Watching mud-splattered men intent on maintaining the possession of a ball cradled in their arms, slither into touch on a muddy field grasping onto it for dear life can sometimes leave you wondering about where and when, in the mists of time did this passion for chasing a ball, that many men seem to have, really begin?
Rugby football may be for many a ‘thug’s game originally founded for and by gentlemen, but it has definitely improved over the years as it has expanded its influence into the public arena. Some would say that they have taken some aspects of the sport nearly to the level of being an art form, but that’s perhaps stretching it just a bit for me.
It is however a vital and important ongoing aspect of our social and cultural development, one whose ideas have had an important and ongoing impact on the evolution of our moral and social mores.
I never ever believed that I would be able to give up on this dream which has driven me to live, breathe, love and embrace the game of rugby from the earliest days that I can remember *
The whole idea of turning a game that required a great deal of pushing and shoving to get possession of a ball into a sporting achievement was one of pure genius.
It gave virile healthy young men full of testosterone a war they could at last win in the great outdoors without anyone having to die.
This was seen as a very helpful aspect of a young aristocratic man’s social and cultural development.
Establishing rules for the game was about providing a clear and fair playing field for all.
The ‘Sacred Seven’ greater Public Schools of England, Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester by the nineteenth century had a long history of young men playing unruly ball games.
This had been happening since the Middle Ages.
They were played on cobblestones, or in abject misery on vast muddy fields, with the objective of getting the ball over the nearby local parish boundary. And, it didn’t really matter if anyone got hurt in the process. Well so it seemed.
It was at The Rugby School in the market town of Rugby in Warwickshire, today one of the oldest independent schools in England, that back in the 1840’s everything began changing.
The Rugby School had a wonderful expanse of grass for their boys to play on. As the legend goes, it took just one of the boys, William Webb Ellis, to pick up the ball and showing initiative, begin to run with it.
In so doing he created a whole new game, now known as ‘Rugby’.
Ellis it seems was just one of the cast of characters in the right place at the right time when and where the original ‘Rules of Rugby’ were drafted and founded. They were drawn up in 1845 at The Rugby School and forever changed the way the sport was played.
They also helped to glorify the game and today whatever level it is played at, Rugby is all about nurturing and engendering the ideals surrounding sportsmanship for young people.
So how did it reach such a lofty position?
Over the years since it was established, Rugby football has achieved high standards by those who have fought for over two centuries to see it survive and thrive.
Changes to the rules and the system since they were first established, have continued to embody the spirit of the game and when applied fairly and consistently ensure that the heart of this game, which so many men are passionate about, remains intact.
And the English were not alone.
Blokes it seems have been chasing balls ever since they were first invented in many different areas and cultures on earth and for thousands of years.
For a long time in England the balls used on village greens, and later the greater ‘public’ schools (meaning private) greens were made from a pig’s bladder, which was blown up and knotted at the end just like a balloon.
It was also susceptible to going bang and in 1862, a Richard Lindon (1816 – 1887) is attributing with inventing the all new leather Rugby ball, with a rubber inflatable bladder inside and a brass hand pump to blow it up with.
He became “Principal” Maker of the Big-Side Match Balls to The Rugby School in Warwickshire and to Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin Universities.
After that, the ball would not change again until the late 1970’s when leather-encased balls, which were prone to water-logging, were finally replaced by balls encased in synthetic waterproof materials.
In the twenty first century these have again evolved into high tech numbers, designed by teams of engineers to exacting specifications that enable the ball to be handled under any adverse conditions.
A beautifully mannered well-spoken, strong and handsome man my brother in law John ‘Rupert’ Mudge (1928-1998) was a Rugby enthusiast from an early age.
He cut his teeth playing Rugby union, an important amateur code. John Mudge was so very good at the game he was seconded from his Eastern Suburbs at Sydney team by renowned Welsh Rugby League player footballer, and successful coach Gus Risman (1911 – 1994).
This was all taking place at a time when the onset of changes to the game would see Rugby becoming a professional team sport.
The Great Britain National Rugby League Team, generally known as ‘The Lions’ at the time came to Australia on a post-war tour in 1946.
They were given a new nickname of the ‘Indomitables’ because they arrived on the famous Royal Navy aircraft carrier of that name with only one goal in mind, to defeat the Aussies.
There has been a book written to commemorate their victories, which is available on bookoffers.com.au
Many of the ‘lads’ as my mother called them, came to visit John at our house at Coogee and they all packed into our living room to have tea.
I remember Albert Pepperell (1922-1986), lifting me onto his shoulders so that I wouldn’t get crushed in the crowd.
Later that year John sailed to England to take up a position in the Rugby League team of Workington Town where Gus Risman was Captain. My eldest sister (19 years older than me) followed him to Northumberland, where they married and lived for nearly a decade while he completed his contract.
Skipper Gus Risman steered his beloved Workington Town to victory in the Championship in 1951 and to a famous Challenge Cup victory at Wembley in 1952, becoming the oldest ever Cup winner at the age of 41.
In the 1952 Challenge Cup at the Empire Field, which was later named the Wembley Stadium, John scored the longest ever-running try encompassing the length of the field. It was also the first football game televised and although old and scratchy it still exists.
His achievement was a major turning point for his team in the match and he held the record right up until 2003, when Wembley Stadium was demolished to make way for a whole new structure.
John Mudge was also a member, along with Gus Risman and Albert Pepperell and his mate Tony Paskins of the British Empire XIII, a rugby league football team that toured Europe in 1954. They were representing the Empire of Britain at the time. On his return to Australia in 1955 John played for the Eastern Suburbs Rugby League Team with his mate Tony Paskins also returning to join him there. John became heavily involved in coaching and encouraging young people to participate in all types of sport, becoming a mentor to many young Rugby players.
During the last few months of his life John Mudge was invited to England to attend the closing ceremony of the old Wembley Stadium. Its famous twin towers were demolished in the name of progress. His family were all so pleased that he had gone because in its time, his had been a landmark achievement, one which helped England’s people boost their spirits following the devastation of World War II.
When England won the Rugby World Cup in Sydney in 2003 the trophy held aloft was the aptly named Webb Ellis Cup. The composition of the ‘code’ of rules established all that time ago at the Rugby school ensured that their version of the game of football would eventually prevail.
However it should not be overlooked that this was also in part due to the huge impact of The Rugby School’s revolutionary headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold at the time.
In his fourteen years at the Rugby School (1795-1842) Dr Arnold had put in place an educational system that would have a large effect nationally and then worldwide with colonial settlement.
Dr Arnold wanted in an orderly way to foster manliness and morality among the young men in his charge so that when they finished they would go out into the world and became ‘muscular’ young Christians, unselfish, fearless and above all, in control of self.
When the Masters, who had been at his school also moved on, they not only took the game with them, but also importantly, the idea of what constituted ‘fair play’, spreading it far and wide.
Within only two decades ‘Rugby’ football became an important aspect of the English education model, one that was part of the breeding of a true ‘gentlemen’; a complete man in every aspect of his make up from how he perceived himself to how he acted and performed with people in both his personal and professional life.
As most of Arnold’s and his Master’s pupils would grow up and become part of the ruling government and ruling social elite of their day, Arnold’s outlook and rules should be seen as very important in the context of the grand scheme of a life well lived.
They would go on to have a huge impact on wider society and establishing firmly in its psyche a sense of what should be considered fair and what constituted right and proper behaviour for any young man of consequence.
The rules and moral aims of Rugby were confirmed and re-affirmed by the publication in 1857 of the outstanding literary achievement Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes.
This bestselling novel of its day depicted vividly the Rugby School’s original football game, with young Tom as the hero of the piece, celebrated for his courageous acts on the football field. The novel’s main element is the traditions and reforms instituted by Dr Arnold and the moral and social development of the boys.
All over England as boys read the book the demand for a football game played fairly, and on even terms, took off like wildfire. The honour of playing the game, and of winning the game, took centre stage for generations of young men wanting to achieve.
Laws were debated and the 1844 rules, which were written down at the Rugby school by three senior pupils, were discussed. Over the coming years they would be subjected to constant change and eventually codified by a committee set up to review and revise them annually if required.
Finally after 1862 the rules and customs were discussed formally, as newly formed ‘local’ ‘football’ clubs came into existence. In 1871 the Rugby Football Union’s first laws were put into place, thankfully removing some of the most violent of the game’s original aspects, including deliberately ‘tripping’ up opponents.
By 1886 an International Rugby Football Board and code of behaviour was established, and it was in 1930 that England proposed and Ireland seconded that ‘all matches should be played under the laws of the International Board’
It was only in 1947, the year after John “Rupert” Mudge sailed for England that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa were able to have a representative on the Board. Some of the players on the field were still trying it on during the 1950’s before television broadcasts became an important aspect of the game, by revealing those slipping under the referee’s radar, allowing the rules to be revisited and refined.
I remember John coming home one afternoon, after a particularly trying match, with the imprint of a spiked shoe on the side of face. The next morning that picture was plastered on the front page of the paper. Such behaviour was to be appalled and definitely the result of an opponent breaching etiquette, which was unbecoming any modern man who sought to live under the game’s code.
The game of Rugby may have started in misery and mud sliding about in a school playground in a country village in England, but over the past fifty years it has become the international phenomenon it now is and played by members of a global village.
The Rugby World Cup final, played every four years, is at the pinnacle of the game of Rugby and its continuing success. It was founded to improve the life, stature and status of an English gentlemen at play and has become a universal symbol of hospitality, sportsmanship and social wellbeing, which are all still vitally important to our ever evolving society and its ongoing cultural development.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014
*Quote – Johnny Wilkinson English Rugby Union Player