Did Webb Ellis pick up the ball? Who Cares! by Dai Richards

‘Understanding the Origin and Evolution of Sport’ by Dai Richards is out now. Here Dai gives us a taste of what’s inside.

There’s no finer sight than a man who’s picked up pace, running hard with the ball in hand, sweat glistening on his brow.  There’s a hint of a swerve as he heads towards the line and the crowd looks on as he makes one last effort to reach it.  Then he sends the ball down to the batsman at the other end.  Cricket – what a game.  Its distinguishing feature is running with the ball.  Over a day of cricket a fast bowler must cover at least a mile running forward with the ball in hand, and the crowd is there to watch just that. “Rubbish!” I hear you say, and of course, it is.  Cricket is all about scoring runs – if a team scores fewer runs than the opposition then they lose the game, no matter how far they’ve run with the ball.

Cricketers do, however, run forward with the ball far more often than Rugby Union players do, so why then is it that we think of rugby as a running game?  Well, that’s because in 1895 a group of four Old Rugbeians decided that it was, and in 1897 they published a report saying that somebody else had said it was.  When no disputes followed, in 1900 they placed a plaque on the wall of Rugby School explaining that running with the ball is the distinguishing feature of the game of rugby, and everyone at the time blindly agreed.

In my book I contest that “The Origin of Rugby Football” is one of sport’s greatest confidence tricks.  The 1897 report claims that Matthew Bloxam, a Rugbeian from before the time of Webb Ellis, identified the Webb Ellis event as the ‘origin’ of Rugby Football.  What Bloxam actually said was that the event was the beginning of a change in one of the rules, and that running with the ball was the biggest difference between Rugby Football and Association Football, not the distinguishing feature of the game.

So what was/is the most distinguishing feature of the game? Well, the aim of Rugby Football at the time of Webb Ellis was to score goals by kicking the ball over the crossbar. Both before the Webb Ellis event and after he died nearly 50 years later, in 1872, this was the only way you could win a game of Rugby Football.  Even when in 1877 the aim of Rugby Union became to score more points than the opposition, the majority of points were still scored by goals.

In rugby, running with the ball is just one action among many others: passing, catching, tackling, scrummaging, jumping in the line-out and, of course, kicking.  Whilst it may be argued that running plays a far greater part of Rugby Union today, it is still the goal and has always been the goal that is the main scoring method.  Throughout the evolution of Rugby Union, kicking the ball over the crossbar to score a goal has been its distinguishing feature.  Therefore, whilst it’s certainly possible that Webb Ellis contributed to the evolution of Rugby Football, the origin of the game must predate 1823.

When criticising the validity of the Webb Ellis event as the birth of Rugby Football, modern historians have tended to link its origin to ‘folk or mob football’.  However, no link between Rugby Union and these ancient games can be found, and there is no evidence of another game or sport in which a ball was kicked over a crossbar having existed.

Upon undertaking research of the history of Rugby School and of football at the school, I found that the game was first recorded as far back as circa 1783, with the oldest named player being Walter Savage Landor.  Just five years earlier, Thomas James, a new headmaster and former Eton pupil, had introduced a brand new education system into Rugby School that was based entirely on Eton methods.  Part of this system included a reward of ‘play’ for good work or behavior.  That ‘play’ is thought to have taken the form of cricket in the summer and a variety of Eton Football in the winter.  In his 1953 book on the history of the Football Association, Geoffrey Green states that Thomas James brought the ‘Eton Field Game’ to Rugby School, while I believe that it was most likely the little known ‘Lower College Game’, which ended in 1865.  Both versions were reliant on the boys regulating and forming rules for the games, and both versions involved goals that were low to the ground.  At some point the Rugby School boys moved their goals upwards, with their objective aim becoming to kick the ball over the crossbar.

article image

The above illustration is from Rev. F. Marshall’s 1892 book ‘Rugby Football’, showing the trees at Rugby School.  Did the branches from these trees form the first crossbar?  This question is just one of many covered in the book.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Dai Richards is a se98-cover-finish-1600lf confessed ‘sportaholic’. From representing Wales at 6 different sports (cyclo cross, triathlon, mountain running, mountain biking, duathlon, and marathon kayaking), to winning the world championship at another.  His full time job is running the rugby memorabilia specialists Rugby Relics Ltd and he coaches sport in his spare time.  Dai has collected rugby memorabilia for 50 years and has one of the finest collections in the world. This is his first book.

Understanding the Origin & Evolution of Sport – Volume 1 – Rugby Union by Dai Richards – ISBN 978-0-9531714-1-5 – signed limited edition – available on Amazon, eBay & www.rugbyrelics.com


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5 Responses to Did Webb Ellis pick up the ball? Who Cares! by Dai Richards

  1. rhymboy1 says:

    Nice one Dai! Any branches from the trees available? Good prices mind! Best wishes with the sales, Phil Atkinson.

    Like

  2. Peter Shortell says:

    About this time last year I had just enjoyed reading Dai Richards’ book (a Christmas present) and we exchanged a couple of emails as a consequence. I think his idea that a particular tree might have been the origin of the unusual H-shaped goals is a little fanciful. I prefer the explanation in Jennifer Macrory’s book “Running with the ball”: –
    “The numerous goalkeepers were expressly forbidden to climb onto the crossbar to try to intercept, but they did have a job to do in the early games. They were guardians of the goal line, and as such were responsible for making sure that loose balls were touched down before the enemy could get to them.”

    It is clear from contemporary illustrations that the in-goal area could be packed with younger boys as “goalkeepers”, making it near impossible to score a goal under the crossbar.

    The meaning of the word “goal” has also changed over the years. According to East:-
    “Well the match is for the best of three goals; whichever side kicks two goals wins: and it won’t do, you see, just to kick the ball through these posts – it must go over the cross-bar; any height’ll do, so long as it’s between the posts.”

    Claiming that ” it is still the goal and has always been the goal that is the main scoring method” avoids the modern reality that scoring 5 points for a try is more important than any individual goal kick – even more so now that a penalty try no longer needs to be converted.

    Despite my quibbles, the book was still a good read, and offered some new insights on the history of the game and its adherents.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dai Richards says:

    Hi Peter – Thank you for your interest in this blog article. I welcome the opportunity to make an analysis of your comments and during this analysis I offer you challenges relating to your comments and ask you questions. These are your opportunities to make a reply to this post and to educate me further. I will cover your points individually as you said them and that way we will avoid any confusion.

    Peter says:
    About this time last year I had just enjoyed reading Dai Richards’ book (a Christmas present) and we exchanged a couple of emails as a consequence. I think his idea that a particular tree might have been the origin of the unusual H-shaped goals is a little fanciful. I prefer the explanation in Jennifer Macrory’s book “Running with the ball”: –
    “The numerous goalkeepers were expressly forbidden to climb onto the crossbar to try to intercept, but they did have a job to do in the early games. They were guardians of the goal line, and as such were responsible for making sure that loose balls were touched down before the enemy could get to them.” It is clear from contemporary illustrations that the in-goal area could be packed with younger boys as “goalkeepers”, making it near impossible to score a goal under the crossbar.

    Dai says: 
    It was about a year and it looks like Peter has read but forgotten most of what I wrote for example on pages 119-121 I provide an analysis of the trees at Rugby School and an example of the boys at Rugby School using a branch of a tree as a crossbar.

    “Nor must we forget the tree that helped to form Case’s Gallows, a peculiar goal set up in his school days by the present Waynflete Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford in which the cross-bar was formed by a horizontal branch of a tree which met the short arm of the “gallows”. It stood between Old Bigside and the Chapel Piece.” – HCBR089  

    Peter uses the word “fanciful”. I’m a little miffed with this word and believe it questions the integrity of my research. There is no apology needed if this is in intended to be used in a derogatory form. I have accepted the use of this word to describe my analysis as a ‘challenge’ and return my opinion with interest, there will be no apologies offered, this is Rugby after all what happens on the blog stays on the blog and we can shake hands and be the best of friends off the blog. 

    This word ‘fanciful’ according to the Oxford Popular English Dictionary means “existing only in imagination or fancy”. I would take this to mean that I imagined the above quote. If this is the case then maybe I also imagined the extensive research I did on Rugby School and its environs. Perhaps I imagined that some trees at Rugby School gained legendary status and invented themselves such names such as Treen’s Tree (MBRN092) and the Roller Tree (FMRU016). I have such a good imagination that I saw that tree’s were even included in the first set of rules.
    Rule xviii. – A player having touched the ball straight for a tree, and touched the tree with it, may drop from either side if he can, but the opposite side may oblige him to go to his own side of the tree.” – FORU012
    This rule occurred because there were the Three Trees on the Bigside pitch. (HCBR088)

    At Rugby School there were tree’s here, trees there, there were trees everywhere. How fanciful am I imaging all that. (I had included an illustration of The Close with several trees featured, however this illustration has not been included when I pasted this reply) and look at all those silly low branches pretending to be crossbars, what a fanciful illusion.

    Peter also said: 
    “I prefer the explanation in Jennifer Macrory’s book “Running with the ball”Dai says:
    Peter then follows this with a quote from the book. “The numerous goalkeepers were expressly forbidden to climb onto the crossbar to try to intercept, but they did have a job to do in the early games. They were guardians of the goal line, and as such were responsible for making sure that loose balls were touched down before the enemy could get to them.”

    I can see no explanation just a historical observation, perhaps I should have been reading between the lines or I went to the wrong school or maybe Peter should clarify what the explanation is here as to the origin of the Rugby Posts and/or crossbar ?During my analysis, the question I ask in my book about the shape of rugby posts is:
    “Are rugby posts the shape that they are because they were originally two trees standing together? Or maybe it’s that one post represents one tree, the crossbar represents a branch and the other post is just a support for the crossbar?” (DRIC2016UTO119)

    In the absence of any contradicting evidence or other theories I would suggest that it is 95% probable that the first crossbar in the game of Rugby Football was the branch of a tree. I would challenge Peter to reply with a suggestion as to what the other 5% could be. I’ll be happy to move my 95% to a lower number if his suggestion is plausible.

    Peter says:
    The meaning of the word “goal” has also changed over the years. According to East:-
    “Well the match is for the best of three goals; whichever side kicks two goals wins: and it won’t do, you see, just to kick the ball through these posts – it must go over the cross-bar; any height’ll do, so long as it’s between the posts.”

    Dai says: 
    Peter is quoting from a work of fiction, “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, whatever next, a biblical quote from the book of Genesis perhaps or one from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”? I believe that a honest historian should not quote from a work of fiction. You will find in my book that all my quotes are from works of non-fiction. The majority of these are reliable sources and not made up stories (fiction). I am fanciful that Peter doesn’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction which is why he quoted from a story book.   

    Dai says: 
    Peter is what we in Wales term a “knocker”. Someone who knocks people down and makes no effort to rebuild or in this case re-educate them. He’s written an article on the Webb Ellis event which can be found on the Rugby History Society website ( http://therugbyhistorysociety.co.uk/didhe.html ). Its a very informative and well written article however it knocks the Webb Ellis theory down but doesn’t offer an alternative. The game of Rugby Football existed therefore it must have an origin and I believe Peter’s next step should have been to provide an alternative origin, he didn’t and this is where we differ. I on the other hand am a “builder”. I’ve knocked Webb Ellis and the Mob Football origins down with a detailed analysis of each one and I’ve attempted to rebuild the origin of Rugby Football using the available resources. I have attempted to educate myself and other people through this re-building. When faced with a poorly educated person we have to dismantle their knowledge of a subject first before we are able to re-build them. I am one such person who had been fed a load of rubbish during my schooling and in my Rugby Union education process but I’ve had 40 years of self-re-education so it wasn’t a problem for me to re-educate myself about the origin of Rugby Union. My book is all about my journey of understanding and my advice to Peter is go back and read it again and again and again. We learn by repetition. I’ve read the Old Rugbeian publication “The Origin of Rugby Football” at least 5 or 6 times and every time I read it I learn something new and gain a greater understanding of its contents. My book is very detailed and the subjects covered are extremely complicated so you won’t understand my book in one reading, you won’t understand it in two, but on each reading you will gain a greater understanding on the origin and evolution of a sport. My book is not judgementally correct, however its a lot closer than any other publication or on-line source that I’ve come across. My analysis and facts are good but I’ve since realised that there are errors of judgement and if someone points them out I will be the first to put my hand up and say ‘I was wrong’ because in places I am. 

    This is a challenge to Peter – Go back and read my book properly and tell me where I have made wrong judgements. In fact I open this challenge to the world, anyone and everyone who has an interest in the origin of a sport.  

    Peter says: 
    Claiming that ” it is still the goal and has always been the goal that is the main scoring method” avoids the modern reality that scoring 5 points for a try is more important than any individual goal kick – even more so now that a penalty try no longer needs to be converted.

    Dai says: 
    The reason why the try is 5 points is because World Rugby who govern the laws do not understand sport in general and in particular the sport of Rugby Union. They only understand how to organise the sport itself (the structure) and to make money from Rugby Union. My book is not about knocking the modern administrators, they are honestly continuing a deception that occurred over 120 years ago and it will cost them money and cause embarrassment to admit they are wrong. Neither do I feature the evolution of the modern game in my book, basically the analytical content ends in 1823 with the alleged William Webb Ellis Event because everyone agrees that Rugby Football existed then. I only cover modern rugby because it is what people are familiar with and can relate to and I use it to prove the point that Rugby Union is still a kicking game despite the drive towards carrying the ball. Back to Peter’s statement and I place emphasis here when Peter says ” 5 points for a try is more important than any individual goal kick” and ask Peter the following questions: 

    Was Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in 2003 less important that Jason Robinson’s try? 

    Was Joel Stransky’s drop goal in 1995 not important enough to win the game or should the teams in the 1995 RWC Final have continued playing until someone scored a try? 

    I leave Peter with one last parting thought:
    Wales won the 2019 Six Nations Grand Slam by demolishing Ireland by 7 goals and 1 try (25 points) to 1 goal and 1 try (7 points). In this instance the Welsh goals make up 80% of their total score and Ireland’s less that 30% of theirs. Wales won, Ireland lost. Its also worth noting here that the Welsh try came from tactical kicking and catching not running with the ball, that’s 100% points from kicking the ball.
    With this in mind I am at a loss to understand what part of my claim ” it is still the goal and has always been the goal that is the main scoring method” that Peter does not understand? 

    My parting thought for the day is: The try is worth 5 points now and it does not matter if in 10 years time it is worth 100 points, you can’t alter the past and my book doesn’t just offer the possibility that Rugby Union originated from a kicking game, it proves conclusively that the game of Rugby Football that was played at Rugby School was a kicking game and not a running game and the distinctive feature of the game was kicking the ball over a crossbar not running with the ball.

    To return to my blog article, let’s not forget they run more with the ball in cricket than they do in rugby – Howzat !

    Dai Richards

    Like

  4. Dai Richards says:

    Hi Peter – Thank you for your interest in this blog article. I welcome the opportunity to make an analysis of your comments and during this analysis I offer you challenges relating to your comments and ask you questions. These are your opportunities to make a reply to this post and to educate me further. I will cover your points individually as you said them and that way we will avoid any confusion.
    Peter says: About this time last year I had just enjoyed reading Dai Richards’ book (a Christmas present) and we exchanged a couple of emails as a consequence. I think his idea that a particular tree might have been the origin of the unusual H-shaped goals is a little fanciful. I prefer the explanation in Jennifer Macrory’s book “Running with the ball”: –
    “The numerous goalkeepers were expressly forbidden to climb onto the crossbar to try to intercept, but they did have a job to do in the early games. They were guardians of the goal line, and as such were responsible for making sure that loose balls were touched down before the enemy could get to them.” It is clear from contemporary illustrations that the in-goal area could be packed with younger boys as “goalkeepers”, making it near impossible to score a goal under the crossbar.
    Dai says: 
    It was about a year and it looks like Peter has read but forgotten most of what I wrote for example on pages 119-121 I provide an analysis of the trees at Rugby School and an example of the boys at Rugby School using a branch of a tree as a crossbar.
    “Nor must we forget the tree that helped to form Case’s Gallows, a peculiar goal set up in his school days by the present Waynflete Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford in which the cross-bar was formed by a horizontal branch of a tree which met the short arm of the “gallows”. It stood between Old Bigside and the Chapel Piece.” – HCBR089  Peter uses the word “fanciful”. I’m a little miffed with this word and believe it questions the integrity of my research. There is no apology needed if this is in intended to be used in a derogatory form. I have accepted the use of this word to describe my analysis as a ‘challenge’ and return my opinion with interest, there will be no apologies offered, this is Rugby after all what happens on the blog stays on the blog and we can shake hands and be the best of friends off the blog. 
    This word ‘fanciful’ according to the Oxford Popular English Dictionary means “existing only in imagination or fancy”. I would take this to mean that I imagined the above quote. If this is the case then maybe I also imagined the extensive research I did on Rugby School and its environs. Perhaps I imagined that some trees at Rugby School gained legendary status and invented themselves such names such as Treen’s Tree (MBRN092) and the Roller Tree (FMRU016). I have such a good imagination that I saw that tree’s were even included in the first set of rules.
    Rule xviii. – A player having touched the ball straight for a tree, and touched the tree with it, may drop from either side if he can, but the opposite side may oblige him to go to his own side of the tree.” – FORU012

    This rue occurred because there were the Three Trees on the Bigside pitch. (HCBR088)At Rugby School there were tree’s here, trees there, there were trees everywhere. How fanciful am I imaging all that.

    and look at all those silly low branches pretending to be crossbars, what a fanciful illusion.
    Peter also said: 
    “I prefer the explanation in Jennifer Macrory’s book “Running with the ball”Dai says:
    Peter then follows this with a quote from the book. “The numerous goalkeepers were expressly forbidden to climb onto the crossbar to try to intercept, but they did have a job to do in the early games. They were guardians of the goal line, and as such were responsible for making sure that loose balls were touched down before the enemy could get to them.”I can see no explanation just a historical observation, perhaps I should have been reading between the lines or I went to the wrong school or maybe Peter should clarify what the explanation is here as to the origin of the Rugby Posts and/or crossbar ?During my analysis, the question I ask in my book about the shape of rugby posts is:
    “Are rugby posts the shape that they are because they were originally two trees standing together? Or maybe it’s that one post represents one tree, the crossbar represents a branch and the other post is just a support for the crossbar?” (DRIC2016UTO119)In the absence of any contradicting evidence or other theories I would suggest that it is 95% probable that the first crossbar in the game of Rugby Football was the branch of a tree. I would challenge Peter to reply with a suggestion as to what the other 5% could be. I’ll be happy to move my 95% to a lower number if his suggestion is plausible.
    Peter says:
    The meaning of the word “goal” has also changed over the years. According to East:-
    “Well the match is for the best of three goals; whichever side kicks two goals wins: and it won’t do, you see, just to kick the ball through these posts – it must go over the cross-bar; any height’ll do, so long as it’s between the posts.”

    Dai says: 
    Peter is quoting from a work of fiction, “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, whatever next, a biblical quote from the book of Genesis perhaps or one from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”? I believe that a honest historian should not quote from a work of fiction. You will find in my book that all my quotes are from works of non-fiction. The majority of these are reliable sources and not made up stories (fiction). I am fanciful that Peter doesn’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction which is why he quoted from a story book.   Dai says: 
    Peter is what we in Wales term a “knocker”. Someone who knocks people down and makes no effort to rebuild or in this case re-educate them. He’s written an article on the Webb Ellis event which can be found on the Rugby History Society website ( http://therugbyhistorysociety.co.uk/didhe.html ). Its a very informative and well written article however it knocks the Webb Ellis theory down but doesn’t offer an alternative. The game of Rugby Football existed therefore it must have an origin and I believe Peter’s next step should have been to provide an alternative origin, he didn’t and this is where we differ. I on the other hand am a “builder”. I’ve knocked Webb Ellis and the Mob Football origins down with a detailed analysis of each one and I’ve attempted to rebuild the origin of Rugby Football using the available resources. I have attempted to educate myself and other people through this re-building. When faced with a poorly educated person we have to dismantle their knowledge of a subject first before we are able to re-build them. I was one such person who had been fed a load of rubbish during my Rugby Union education process but I’ve had 40 years of self-re-education so it wasn’t a problem for me to re-educate myself about the origin of Rugby Union. My book is all about my journey of understanding and my advice to Peter is go back and read it again and again and again. We learn by repetition. I’ve read the Old Rugbeian publication “The Origin of Rugby Football” at least 5 or 6 times and every time I read it I learn something new and gain a greater understanding of its contents. My book is very detailed and the subjects covered are extremely complicated so you won’t understand my book in one reading, you won’t understand it in two, but on each reading you will gain a greater understanding on the origin and evolution of a sport. My book is not judgementally correct, however its a lot closer than any other publication or on-line source that I’ve come across. My analysis and facts are good but I’ve since realised that there are errors of judgement and if someone points them out I will be the first to put my hand up and say ‘I was wrong’ because in places I am. 
    This is a challenge to Peter – Go back and read my book properly and tell me where I have made wrong judgements. In fact I open this challenge to the world, anyone and everyone who has an interest in the origin of a sport.  
    Peter says: 
    Claiming that ” it is still the goal and has always been the goal that is the main scoring method” avoids the modern reality that scoring 5 points for a try is more important than any individual goal kick – even more so now that a penalty try no longer needs to be converted.

    Dai says: 
    The reason why the try is 5 points is because World Rugby who govern the laws do not understand sport in general and in particular the sport of Rugby Union. They only understand how to organise the sport itself (the structure) and to make money from Rugby Union. My book is not about knocking the modern administrators, they are honestly continuing a deception that occurred over 120 years ago and it will cost them money and cause embarrassment to admit they are wrong. Neither do I feature the evolution of the modern game in my book, basically the analytical content ends in 1823 with the alleged William Webb Ellis Event because everyone agrees that Rugby Football existed then. I only cover modern rugby because it is what people are familiar with and can relate to and I use it to prove the point that Rugby Union is still a kicking game despite the drive towards carrying the ball. Back to Peter’s statement and I place emphasis here when Peter says ” 5 points for a try is more important than any individual goal kick” and ask Peter the following questions: Was Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in 2003 less important that Jason Robinson’s try? 
    Was Joel Stransky’s drop goal in 1995 not important enough to win the game or should the teams in the 1995 RWC Final have continued playing until someone scored a try? 
    I leave Peter with one last parting thought:
    Wales won the 2019 Six Nations Grand Slam by demolishing Ireland by 7 goals and 1 try (25 points) to 1 goal and 1 try (7 points). In this instance the Welsh goals make up 80% of their total score and Ireland’s less that 30% of theirs. Wales won, Ireland lost. Its also worth noting here that the Welsh try came from tactical kicking and catching not running with the ball, that’s 100% points from kicking the ball.
    With this in mind I am at a loss to understand what part of my claim ” it is still the goal and has always been the goal that is the main scoring method” that Peter does not understand? My parting thought for the day is: The try is worth 5 points now and it does not matter if in 10 years time it is worth 100 points, you can’t alter the past and my book doesn’t just offer the possibility that Rugby Union originated from a kicking game, it proves conclusively that the game of Rugby Football that was played at Rugby School was a kicking game and not a running game and the distinctive feature of the game was kicking the ball over a crossbar not running with the ball. To return to my blog article, let’s not forget they run more with the ball in cricket than they do in rugby – Howzat !
    Dai Richards

    Like

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