Did one moment involving William Webb Ellis in 1823 change sport? No clear-cut distinctions between soccer and rugby emerged before the 1860s and 1870s when a form without ‘hacking’ (kicking an opponent in the shins) led in 1862 to the formation of the Football Association. It was a group of largely Old Rugbeians who, refusing to join the Football Association, later inspired the establishment of the Rugby Football Union in 1871.
Running with the ball in hand was allowed (although passing was frowned upon). Keen to demonstrate that their game had a long tradition and was not ‘primitive’, Old Rugbeians set up an historical investigation. A letter in 1876 (written by a former student, Matthew Bloxham, the sole source of the famous story) records an incident, more than 50 years earlier, involving a 17-year-old boy playing football at Rugby School, William Webb Ellis. Apparently, Webb Ellis had caught the ball in his arms. “.......Elllis, for the first time, disregarded this rule......and rushed forwards with the ball in his hands towards the opposite goal...”. Legend has it that this was the beginning of rugby football.
The name of William Webb Ellis was given to the trophy awarded to the winners of the Rugby World Cup. In September 1997 a splendid statue by sculptor Graham Ibbeson was unveiled outside Rugby School. The statue, modelled on the sculptor’s own son, shows a youth, in long sleeves and trousers, running with an oval rugby ball under his arm. The statue bears the inscription: “The local boy who inspired the game of rugby football on the close at Rugby School in 1823.” Perhaps mythical ....but a good and lasting story.