Most modern sports have some creation myth that usually links them to an almost-sacred place of origin. Baseball has its Cooperstown. Golf its St. Andrews. Basketball its Springfield College. If you are a football fan, whether of the All Blacks or the Springboks, the Magpies or the Swans, the Longhorns or the Stampeders, your ancestral shrine is a centuries-old boarding school in the West Midlands of England. It was at this place in 1823, according to legend, that schoolboy William Webb Ellis first caught a football and ran with it. The game that developed after this violation of the rules took the name of young Webb Ellis’ school: Rugby. The branches of rugby football spread widely in the 19th century and took on distinctive shapes, so that every sport today in which players run with and toss an oval ball, as opposed to dribbling and kicking a round one, can trace its history back to Webb Ellis’ forward rush.
The legend of William Webb Ellis is just one subject that Tony Collins addresses in A Social History of English Rugby Union (Routledge, 2009). The book is a masterly work of scholarship that earned the Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History in 2010. Tony unfolds the history of rugby union from its origins at Rugby and other elite schools of the 19th century, through its expansion into Britain’s industrial cities and overseas empire, and down to its current status as a worldwide sport that draws big crowds, bigger television audiences, and even bigger revenues. But the larger and more important story is what the sport’s history reveals about England in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even if you are not a fan of rugby, you will learn a lot from this book about England and its empire, the nation at war, and the social and cultural changes of the postwar decades.
As Tony explains in the interview, a study of rugby is particularly useful for viewing larger historical issues. The two codes of rugby—”rugby union” and “rugby league”—are distinguished not only by different rules and styles of play but also by different social, cultural, and political outlooks. If you don’t know the first thing about union and league, don’t worry: Tony gives us a lesson. But whether you know of rugby only from Matt Damon in Invictus or you’re a veteran player, you’ll appreciate Tony’s insights into the game, the history of modern England, and the reasons that the history of sports matters.