William Webb Ellis

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The Founding Father

Legend has it that rugby emerged dramatically and suddenly as a new code  because one man, William Webb Ellis, picked up the ball during a football match at Rugby School and ran with it. This was the original game changing moment in the code's history.

The tombstone of English sportsman William Webb Ellis (1805 - 1872), reputedly the inventor of rugby football. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

There's a gloriously pristine town called Menton on the French Riviera.

It is exactly what towns in that part of the world are supposed to look like – manicured gardens, picture postcard town hall, bright coloured houses and shops, a beach front without blemish and unspoilt views to the sea.

The sun beats down most days and for people watching, there is nothing better. Older men, with a bit of cruise liner suave are everywhere, opening passenger doors of their classic sports cars for their lady friends who are typically 15 years younger and dripping in gold and designer labels. It's another world – and seemingly has nothing in common with the typical scene to be found on a Friday night at Waikato Stadium.

Menton and Rugby Park, Invercargill – what could they possibly have in common. Well, the answer is this: that both owe much to one man and that is William Webb Ellis.

It's high above the houses of Menton, perched on a non too secure graveyard plot looking out across the Mediterranean that Ellis is buried. He headed there later in life in the hope the warmer, drier air would help with his failing health.

Believe it or not, but every year thousands make the pilgrimage to see where he lies and Menton does a roaring tourist trade on the back of it.

Rugby isn't such a big thing in Menton but Webb Ellis is. And of course, it is because of Ellis, or supposedly because of Ellis, that tend of thousands boys, girls, women and men will be running around all over New Zealand on any given winter weekend, playing rugby.

Ellis is the man credited with being the inventor of rugby or at least for being the inspiration. He is, if it is true that he did indeed one day randomly pick up the football and run with it as legend has it, the ultimate game changer. Not even Jonah Lomu can compete with Webb Ellis on the game changing stakes.

For this publication to have any credibility, it simply had to acknowledge the legend of Webb Ellis. Can he be considered the father of rugby? The man to whom all credit has to be given for rugby being the game it now is?

Well, the answer should really be no. The historical role which he has been prescribed is hard to believe. Almost certainly not true.

It is a classic case of the truth not being allowed to get in the way of a good story. It is a classic case of history being re-written, or partly invented.

But it's also a case that it is best for the game for the legend to stay unchallenged. It is a great story – a neat genesis for the code even if it didn't happen quite the way we are all happy to believe it did.

Rugby is a spiritual sport. It carries this old world mystique of being gentlemanly, honourable and shrouded in tradition.

The Webb Ellis legend adds to that mystique. It also gives rugby a definitive marketing tool because it has such an inspiring and neat origin that is recognised and accepted globally.

The truth is probably far more mundane and uninspiring – that rugby evolved gradually and less dramatically. There probably was no random act  of rebellion and no hero at the centre of the drama.

Over a period of years, with umpteen thousand hours of committee meetings, the game of rugby as we know it emerged. It became, over a period of about 30 years, recognised as a different code to what is quaintly known as Association Football [soccer to Americans].

There’s nothing particularly thrilling about the truth, though, so the Webb Ellis legend has been endorsed, embellished and marketed to high heaven. And for that reason, despite the fact we all know the story is doubtful, Webb Ellis has to be recognised as massive game changer. He gave us rugby by adapting the rules of football.

He took a kicking game and adapted it to become a passing, running and kicking game. He changed the idea that football had to be interpreted literally and the constant stream of people up the steep, winding hills of Menton is testament to the place he holds in the rugby fraternity.

The Vault
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The Vault

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