Rugby School has first lesson in art of league

Historic day at The Close as 13-player code inches nearer to acceptance by union
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There was a breathless hush in The Close yesterday afternoon as the unthinkable happened. Rugby School, where William Webb Ellis mythically invented a new code of football in 1823 by picking up the ball and running with it, played host for the first time to the game that picked up the ball more than 70 years later and ran in the opposite direction.

There was a breathless hush in The Close yesterday afternoon as the unthinkable happened. Rugby School, where William Webb Ellis mythically invented a new code of football in 1823 by picking up the ball and running with it, played host for the first time to the game that picked up the ball more than 70 years later and ran in the opposite direction.

In the week when rugby league will be played at Twickenham for the first time as England meet Australia in their opening match in the Lincoln Financial Group World Cup, the game also made its debut at The Close.

That is where generations of public schoolboys have heard exhortations to "play up, play up and play the game" and that game has never been 13-a-side.

Rugby league in many of its forms arrived belatedly yesterday. There were the under-11s from Leeds and the Shropshire outpost of Telford, the women of Coventry and Luton universities, plus teams representing the combined services and the development competition, Rugby League Conference.

Last but not least, there was a match between the Legends and the Classics, players of high calibre, some of them marginally past their sell-by date, like Garry Schofield and Dave Topliss, putting on the boots again to become part of this little piece of sporting history.

"If you talked about having a rugby league tournament here a couple of years ago, you'd have been laughed at," said Schofield, the former Great Britain captain, who has joined the drift across what was once the great divide by becoming player-coach with Redcar. "The two codes are coming together, and it's fantastic that kids are now given the option of playing both games. I might have crossed over, but rugby league is still the best spectator sport there is."

Playing alongside Schofield was another former international, St John Ellis, who suggested that he might be a long lost relative of the founding father of both games.

"I think he was called William Webb St John Ellis," Schofield said.

The man best placed to judge that dubious claim might be David Ray, the master in charge of football - rugby football that is - at the school.

"It's absolutely unbelievable, watching a game of ladies' rugby league on The Close. Two or three years ago it wouldn't have happened, but there's no doubt that attitudes are mellowing, not least at the Rugby Football Union," he said.

"I suspect that there are still some people who don't agree with it, but we are moving into the 21st Century and we have to accept that the two games have a common heritage."

The Close, also the scene of the famous cricketing poem, has seen a good deal of innovation in its time.

Apart from Webb Ellis' radical refusal to make a mark when he received a ball - "it took 20 years for the new rule to catch on," said Ray, "he was considered a bit of a bad egg at the time" - it was also the ground where the concept of changing ends at half-time was introduced.

"The School had a strong wind behind them and the home captain didn't think it was very fair," said Ray.

There was a strong wind blowing on that same stretch of The Close known as Old Big End yesterday.

"It's a wind of change," said the chairman of the Rugby League, Sir Rodney Walker. "It's a symbolic day and a proud day for rugby league. Three years ago this would have been unthinkable, but it's a sign of the thawed relationship between the two codes."

In the final event, the Classics side, including Schofield and Ellis, lost to the Polynesian Legends in a game played under touch football rules. Like the game in which Webb Ellis made his intervention 177 years ago, however, it will not be the final scoreline that is remembered.

"It's been a great day to be a part of," said Ellis. "It's been an honour to take part. The two games have a lot to learn from each other and I don't think it will be long before we have one game - although perhaps not in my lifetime."

Revolutionary sentiments indeed, but ones that did not seem out of place on a day that would have seemed such an unlikely proposition a few short years ago.

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