As the 2015 Rugby World Cup progresses, we should be thankful that one of the game's original rules failed to survive the past 170 years. To the relief of global broadcasters, and everyone else, rule 20 – "All matches are drawn after five days, but after three if no goal has been kicked" – now belongs to a lost era. The 19th-century spectacle of one team of 75 senior players facing an opposition of 225 juniors, has also bitten the dust.
All the great sports like to think they were born somewhere: golf at St Andrews, lawn tennis at Edgbaston, baseball at New York's Knickerbocker club. The truth isn't that simple. Marked baptisms in sport are rare. But if rugby has its pilgrims, there is one must-go place – Rugby School in Warwickshire.
Here, tucked away, just off the immaculately kept "Old Big Side" field in front of School House, there is an understated commemorative plaque on the Doctor's Wall at the residence of Dr Thomas Arnold, the most famous headmaster in the school's long history. It marks the 1823 exploit of one pupil, 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".
In the United States such a hallowed place would usually mean a mega-experience visitors' centre, with a $25-plus entry fee. But the room inside the small converted coach house that marks rugby's birthplace, located just behind the main school shop, is part of that rather English exercise which still believes charm alone is enough.
Next to the memorabilia of the school's noted alumni, who include poet Rupert Brooke, the writer of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, and the little-heralded prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, there are cabinets full of rugby's DNA. There is the original manuscript from 1845 when senior boys, not their games masters, simply laid down the foundation rules themselves using plain language that has worn well: "law xxxvii – no player may be held, unless he is himself holding the ball".
One of the original wooden "death carts" used to transport injured players off the field sits below tall glass cabinets which house, among other wonders, one of the original crimson caps initially introduced to mark the visit to the school of Queen Adelaide in 1839. Later, boys considered good enough for school teams, were given "following on" caps – a tradition that still marks selection for national teams today.
The earliest surviving images of the first matches adorn the museum walls. Charles Harcourt Chambers, a senior boy when the 1845 rules were drawn up, was given the task of capturing the action. An iPhone would have been useful, but Chambers just had a sketchbook. His drawings look like a cross between a street riot, Agincourt, and a military exercise.
Reading the opening page of the rule book, despite its age, all sounds terribly familiar. Words that will be repeated hundreds of times over the next few weeks – as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and possibly, possibly England, all try to win the trophy named after the young running William – are there: off side, knock on, goal line, punt, touch and try. Initially, no points were scored simply by grounding the ball over the opponents' goal line. This merely entitled a team to "try" and score with a kick at the goal. If the kick failed, no points were scored.
To celebrate the return of the World Cup to England, Rugby School has devised its own special tour, run by polymathic school staff who know every brick of its history. As I watch the lawn mowers manicure the grass on Big Side, the game in Tom Brown's Schooldays – a sort of early Harry Potter with Flashman rather than Voldemort – feels close. It's easy to imagine the scrummaging bulldogs, all kitted out in England-white trousers and caps, becoming "the colour of mother Earth from shoulder to ankle" as battle rages. When you come out of the school, which has the feel of Keble College, Oxford, probably because they share the same Victorian architect, you are on Lawrence Sheriff Street. Sheriff was Elizabeth I's grocer and used his wealth to found Rugby School in 1567.
For pilgrims, this will matter less than the small shop nearby at 5 St Matthews Street. Now the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum, this is where shoemaker William Gilbert began making leather footballs for the school around 1842. The evolution of the ball from a hand-stitched, leather-covered inflated pigs bladder, is well documented. There's a good visual history of the famous Barbarians club; a few historic club and international jerseys; and some other interesting memorabilia. A pint of local ale at the neighbouring Rugby Tap makes for the perfect finish.
Rugby School (rugbyschool.net). Tours take around an hour and a half, and cost from £15.
Coombe Abbey hotel (02476 450 450; coombeabbey.com) in nearby Binley offers doubles from £89, room only.
More informationReuse content