William Webb Ellis – pioneer or fraud?

His name is forever enshrined on the trophy for international supremacy, but was William Webb Ellis really the man responsible for creating the grand game at the British boarding school, Rugby?

As a sport, rugby is renowned for its generally good show of manners despite its ultra contact nature.

But young Webb Ellis allegedly showed no respect for those when at the age of 16 he decided it was best to pick up the ball while he and his schoolmates were playing football in 1823 and run with it, touching it down under the posts.

The Irish – who were at the time under English rule – believed Webb Ellis had been inspired by his time in Ireland, when his father was stationed as a British Army officer, and the game of ‘caid’, a precursor of Gaelic Football.

Others, however, dispute that Webb Ellis had anything to do with the invention of the game, claiming that he had simply been given the status of founder for want of a better name.

“There is little evidence to support the popular belief that William Webb Ellis created a new form of football,” Malcolm Lee, master in charge of Rugby football in 1978, told former Wales and British Lions coach Carwyn James.

“The point is that the rules of the game as it was played at the school at that time were made by the boys themselves and those rules were constantly revised.

“If you look at the notes of the Bigside Levees – notes made by the boys themselves – you will see that the rules were discussed almost every time the boys went out to play and that adjustments were frequently made.”

Another authoritative source to join his ranks is none other than the author of Tom Brown’s School Days, Thomas Hughes, who aside from creating the inspiration for Gordon MacDonald Fraser’s classic series of Flashman, clearly gives Webb Ellis short shrift as he was at the school from 1834.

“In my first year, 1834, running with the ball to get a try by touching down within goal was not absolutely forbidden, but a jury of Rugby boys of that day would almost certainly have found a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ if a boy had been killed in running in.”

Justifiable homicide? Whoever touches down, kicks the winning penalty or drop goal in this year’s World Cup which kicks off on September 18, one can’t quite imagine that will be their fate.

And whether Mr Webb Ellis did create the game or not, his name will still be on the trophy the winners pick up at the end of the final of rugby union’s showpiece event.

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