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Rugby Football: 200th Anniversary

Volume 727: debated on Friday 3 February 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nigel Huddleston.)

It is a great honour to have the opportunity to speak about two passions of mine: my home town and constituency of Rugby, and the game of rugby football.

My constituency is unique: nowhere else has given its name to a game that is played around the world. Most people will be familiar with the game, in one code or another. Its characteristic feature is that it is played with an oval-shaped ball, and people run with it and throw it. The question is whether the game is named after the place or Rugby School, where it was first played. Both lay claim to the honour.

We have a massive celebration this year, because the game is 200 years old. It all happened back in 1823. There is a plaque at Rugby School, overlooking the close, where the game started, that commemorates

“the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game AD 1823.”

Young Webb Ellis is credited with that action, when everybody else was kicking or hacking the ball, although plenty of people contend that it was not him at all and that the game simply evolved. I do not think there is any question but that he was there, but many people believe he was just a great self-publicist, who took the credit and got his name both into history and the record books. Whatever is true and whatever happened, it is generally accepted, not least by rugby union’s international governing body, that it was all down to William Webb Ellis, as the world cup, which is played every four years and will take place later this year in France, is known as the Webb Ellis cup.

Over the 200 years since 1823, the game has developed. There are two codes. I am always mindful of that when Mr Speaker is in the Chair, because rugby league arose in the north of England as a consequence of the desire for working men to be compensated for wages lost when they played. Rugby union remained defiantly amateur until 1995.

There are differences in the two games, not least the number of players on the pitch, but a common feature is the shape of the ball. That shape came about because of the shape of the pig’s bladder that was originally used as a ball, and later from the work of William Gilbert, a bootmaker in the town, who was approached by Rugby schoolboys in the first half of the 1800s to encase the bladder with leather, so it would be a more regular shape that was easier to kick and throw.

The rules of the game were first written down by three Rugby schoolboys in 1845. Games originally took place in England, but, as the boys left the school to make their way in the world, they took their game with them. A team was first formed in Australia in 1864, New Zealand in 1870, France in 1872 and South Africa in 1875. Indeed, at the parliamentary rugby world cup, played on the close at Rugby School in 2015, just ahead of the proper world cup, headmaster Peter Green was able to address each of the teams taking part and tell them the name and story of the Rugby schoolboy who took the game to their country.

As I mentioned, there are union and league forms of the game, but today we also have seven-a-side rugby, the game played with 10 players on each side, touch rugby and mini-rugby, which introduces younger players to the game. There are also forms of beach and snow rugby. There is a thriving women’s game at all levels and mixed-ability rugby. Rugby union was first played at the Olympic games in the early 1900s and reinstated in 2016 in the sevens format.

The game has grown hugely in its 200 years. World Rugby has 132 country members and estimates that approaching 10 million people play the game globally, with rugby’s reputation as a game for all shapes and sizes holding firm across the world. There is a position on the field for everyone—from the strong and tall players in the forwards, to the smaller, faster and more elusive players in the backs—which is one key to rugby’s success. That inclusiveness engenders a team spirit that involves, for many, putting the values of the game into practice.

There are five key values of rugby: teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship. On teamwork, rugby is a game where players play selflessly for the benefit of the team, both on and off the field. It is a tough game, as I am sure you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, but respecting and acknowledging opposition players is greatly important and that extends to the supporters. It is a game that is largely played for fun, to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to build life skills and to enjoy that essence of being part of a team.

I commend my hon. Friend for his excellent speech about rugby—and, of course, many congratulations to rugby on its 200th anniversary. It is a very important occasion. In Bracknell, of course, we have our fantastic Bracknell rugby club, which is in regional 1 south central of the London and south-east division. I am proud to have that in the constituency. We are also seeing a lot of state schools playing rugby now; it was perhaps previously the reserve of private schools. Does he agree that rugby has come a long way in its 200 years? We are seeing women’s rugby now, and rugby being played across the globe. Does he agree that it is a fantastic thing that it is now becoming much more accessible for all?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The game has grown massively and is played at all levels in all parts of the world and all corners of the UK.

I was talking about rugby being a game with discipline and with physical endeavour. It is controlled physical endeavour, but players have to be honest and fair and sportsmanship is the foundation on which rugby is built. There is a great sense of camaraderie between rugby players and their teammates. All those values are seen in charity work that is done up and down the country, with the game of rugby being used as a tool to change lives. These organisations are often characterised by their bright and distinctive blazers—I am thinking of organisations such as Wooden Spoon and the Atlas Foundation, where the power of rugby to make a difference and to give young people a purpose, helping them to create a support network and to get on with their lives, is completely inspiring.

I have been proud to host the Premiership Rugby community awards here in Parliament over a number of years. Premiership Rugby’s award-winning education and employability programme HITZ uses the core values of the game to inspire and motivate young people into education, employment or apprenticeships and has engaged more than 20,000 people since it was created in 2008.

Another programme is Project Rugby, which is run by Premiership Rugby in collaboration with Gallagher and England Rugby. It is designed to increase participation by people from traditionally under-represented groups, perhaps in the basic way my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) mentioned. Project Rugby was extended in April 2022 to bring young women and girls from diverse backgrounds into rugby in partnership with the Asian Sports Foundation.

The growth and spread of the game over 200 years is worth celebrating and that is exactly what is happening in rugby this year. It all starts this coming Sunday on the close at Rugby School, where 140 people—including our very own Sports Minister, who is at the Dispatch Box today, world cup winner Mike Tindall, England Women’s 100 cap international Emily Scarratt and almost all the former captains of rugby at the school dating back to 1957—will make a global pass to send 200 balls around the UK. They will be going, among other places, to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, which has a connection to Rugby’s famous headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold, to Wales, to Llanelli, and over the sea to Belfast.

That is something the Minister and I will discover on Sunday, but there is every possibility that it will be the modern material, which is much easier to catch and therefore makes for a more exciting game because of better handling. Those balls will not just be going around the UK; they will be heading out to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, Kenya and Singapore. Each one of the 200 balls will be passed to represent each year that has passed since the game started.

That is this coming Sunday, but across the year we have other events. England are going to play on the close at Rugby School against Wales in an under-18 women’s game. We are going to hold an international under-18 sevens tournament. There will be an under-nine and under-11 club festival, which will enable the youngest players to take part, and there will be a veterans rugby club sevens for the oldest. In the same vein, the Commons and Lords rugby club, which is Members from both Houses, will play a veterans team on the close made up from the six local clubs in the town of Rugby.

On St George’s day, we will attempt to create the world’s largest rugby scrum. The current record is 2,586 people. We are aiming for 3,000 pupils from local schools and others to beat that record. There will also be, as has happened a couple of times previously, a re-enactment of the first ever game, in the clothing that the players would have worn back in 1823. Some lucky person will take on the role of William Webb Ellis.

On the subject of firsts, will the hon. Gentleman join me in celebrating the life of Jimmy Peters, who was the first black man to play rugby union for England in 1906 versus Scotland? He played for Plymouth RUFC, which is now Plymouth Albion, before he went on to play rugby league in the north for St Helens, only after losing three of his fingers in a dockyard accident. Just as Plymouth Argyle celebrated Jack Leslie, the first black player who should have played for England, does he think it is time to celebrate the pioneering work of Jimmy Peters for rugby?

The fact that that happened as long ago as 1906 demonstrates the inclusive nature of the game of rugby and how people are welcomed from all backgrounds. One of the things about club rugby is that it sees people from an enormous range of backgrounds packing down together, playing together and engaging with one another.

We are going to have a major public festival of arts and education in the town throughout the year. There will also be a number of cycling pilgrimages, including one to Twickenham, and some hardy souls will be cycling to William Webb Ellis’s final resting place in Menton in the south of France. In 1923, 100 years after the game was founded, there was a special match on the close between a team made up of English and Welsh players against one from Scotland and Ireland. We are going to recreate that this year, and there will also be a series of special matches for the teams from Rugby School.

All in all, there is a spectacular list of events taking place in Rugby in 2023, all in keeping with the values of the game of rugby and with a charitable objective, particularly involving Wooden Spoon, with its emphasis on supporting children and young people. Most of those events will be on the close at Rugby School, bringing the school and the town together. I am really looking forward to welcoming the Minister on Sunday and maybe getting a pass between us.

I am pleased to respond to this debate and grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for securing it.

The contributions from Members throughout the Chamber show the huge impact that the sport of rugby has had in the 200 years since William Webb Ellis first ran with the ball at Rugby School. I think all Members will agree that rugby has made an overwhelmingly positive contribution to sport and culture in our country. As we have heard, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the sport of rugby in its bicentennial year. I am delighted that, as my hon. Friend mentioned, I will be joining him for the launch of the celebrations at Rugby School on Sunday—although I have to say that I have some trepidation about taking part in the pass of the ball, because I am renowned for dropping them. I am rather pleased that the modern version makes it easier for me to at least hold the thing.

The sport of rugby football, both union and league, has had a huge impact in the United Kingdom. Whether through inspiring moments at the elite level or bringing people together at the grassroots level, rugby clearly enriches lives. It continues to be one of our biggest participation sports, bringing communities together and, crucially, helping to keep people active. We should be proud that a sport that was born in England is now a truly global one that is making a positive impact in local communities all around the world.

The sport already has a great legacy, and it is one that we as a Government want to continue to support and to see grow and develop even further. We have shown our commitment to doing that during the recent challenges of the pandemic. Through the £600 million sport survival package, we helped to ensure the survival of rugby union and rugby league. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who did an enormous amount of work in that period. We also worked hard to enable the safe return of the grassroots game as soon as possible, despite the challenges presented by the close contact in the sport.

This year, 2023, promises to be a big year for the sport of rugby union, and one that is worthy of such an anniversary. I am sure the House is aware that the Six Nations begins this weekend. I am looking forward to attending England’s match tomorrow against Scotland at Twickenham, where I expect that the Calcutta cup will be as fiercely contested as ever. As we have heard, September and October will see the men’s rugby union world cup take place in France. It will see nations from around the globe vying to take home the cup that bears the name of the Rugby schoolboy who started it all off in the first place.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, it is important that we recognise the contributions of both codes of rugby football. Last year saw England successfully host the rugby league world cup. It was a groundbreaking tournament that will hopefully inspire further growth of the game. For the first time, the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments were held concurrently, ensuring that they shared the spotlight that can all too often be reserved for the men’s game. It really was an amazing tournament to go and see. I was particularly pleased with the wheelchair team’s success in the final. It was great to be there. It has inspired so many other people to get involved in the game. All participants were paid the same and all 61 matches across the three competitions were broadcast live.

The importance of taking part in sport and physical activity has never been clearer. As we continue to recover from the impact of the pandemic, sports such as rugby can play a vital role in getting our nation active and improving our physical and mental health, as well as building a sense of community. The Government will reaffirm their commitment to the importance of sport and physical activity when we publish our new sport strategy this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the value of charity and community work through organisations such as Wooden Spoon. As Minister for Civil Society and Youth, I understand the importance of such organisations to local communities throughout the nation. We cannot underestimate their huge contribution to our nation, particularly in challenging times such as those we are experiencing. I sincerely thank them for all the work they do.

As I have said, rugby’s bicentenary is a milestone that is worthy of celebration. My hon. Friend mentioned a whole raft of events to which we can look forward this year. I have to say, though, that I am somewhat bemused by the idea of a scrum of 3,000 pupils; all I can say is what could possibly go wrong?

The bicentenary also provides an opportunity for reflection and to consider the continued growth and development of the game. I mentioned the positive steps we saw last year at the rugby league world cup, with equal prominence given to the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions. Hopefully that precedent will be built on in future tournaments. In rugby union, England have also been leading the way in progressing the women’s game. England were the first country in 2019 to offer full-time contracts to their women’s squad. Since then, the Red Roses have gone from strength to strength, setting a new record for consecutive victories in international rugby union at 30 and winning the last four Six Nations championships in the process. That run came to an agonising end in November, when the Red Roses narrowly lost the world cup final to New Zealand, which I know will make my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) rather happy but made the rest of us feel heartbreak. I certainly felt that in the early hours as I watched it from home.

Other countries have clearly taken note and have started to follow England’s lead with the awarding of full-time contracts to their women’s teams. That can only help to improve the women’s game and encourage more women and girls to play the sport. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting women’s rugby, and women’s sport more broadly, at every opportunity, pushing for greater participation, employment, commercial opportunities and visibility in the media. England will be hosting the next women’s world cup in 2025, which will represent a great opportunity to continue to grow the game. I am sure that Members will join me in hoping that the tournament can set new attendance records and that the Red Roses can win the trophy on home soil and bring it home.

While we are on the issue of inclusivity, hon. Members rightly pointed out the enormous range of backgrounds that rugby attracts. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) was right to mention the first black player, Jimmy Peters.

As we have heard from Members across the House, the sport of rugby has had a profound impact on our country over the last 200 years. I am sure that William Webb Ellis would be amazed at how far the game has come in that time. I hope the sport continues to grow and positively contribute to all our lives in the years ahead. I can assure my hon. Friends that I will continue to work with the Rugby Football Union, the Rugby Football League and Sport England to support rugby in all its forms.

Once again, let me take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby for securing this insightful debate, thank hon. Members for their contributions, and wish all those in rugby across the world a great year of celebration. I look forward to being there on Sunday in great company and hope I do not drop the ball.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.