I have the honour of representing the only place that has given its name to an international game. Rugby is known as both a midlands market town and a fast-growing game, played in two codes by men and women. Indeed, the use of the same word for town and game occasionally leads to confusion. If one googles any organisation in my constituency with the town in the title, one gets links to a variety of rugby clubs around the world.
It all started in 1823 at Rugby school, which was originally established by Lawrence Sheriff for the boys of the town. In a game that largely did not have any rules, but involved hacking about an inflated pig’s bladder, a pupil called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and, importantly, ran with it, creating the characteristic feature of the Rugby game.
Other schools had their own rules for football, but they adopted Rugby’s rules over time and the growth in the game led in 1851 to a ball of the characteristic oval shape, which was made by William Gilbert in Rugby, being exhibited at the great exhibition in Crystal Palace.
In 1871, at a meeting of 21 clubs in the Pall Mall restaurant in Regent street, the Rugby Football Union, the governing body for the sport in England, was founded, with its headquarters at Twickenham, which I describe as the second most well known place associated with the game of rugby.
In the 1860s and ’70s, the game started to be played around the world, often taken to places by former pupils of the school. That led to the formation in 1886 of the International Rugby Board. One of the most significant developments in the game took place in 1895, when the 12 northern clubs broke away to form the Northern Rugby Union, later called the Rugby League. Since rugby league has remained mostly in the north of England, the connections between the town of Rugby and the game have been mostly in respect of rugby union.
In the same year as the split, a plaque was unveiled at Rugby school, commemorating Webb Ellis’s invention of the game. It is known locally as the tablet. Along with the field, which is known locally as the close, it serves as the main draw to the town for enthusiasts of the game.
The most significant recent development has been the introduction of the world cup tournament every four years. In 1987 it was first held, in Australia and New Zealand, when a trophy named after the game’s founder, Webb Ellis, was won, of course, by New Zealand.
The next tournament took place in England four years later, in 1991, when Australia won and the town of Rugby experienced a large increase in visitor numbers as enthusiasts of the game, supporting their team, also looked in on the game’s home. The 1991 world cup served as a catalyst for the town’s increasing involvement with the game. In that year, Rugby’s pathway of fame, a series of plaques embedded in footpaths around the town, was opened.
Also in 1991, the parliamentary world cup was played on the close at Rugby school. That enabled several Members of this place to put on their boots and play on the turf where William Webb Ellis started it all. I hope that that event will be repeated in the near future.
After England’s victory in the 2003 tournament, the Sweet Chariot tour brought the trophy to the town, which honoured the winning team by granting them the freedom of the borough. The borough council has worked closely with the Rugby Football Union and the International Rugby Board in managing the collection of items that relates to the heritage of the game. Plans are in hand for a more extensive display in the town.
The game that started modestly in my constituency has grown in the UK to 200 clubs nationwide embedded in local communities, with the unique feature that there is a position for everyone, regardless of shape or size. Two and a half million people are engaged in rugby activity throughout England, with 60,000 volunteers and 35,000 coaches.
Rugby union is played in more than 100 countries spanning six continents. Later this year, the game’s profile will be raised internationally with this year’s world cup in New Zealand, which will provide a further focus on the town. However, the biggest opportunity will come in four years, when the tournament is based in England, with some games taking place at the nearby Ricoh stadium in Coventry.
At that time, the town of Rugby will prepare itself for its biggest ever influx of visitors as people seek out the place where William Webb Ellis did the deed that led to the formation of the massive international game that we all know today.
Rugby looks forward to that opportunity and to support from the Deputy Leader of the House and his Department in promoting the town as the home of the game.