account of Webb Ellis’s famous act actually exists. He was never acclaimed as the inventor of the game during his lifetime (and seem to have given it up after leaving school, instead of taking up cricket which he played at Oxford University). When he dies in 1872 at the age of 65, he was recognised for his achievements as a clergyman not his connection to the sport.
Incredibly, the first time he was named as the inventor of Rugby came four years after his death and more than 50 years after his famous game.
Rugby, like soccer, evolved from a mod of football games that had been popular since the medieval period, and may even have had its roots in a game called Harpastum, played by the Roman, in which the object was to carry a feather-filled leather ball over the opponents’ goal line.
Forms of what we now know as soccer and games similar to rugby had been played in public schools, decades before Webb Ellis’s time.
However, there is a solid link that the Rugby School did invent what is now the third most popular sport in the United Kingdom. It was the pupils at the school who first wrote down an agreed set of rule for the game in 1845.
Five things you never knew about the Webb Ellis Cup
- The trophy is gilded in silver and stands at 38 centimetres. It is supported by two cast scroll handles. On one handle there is the head of a satyr, on the other there is the head of a nymph. On the face of the trophy, the words “International Rugby Football Board” and “The Webb Ellis Cup” are engraved on it.
- The cup was crafted at Garrad’s workshop and was commissioned by the International Rugby Board (IRB), then the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB). The cup was modelled on a 1906 trophy made by Carrington and Co. of London, cup which was of Victorian design of a 1740 cup by Paul de Lamerie.
- Australian journalists quickly nick-named the cup ‘Billy’ and in 1991 launched a campaign called Bring Billy Back Home’, having hosted the tournament but lost at the semi-final stage in 1987 gamed. To make it even worse, the Wallabies beat England that year where the subsequently ‘Brought Billy Home’.
- From the 1st of December 2006 until the 6th of January 2007, the Webb Ellis Cup was on display at the Rugby Museum in Rugby, England to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Webb Ellis – the boy who apparently broke the rules by playing football with his hands; and changed the course of sporting history forever.
- England is the only northern hemisphere team to have lifted the cup (so far…)