Preeminent sports journalist Jamie Wall caused a stir in the New Zealand Rugby News recently when he suggested the William Webb Ellis trophy, awarded to the winning team of the men’s Rugby World Cup, should be renamed.
Wall wrote. “For those who don’t know, William Webb Ellis was a pupil of Rugby School in England and picked up the ball and ran with it during a game of soccer, thus inadvertently inventing the game we know as rugby today. Or, as other telling’s go, during a game that more resembled forceback. Or something like that. There is no hard evidence that Webb Ellis ever actually did that, nor that any event ever occurred.”
Wall went on to suggest that a fanciful origin story that’s easily picked apart and retold is not an issue, but what Webb Ellis represents is not reflective of what the game is today.
“The gentlemen of the 19th century needed a way to differentiate their sport from everything else, so to have rugby born in an upper-class English school tied it forever to the notion of amateurism and the idea that it should be run by the sort of folks who attended said schools.
“Which was at least logical until rugby went professional almost 30 years ago,” Wall argued.
Wall didn’t address who the Rugby World Cup should be renamed after if Webb Ellis were to be cancelled.
The idea of the Rugby World Cup was mooted as early as the middle of the 20th century. Harold Tolhurst, a Wallaby who later became a test referee said that he suggested a Rugby World Cup in the late fifties.
In 1979 Bill McLaughin president of the Australian Rugby Union suggested a World Cup in 1988, the year of his country’s bicentenary celebrations.
In 1982, Neil Durden-Smith, an Englishman who had been the aide to the governor-general in New Zealand, suggested a Rugby World Cup be played in the British Isles in 1985 or 1986.
It wasn’t until June 1983 the idea gained real momentum. Australia formally proposed a World Cup and put itself as host in 1988. New Zealand put forward its case forward in 1984 which resulted in the IRB initiating a World Cup feasibility study.
New Zealand and Australia joined forces with Australian Nicholas Shehadie, a former Wallaby who became the Lord Mayor of Sydney, and Bay of Plenty Kiwi Richard Littlejohn driving tournament organisation.
The IRB met again in Paris on 20-21 March 1985. England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales opposed the World Cup. Australia, New Zealand, France, and South Africa, banned from competing because of apartheid, were in favour leaving a stalemate. Dramatically, John Kendall-Carpenter of England broke ranks and voted for the World Cup, and following this, the Welsh vote also moved.
Kendall-Carpenter, capped 23 times by England, subsequently became Chairman of the IRB organising committee.
Would these pioneering visionary’s and administrators be more appropriate names for the World Cup trophy than Webb Ellis?
The first World Cup was a start, but it was hardly a roaring success. Many fixtures failed to sell out and there were numerous teething issues. The first tournament is almost unrecognisable from the behemoth of today.
In terms of selling a tournament the Webb-Ellis myth is a far more appealing and convenient narrative than a bunch of squabbling fish heads finally convincing an apathetic world body to get the thing over the line.
Its the players that create the most inspiring, memorable, and enduring legacies in World Cup tournaments. Any reference to the Football World Cup invariably leads to discussions about Pele, Maradona, or Geoff Hurt.
What player should the Rugby World Cup be named after?
Jonah Lomu is the player most synonymous with the World Cup. The beastly All Black winger scored a record 15 tries in two tournaments. More than that his unusual size, devastating power, and searing speed captured the imagination of the world and put rugby on the map in a way it never had been before.
Lomu was on billboards in Germany, offered NFL contracts in America, and was paid mega bucks to speak to car companies in Japan. His running over of Englishmen Mike Catt in the 1995 semi-final in Cape Town is arguably the most iconic moment in World Cup history. Rugby’s pathway to professionalism would have lacked significant momentum without the staggering impact of Jonah.
The Northern Hemisphere might grizzle they have no representation on the trophy. Johnny Wilkinson would be a worthy name to share alongside Jonah. The English champion played four World Cups famously kicking a drop goal off his wrong foot in extra time to help England beat Australia 20-17 in the 2003 final. There hasn’t been a more popular or better Northern Hemisphere player in World Cup history than Johnny.
Lomu and Wilkinson. Two champions with different skin colours from both hemispheres instantly recognised for their outstanding contributions to actual World Cup history surely carries more weight and relevance than a 200-year-old schoolboy fairy tale.