England has to live and embrace the 2015 World Cup for the tournament to be remembered as something special, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.
The Close at Rugby School is sacred ground to the students, the townsfolk, and indeed every fan of the game's history. It was on this site sometime in the 1820s where rugby was first conceived.
Back then, the boys at the school shared the rugged patch of land with grazing sheep. They competed in vast and often uneven numbers – 75 played against a team of 225 when Queen Adelaide, consort to King William IV, visited the school in 1839 – and matches were known to last up to five days.
The ground has since been levelled and manicured to Test-rugby standards. The lush vegetation, the sheep, and the boys clad in 19th-century flannels and caps are long gone, but the aura remains. This rugby field will always be special, because it was the very first.
This, as headmaster Peter Green confirmed to myself and others at a recent media gathering at Rugby, is not up for debate. Green, like many other rugby scholars, isn’t convinced that the story about William Webb Ellis is true. What he is certain about is that the game originated on this particular field. He’s adamant that the boys of Rugby were the first to play the game, and that they wrote the first set of rules.
The myth about Webb Ellis showing a fine disregard for the rules of football and running with the ball in his hands has endured for nearly two centuries. The romance of rugby’s origins has always been more attractive than the reality. Nevertheless, Green pointed out that that spirit of adventure and innovation was indeed prevalent in the boys who attended Rugby during that era.
On Friday evening, the international rugby community will pay homage to that spirit. Rugby will be honoured at the opening ceremony of the 2015 World Cup. The English will trumpet the fact that rugby has come full circle after nearly 200 years. Inevitably, some will say that the 2015 World Cup in England is destined to surpass all tournaments that came before.
Of course, it is a premature statement to make. The success of this tournament as a spectacle cannot be judged by an opening ceremony. The spirit of Webb Ellis, and that of the boys of Rugby who shaped the game we know and love, must sweep through the respective cities and villages as well as the match venues over the next six weeks.
Four years ago, New Zealand pulled out all the stops to make the 2011 World Cup a tournament to remember. A lot was done to entertain fans between games. When you walked down to the city centre in Auckland and Wellington, you knew you were in World Cup country. Above all, the public really played its part.
At the end of the tournament, a well travelled colleague described it as one of the most memorable World Cups of his career. He told me that we were unlikely to see a similar World Cup in future.
Four years later, and there is a real danger of that prophecy coming to pass. One would hope that the smaller cities and towns embrace the tournament and welcome visiting teams. And for the 2015 tournament to be considered a success, London has to play its part.
Sadly, the buildup to the tournament opener between England and Fiji at Twickenham has been relatively quiet. The local press has done its bit to spark interest, but London is hardly aflame with rugby fever. At least not yet.
There aren’t many visual indicators in and around the city centre. I haven't seen any events or activities staged in the proximity of a national monument that may encourage a connection between London and the World Cup.
Branded signs line the streets of Twickenham, but even that seems a token effort. I took a stroll around England’s iconic rugby stadium on Thursday, the figurative day before Christmas. I was told by those busy with preparations to expect wondrous things at the opening ceremony on Friday night.
What I did wonder about was an attempt to transform Twickenham and its surrounds on the day before the first game. Surely you don’t put the tree up the day before Christmas?
Perhaps things will change over the next six weeks. If England win their pool, the indifference in the capital may give way to optimism and a genuine interest in the tournament. Hopefully central London will transform into rugby central.
The opening ceremony at Twickenham on Friday evening will revisit the story of rugby’s origins. It will celebrate the birth of the game in England, and its development over the next two centuries.
However, there must be a drive to add to that legacy. There must be an ambition to create something enduring over the next seven weeks, something that will be remembered long after the branded signs have been taken down.
People of England, the ball is in your court.
Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images