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There is no story more riveting in sport than that of William Webb Ellis suddenly picking up a football and running with it during a school match for Rugby in 1823 to invent rugby. Like many such creation stories, this is almost definitely a myth, but the World Cup, which starts this month, is named after him.
The fact is rugby's rules developed after many acrimonious meetings with football but, unlike its twin, it failed to come to terms with professionalism, leading to a historic split between the amateur union and the professional league.
Tony Collins narrates this history with magisterial skill, weaving in details of matches with the wider historical and social picture, including how the oval ball has managed to keep Ireland united when nothing else has – the Irish have always been one rugby nation with players even forming part of British Lions teams touring overseas.
For nearly a century, rugby not only tolerated racism but encouraged it, which remains a shameful indictment of the game's white administrators who have never ac- knowledged it or apologised for it.
New Zealand's behaviour has been most astounding, boasting that it had integrated its Maoris, many of whom were distinguished players for the All Blacks, a team which has always set the template in the sport. But when it came to playing the pre-Nelson Mandela South African team, New Zealand, despite seeing rugby as more than a game, readily accepted diktats to exclude its Maori players, including the legendary Ranji Wilson, born to an English mother and West Indian father, and George Nepia, forcing him to leave the union for the league.
In 1949, New Zealand's prime minister, publicly explaining why non-white citizens were being excluded, said otherwise New Zealand would not be able to tour South Africa. Unlike football, the Olympics, even cricket, rugby never formally excluded South Africa and, a year before Mandela was freed, the Inter- national Rugby Board sanctioned a World XV to celebrate the centenary of white South African rugby.
Ironically, in 1995, as Mandela's rainbow nation won the World Cup for the first time with the man himself wearing the Springbok jersey once denied to black people, rugby union finally became professional and stopped treating the league as a pariah.
The game had come a long way from the mythical moment Ellis picked up the ball and ran.Reuse content