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200 years of rugby: Spirit of the game, spirit of the school

by
13 October 2023

Two centuries after the birth of rugby, Hattie Williams looks at its enduring influence on the school from which it takes its name

Rugby School

MUCH can change in 200 years. Technologies advance, populations grow, cultures develop and disintegrate, religion is lost and found. But, for the game of rugby, which celebrates its bicentenary in 2023 — a World Cup year — its contemporary presence and popularity remain intertwined with its strong roots in the Christian faith.

Rugby — both Union and League — while not yet attracting the billions of pounds spent on international soccer, is none the less a global, multi-million-pound phenomenon, and interest in it shows no signs of fading.

The beginnings of rugby are markedly humble. In 1823, a Rugby School pupil from Warwickshire, William Webb Ellis, with a “fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time”, took the ball in his arms and ran with it across the Close of Rugby School.

To celebrate this accidental foundation of its namesake sport, Rugby School, which dates from the 16th century, has been welcoming teams from a range of backgrounds and abilities to play on the Close this year, as well as hosting celebratory dinners, entertainments, and its annual Festival on the Close, which, for 2023, is named “With a Fine Disregard” in honour of Webb Ellis.

The school expects more than 40,000 people from around the world to attend this year’s events. They include a combined England and Wales v. Scotland and Ireland “legends match” in November, the teams of former professional players co-captained by Mike Tindall and Shane Williams, and Shane Byrne and Rory Lawson. A similar match was played on the Close by the national sides to mark the centenary in 1923.

 

Rugby SchoolPeter Green, who has been executive headmaster of Rugby School since 2013THE executive head master of Rugby since 2013, Peter Green, considers Webb Ellis a “complete legend”, not only for the gift of the game of rugby football (the only “football” recognised in the school grounds), but for the ethos his actions inspired.

One of Mr Green’s most renowned predecessors was the Revd Thomas Arnold, who, during his tenure from 1828 to 1841, ran the school on Christian principles, the essence of which are still upheld today.

Arnold encouraged the boys to question. Arnold’s other objects were religious and moral; gentlemanly conduct — “gentle person conduct now”, Mr Green says, since Rugby became co-ed in the 1970s; and academic pursuit.

These principles were in accord with the spirit of Webb Ellis, who went on to be ordained. Mr Green says: “I believe, having read some of Arnold’s papers, that it was a combination of these factors which lead to character development, and that at the pinnacle of this was religious and moral principle — the founding of muscular Christianity. You can relate this to William Webb Ellis, which we have done.

“Somebody else who had fine disregard for the rules of life was Christ. He redeemed us because of his fine disregard for the rules of death.”

Perseverance is needed in the Christian faith as much as in the game of rugby, he says, and both foster a sense of community. “The fantastic camaraderie that you have between schools, between players — you create lifelong friendships through the values of the game.” He gives the examples of showing respect for the referee, sportsmanship, and courtesy to other teams and players.

 

Rugby SchoolRugby is central to the life of its birthplace, Rugby SchoolTHE game of rugby — both 15s and sevens — remains as central to the school as its Christian foundation. There are multiple boys’ teams, and a girls’ team has been established this year to mark the bicentenary. Mr Green acknowledges that they have been “late to the party” with the girls’ game, but says that the school has been big on netball and hockey, and it has been “hard” to find girls’ rugby fixtures against other schools.

Other developments during his ten-year tenure at Rugby include new boarding houses, a merger with Bilton Grange Preparatory School, and the opening of Rugby Schools in Thailand and Japan. Its bursary and scholarship provision has also been expanded, and fee-remission places now account for 42 per cent of all pupil admissions. Full fees are about £40,000 a year.

Rugby has also started a choral scholarship programme with Bilton Grange Preparatory School, with girl and boy choristers and a “wonderful back row” of lay clerks. “We’ve added a further praying heart to the school,” Mr Green says. “There is a lot more happening in the chapel.”

To mark the 200th anniversary, a choral evensong from the school chapel was broadcast live on Radio 3 in September, and a service on Radio 4’s Sunday Worship celebrated both Webb Ellis and the start of the Rugby World Cup.

 

THE Revd Richard Horner has been chaplain at Rugby School since 1999. The students affectionately call him “the Rev.” — a testament to his pastoral presence in the whole life of the school, including on the rugby field. He avoids the limelight, however, and pointed the Church Times to his assistant chaplain, Dan Shaw.

Rugby SchoolThe assistant chaplain, Dan Shaw

Mr Shaw has been a math­ematics teacher, coach, and referee at the school for eight years, and assistant chaplain for the past four years. This experience, he says, “has allowed me to mix my passions” for rugby and maths with his Chris­tian faith.

“Just like it was in 1823, the game is played in the shadow of the Chapel, which continues to be central to school life,” he says.

As well as seasonal services, a Sunday service for the whole school is held in the Butterfield Chapel each week, to provide, as the Rugby School website explains, “an act of Christian worship which allows those attending to move between the roles of observer and participant. Visiting speakers are often invited, having been thoroughly briefed in our requirements for brevity and relevance.”

Three mornings a week, the whole school also gathers in the chapel for a ten-minute service, usually con­sisting of a hymn, a prayer, and a short talk. There is an optional com­­munion service twice a week, usually attended by 20 to 30 students and staff.

Rugby SchoolThe Butterfield Chapel, overlooking the close of Rugby School

Although the school has a Church of England foundation, its chaplaincy also enjoys “friendly relationships” with St Marie’s Roman Catholic parish, whose church is adjacent to the grounds, and a Catholic mass is offered once every half-term. Members of other faiths are also encouraged to attend worship and instruction in their own faith.

Mr Shaw also points to the school’s Christian Union which, he says, “takes place with the regular message that I wish I had understood earlier — that following Jesus is not confined to the walls of the chapel. With the opportunity to honour him in the classroom, in your boarding house, in your time with friends, in your time alone, and in your time on the very pitches on which the Revd Webb-Ellis took the ball on.”

Mr Green agrees that the chapel is the “heart of the school”. “It is very much a symbol for the pupils,” he says.

 

CELEBRATING the gifts of faith and rugby is key to the work of Christians in Sport.

Peter Browne, who is part of the Performance Team Pro Rugby and International Team at the charity, works with professional international rugby players from the UK and Ireland who have an established Christian faith, who wish to develop their faith, or who are simply curious. He works with men’s teams, but the charity has a separate support network for the fast-developing women’s game.

His job, Mr Browne says, is to connect elite players with their “unique calling” and to help them to understand what it means to be a person of faith in a high-performance environment. This involves “stripping back” the duty to use their gift solely to worship God, he says, and recognising that this gift is to be enjoyed: “This gives players the freedom to enjoy and excel in their gift as well as to worship God.”

Christians in Sport organises group meals, Bible studies, WhatsApp groups, and one-to-one sessions. Any professional player can also sign up to weekly “Game Day” devotions, to encourage prayer and reflection before Saturday fixtures. Just as others pray or genuflect before crossing the sideline, this devotion becomes part of their routine, he says. All this communication is about players “understanding that they are loved unconditionally by God, and the truth of the gospel: that their identity and their salvation is received, not achieved.”

He explains: “The aim is to see them perform better, because, if you have a Christian worldview, or if you are interested and having existential questions, whatever they are, then it is about seeing that . . . the outworking of your mission goes beyond rugby to where God has placed you.

“We pray and hope that understanding this means that these guys have the emotional buffers to be able to get through the highs and lows of what is a particularly pressured microcosm. . . It is a game, we realise that, but one week you could be scoring a winning try, the next you could be injured for six months. Being able to support those guys through those highs and lows, but point them first and foremost to the Bible, is a real privilege.”

Mr Browne, a former professional rugby-union player himself, is no stranger to injury. After studying theology at Durham, he embarked on a ten-year club career at Newcastle Falcons, Harlequins, London Welsh, and Ulster, where he sustained a series of “bad” injuries and concussions, which ultimately led to his early retirement in 2018 on medical grounds.

“It’s very easy within our society, and the way that we live our lives, to seek control in all that we do,” he says. “Actually being able to relinquish control and understand that God is sovereign is really helpful — because rugby players will get an injury . . . and there’s grief. . . But just sitting with them, and being honest and open about their experience, what they’re processing, can help.”

A large part of his job is mentoring, where an overlap between sports psychology and faith becomes apparent. He was a Christian throughout his playing career, he says, which has helped him to understand what players of faith are going through, and to relate to their experiences, especially when travel schedules and commitments can separate players from their local church. And then there’s the transition into retirement at a relatively young age.

“The game has only been professional since 1995. So, seeing players transition well into the rest of their life can be a real struggle,” he says.

Christians can fare better in this transition, he argues, because “players have a broader calling on their life than just rugby for a certain time.”

“The countercultural thing is being motivated,” he says. “These guys care deeply; this is their vocation. Winning and losing and injury, feeling that pain is normal. But they can also understand that they are safe, secure, and that their personhood is not affected by this loss, even though it hurts and is difficult, even though mistakes may have been made. That doesn’t affect their standing in terms of with Christ . . . so they can look at those things and be slightly more objective, because they are loved unconditionally. Sports psychology would speak into that.”

Through this example, Mr Browne says, professional rugby can also be an opportunity for evangelism. He acknowledges, again, that this feels countercultural in the modern world of sport, but believes in a “peer-to-peer” approach.

“I’m now outside the bubble of professional rugby,” he says. “These guys are on the ground: they’re the ones who are being a Christian witness within that context, within their clubs.

“Having played professional rugby for 13 years, you don’t go in and put your arm around one of your teammates and say: ‘You know what, Jesus loves you.’ You can do that, though you might get a bit of a laugh. The aim is, through the use of your gifts and talents, you can serve your teammates with a sense of loving your neighbour by working hard, being driven, and disciplined.”

He believes that this growth — from separated sports ministry to grassroots evangelism — is one of the key changes within the sport in the past few decades of its 200-year history. The worth of what he calls sports discipleship is growing.

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