By Allyn Freeman

This year will mark the 200th anniversary of rugby, highlighted by a global schedule of events. Most of these festivities will occur in England, with special happenings at Rugby School in Warwickshire. There will be bicentennial dinners world-wide, and a re-enactment of the game as it was played in 1823 at The Close (field) at Rugby School. The House of Commons officially honored this special, historic year of rugby in the U.K.

The foremost anniversary event is called Global Pass, an initiative sponsored by Gilbert, the well known rugby ball manufacturer. The company donated 200 balls, which were sent around the world to be passed from venue to venue. The project began in January 2023, with the first pass occurring at the grounds of Rugby School. The ball pass idea was first utilized in 2017 to mark the 450th anniversary of Rugby School.

Homage will be paid to William Webb Ellis, the Rugby schoolboy; “Who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.” This memorable quote is marked  by a plaque at Rugby School, under the larger-than-life commemorative statue of Webb Ellis running with the ball.

The Tenth Rugby World Cup (RWC) will be staged in France in 2023 at various national stadiums from September 8 to October 21. The quadrennial event is planning many celebrations marking the historic 200th rugby birthday. Since 1987, the inaugural RWC has been won by four nations: New Zealand three, South Africa three, Australia two, and England one. France and three nations have been runners up in the nine previous cups: France three, England three, New Zealand two, and Australia one.

William Webb Ellis

Ellis was born in 1806. His father died in the Peninsula Wars, and, afterward, his family moved to the town of Rugby. He was admitted to the school as a local resident. At Rugby, he excelled as a cricket player and received good grades. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1827 and played cricket against Cambridge. He received a B.A. and an M.A. 

Ellis entered the Anglican Church, serving at various parishes in England. His portrait (the sole representation of his features) was published in the Illustrated London News in 1854 after a memorable sermon about the Crimean War. 

He moved to Menton in southeast France in the Alpes Maritime region. The town sits on the border between France and Italy. He died there in 1872. Menton honored its famous English resident during a railroad stop on the 2023 Rugby World Cup tour of France.

Ellis is buried in Menton’s cimetiere du vieux chateau. The site was not discovered until 1954. The grave is maintained by the French Rugby Federation. Many ruggers visiting the French Riviera have made a pilgrimage to the gravesite.

Early Ball Games in English Schools

Ten years after the Napoleonic War, the Duke of Wellington attended Eton College, his alma mater (1781-1784). While watching students play cricket, he said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won here.” The implication claimed that England’s public school system (private and for the upper class) fostered masculine discipline and team unity from the playing of group sports.

Impromptu ball games existed at schools for years in England, but, gradually, these mass participation gatherings improved by student playing agreements. The problem was that these games differed from school to school, which hindered inter-school competition. What the major institutions (e.g.; Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, Westminster, Rugby, and Winchester) needed was one sport played with defined guidelines.

At Rugby School, students took part in a multi-player free-for-all, a round ball kicking game played in an area called The Close. The rules stated a player could catch the ball but not run with it. Allegedly in 1823, William Webb Ellis disregarded this restriction, creating the passing and tackling rugby sport. In 1845, three students wrote out the official rugby rules, giving rise to its proliferation and wide acceptance in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.

Rugby School Bicentenary Events

Will the public be prepared for the world record scrum composed of 3,000 children? Sarah Hunter, captain of England’s Women’s XV, conceived of this stunt that will occur on Sunday, April 2023 on The Close. (The current record is 2,586 people.) A partial schedule of other Rugby School events follows: celebrations – with Rugby School 

  • A Legends England/Wales side playing against a Legends Scotland/Ireland fifteen;
  • International Schools U-18s Sevens Tournament, including players from the four Home Nations, plus international participants; 
  • Easter weekend of multiple matches;
  • William Webb Ellis Cycle Ride from The Close to Twickenham;
  • Visits from English rugby luminaries like Martin Johnson, 2003 England RWC captain, and RWC teammate, Jonny Wilkinson;
  • A re-enactment of the celebrated 1823 Game; and,
  • Matches from U-9s to Senior Rugby Club Sevens.

Final Note

Rugby School and William Webb Ellis were part of the first inductees into the World Rugby Hall of Fame. The hall is located at Twickenham and features a wide array of old objects, including balls, uniforms, and caps.

Throughout 2023, Rugby School will mount an exhibition for the bicentennial. The school anticipates that more than 40,000 visitors will attend during the year. Its annual Festival On The Close is renamed, fittingly, “With a fine disregard” to honor Webb Ellis for his daring jaunt into history and into legend. (Photo: Webb Ellis Statue)

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