Philip Barker

In 2023, Rugby School in England will be at the centre of celebrations to mark 200 years of the sport which bears its name.

An exhibition on the history of the game and a range of celebratory events are planned to mark the anniversary of an incident which was alleged to have taken place in 1823.

This was chronicled by a Rugby old boy Matthew Bloxham, a pupil at the school at the same time as William Webb Ellis, the man whose name now adorns the Rugby World Cup Trophy.

In a letter to the Rugby Meteor, the official paper of the school, Bloxham described how Webb Ellis "on catching the ball, instead of retiring backwards, rushed forwards with the ball in his hands towards the opposite goal."

"There are many questions, the authenticity of the story but it has passed into legend and a statue of Webb Ellis in full flight now stands in front of the school buildings".

There is also a plaque to record "the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time took the ball and ran with it."

For the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the story was even re-told in a film made at Rugby School.

A statue of William Webb Ellis can be seen outside Rugby School ©ITG
A statue of William Webb Ellis can be seen outside Rugby School ©ITG

This featured cameos from World Rugby President Sir Bill Beaumont, Jonny Wilkinson and even Prince Harry.

After leaving school and University, Webb Ellis went into the church.

He later moved to France and died at Menton on the French Riviera where his final resting place was restored by French rugby authorities.

The school and the sport held a special resonance for another eminent Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin who was the driving force behind the revival of the Olympics for the modern era.

Coubertin was born on New Year’s Day 160 years ago.

He had been a schoolboy when he was first captivated by a story written by Thomas Hughes in which the main character was a pupil at Rugby School.

In 1875, Tom Brown’s Schooldays was serialised as "The Adventures of Tom Brown at Rugby"  in "Le Journal de la Jeunesse," a French magazine.

"I saw then this unexpected thing, that behind the teaching of sport, there was a whole moral and social plan within the aegis of school sports," Coubertin wrote.

He soon resolved to visit the great "public" schools in England.

Despite the name, these were in fact exclusive fee paying private institutions.

Coubertin nonetheless believed they had the answer to improving education and physical culture in France.

As a boy, he had been all too aware of the impact of the Franco Prussian war which had been traumatic for France,

"Above all there was a feeling of powerlessness in France and the need for building something with greater stability," Coubertin wrote later.

He resolved to travel to learn more about education in other countries, particularly the United States and Britain.

"It is always useful to study one’s neighbour even if that neighbour is an adversary, for by imitating the good in him one can correct it and do even better," Coubertin wrote.

Coubertin was influenced by the work of Charles Kingsley, a churchman and writer, and Doctor Thomas Arnold, the revered headmaster of Rugby School.

He was too young to have met Arnold who died in 1842 but remained in no doubt just how influential a figure Arnold had been.

"This great man, headmaster of Rugby can be considered the founder of modern English education," Coubertin wrote.

"He had just 14 years to transform Rugby, through the contagion of his example, he changed other schools". 

The 1892 French Rugby final was re-enacted by actors earlier this year ©Getty Images
The 1892 French Rugby final was re-enacted by actors earlier this year ©Getty Images

In 1883 Coubertin made a tour of English schools in which he visited Rugby and sat contemplatively in the school chapel at the memorial to Arnold.

Later he described Rugby as "that mecca of sports education." 

When he returned to France, he played rugby in the Bois de Boulogne and encouraged the spread of the sport at schools such as the Ecole Monge and others.

In 1892, the first French Championship rugby final was held at the Pelouse de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. The match was played between Racing Club de France and Stade Francais.

"This great event was impatiently awaited by an enormous crowd," La Revue de Sports reported.

"It was at the behest of the football commission that Monsieur Coubertin was persuaded to agree to referee the match."

The contest was a tight match which Racing Club eventually won by four points to three.

After the match, Coubertin made a congratulatory speech to both sides.

A trophy, known as the Bouclier de Brennus, presented ever since to French rugby champions was even designed by Coubertin.

Very soon teams were crossing the channel to play rugby.

A month after the French final, Rosslyn Park beat Stade Francais by three goals and three penalties to nil in a match played according to reports by Reuters Special Service in snow and thunder and lightning.

The British Ambassador Lord Dufferin was there and Coubertin also saw the match and is said to have a written a report, published under a pseudonym.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin designed the Bouclier de Brennus, presented each year to the rugby champions of France ©Getty Images
Baron Pierre de Coubertin designed the Bouclier de Brennus, presented each year to the rugby champions of France ©Getty Images

In 1894, Coubertin made another of his frequent visits to England, this time accompanying Racing Club de France for their match against Oxford University.

They lost 29-6.

Rugby was even included at the 1900 Olympics, although only three teams took part.

One of the participating teams came from Moseley, another Midland town only 61 kilometres from Rugby.

Coubertin never forgot Rugby School as he set about building the Olympic Movement.

In 1906, he introduced the Olympic Cup, a trophy which was to honour an institution or association with "a general reputation for merit and integrity which has been active and efficient development of the Olympic Movement," and in 1915, this was presented to Rugby School.

The extent to which Coubertin appreciated the contribution of the school was demonstrated in 1927.

By then, Coubertin was no longer International Olympic Committee President, but he travelled to Ancient Olympia to witness the inauguration of a monument in honour of the Olympic Games.

“My thoughts turned to Kingsley and Arnold and to the chapel at Rugby where the great clergyman rests who as I see it was one of the great founders of athletic chivalry,” he wrote from Greece.

Coubertin's own contribution to the sport was later recognised by his induction into Rugby’s Hall of Fame.

In 2009 Sebastian Coe also unveiled a plaque at Rugby School in honour of Coubertin’s visit.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin drew inspiration from Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold ©Getty Images
Baron Pierre de Coubertin drew inspiration from Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold ©Getty Images

"Within these grounds and in the work of Thomas Arnold, Baron Pierre de Coubertin found inspiration for his vision to improve education through sport, a vision which gave rise to the modern Olympic Games" the inscription read.

Also included are Coubertin's own words "It was to Arnold that we turned, more or less unconsciously for inspiration."

Events planned at Rugby for 2023 also include a world record attempt to form the world's largest uncontested rugby scrummage and and a number of youth tournaments.

A cycle ride from the school to the grave of Webb Ellis in the south of France is also planned.

The school has also announced an 1823 Bursary Fund.

"Established to celebrate the bicentenary of Rugby Football, the fund will offer means-tested places at Rugby School for boys or girls who show significant promise and aptitude for sport and a commitment to Rugby Football," the prospectus said.

The winning entry in a special art competition will also be displayed on a special outsize rugby ball to be displayed in the centre of Rugby next year.

It is a project which would surely have delighted Coubertin who was the instigator of artistic contests at the Olympic Games themselves.