As the Rugby Union World Cup gets under way in France, Huw Richards explores why so much effort - and duplicity - continues to be invested in a sport's 'invented traditions'
Gwyn Thomas, a deeply serious Welsh humorist, once complained that rugby union, with its "magnets of remembrance", had drained enthusiasm that might otherwise have gone into the creative arts.
Thomas died in 1981, no doubt amused that two of his former Barry Grammar School pupils, Dai Smith and Gareth Williams, had recently published what is still recognised as the finest of those magnets, the official Welsh history, Fields of Praise . Were he around to watch the Rugby Union World Cup, which starts in Paris this week when France face Argentina, he might reflect that remembrance plays tricks.
Twenty teams will play for the William Webb Ellis Cup, named for the Rugby schoolboy who in 1823, according to a plaque on the wall of the school playing field, "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, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game".
It is one of the safest bets of the competition that some commentator will exclaim: "William Webb Ellis would be amazed if he could see this." Doubtless he would, but probably not for the reason implied.
The "fine disregard" was shown by the creators of the plaque... for the rules of evidence. Given the supposed momentousness of the event, it is strange that there is no remotely contemporary reference to it, none at all until 1880. One problem is that nobody was writing the rules down in 1823 - no one would do so until 1845. Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays , who went to Rugby in 1834, recalled that "the Webb Ellis legend had not survived to my day". Given that the game's rules and lore were passed down orally, this suggests strongly that it never existed.
Hughes was speaking in 1895 to an Old Rugbeian inquiry set up to establish the game's origins. The inquiry found nothing concrete to underpin the legend, merely a contemporary's suggestive comment that he was "inclined to take unfair advantages at football". Webb Ellis was unavailable for comment, having died in 1872.
In one sense, the inquiry was unnecessary. Rugby School's claim on the game was not in doubt. Thanks not least to the vivid description in Tom Brown's Schooldays , a huge Victorian bestseller, its game had emerged from the mass of competing sets of local rules to be the dominant handling code of football - breaking from the non- handlers (although not over the issue of handling) in 1863 and setting up formally as the Rugby Football Union in 1871. The first five presidents of the RFU were Old Rugbeians. So were the captain and ten of the players in the first England team.
By 1895, however, Rugby's hold was slipping away, not just to the alumni of other public schools but to the growing popularity of the game in the industrial North and Wales. That 1895 was also the date of the game's great schism - with the leading northern clubs breaking away on the issue of compensating players for missing work to create what rapidly became the rival, professional code of rugby league - is no coincidence. This was when amateurism became part of rugby union's ruling ideology.
Putting up the plaque was an assertion of ownership over a contested game. There is an intriguing parallel with baseball, which set up its own commission of inquiry into its origins not long after Rugby did so. Its purpose, at a time of poor Anglo-American relations, was to assert baseball's identity as a wholly American game, not - as historians now pretty much agree - the descendant of British bat-and-ball games imported by immigrants.
The Americans identified a founder: Abner Doubleday, subsequently a Civil War general, was agreed to have devised the game at Cooperstown, upper New York State, in 1839. Here, they overreached. At least Ellis was at Rugby in 1823 and cannot be definitively proved not to have done what the plaque said. Research on Doubleday, a much better-chronicled life, has shown that he was nowhere near Cooperstown in 1839.
The myth, though, has been given still more concrete form in the siting at Cooperstown of baseball's Hall of Fame, the game's official museum and scene of pilgrimage for the annual induction of new members. A reported 70,000 were there in July to see modern heroes Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr admitted.
Jim Manning, a sports columnist for the Daily Mail , called the Ellis story "the perfect hoax". Both it and the Doubleday legend are fine examples of what Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger christened the "invented tradition". The Webb Ellis Cup was donated and named by John Kendall-Carpenter, a public-school headmaster, in the 1980s - when rugby was again under pressure, which this time prevailed, to go professional.
Foundation legends seem to meet a human need. As the great newspaper columnist Hannen Swaffer once wrote, "The world wants the invention told and explained in terms of the inventor; the war in terms of the soldier." Ellis and Doubleday belong to the tradition of Adam and Eve, and Romulus and Remus.
Does it matter? Only if you object to the enshrinement of bad history, myth in place of reality and invented heroes rather than real ones.
It is a fair bet that the man who will present the trophy on October 20, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is unconcerned. It is not as if he could do anything about the International Rugby Board's choice of name for its trophy. He does, though, have power over another rugby memory lapse - this time, more a suppressed than an invented memory.
Among the official documents inherited by his Government was a report commissioned by Marie-George Buffet - who ran against Sarkozy as a Communist presidential hopeful this year - in her former role as Minister of Sport and Youth. This looked back at sport, in particular rugby league, under the collaborationist wartime Vichy regime.
Rugby league was suppressed by a decree of December 19, 1941 prepared by Jean Borotra, a former tennis champion who was then Sports Minister, and signed by Marshal Pétain, the Vichy head of state. Borotra had the upper-class elitist's abomination of all professional sports, but rugby league was singled out for special treatment. It had grown rapidly from its arrival in France in 1934, and by the outbreak of war it rivalled rugby union in the number of affiliated clubs and the size of crowds.
Suppression was based on a report by rugby union journalist Paul Voivenel, who argued that rugby league counted as un métier (a job) rather than un jeu (a game), even if players were not being paid! This was in keeping with the attitude union had taken to the rival code since the schism of 1895, treating it as a seceding province rather than a separate game and thereby denying its legitimacy. That French rugby union's own take on the game's amateur ideology was so idiosyncratic that it had been suspended from international competition after 1931 was not seen as relevant.
The decree was enforced vigorously by Borotra's deputy and eventual successor, the rugby international Jep Pascot. The Rugby League Federation was dissolved and its assets seized.
Rugby league was able to resume after the liberation of France, but there was no post-war reckoning. While it enjoyed a purple patch in the 1950s with a brilliant generation of players led by Robert Puig-Aubert - who, while denied the right to play league in 1944, helped Pascot's club Perpignan to a national union championship - it has never really recovered.
The bank accounts and physical assets of the French Rugby League Federation were never restored, and it was many years before it regained the right to use the word "rugby", having instead to call itself Jeu à Treize . The Catalans Dragons' run to this year's Challenge Cup final was French league's finest hour in half a century.
Far from suffering for its complicity in collaboration, rugby union was adopted by a state run by men whose reputation was based on their record as resisters. President Charles de Gaulle, influenced in part by the enthusiasm of his close adviser Jacques Chaban-Delmas, never held meetings that clashed with international matches. The national championship final is a semi-state occasion, with the President presenting the trophy.
Quite what restitution might be offered to the Treizistes so long after the war is unclear. The report, though, was eagerly awaited - for its symbolic value as much as anything. An apology would not go amiss. The wait, though, will go on. Sarkozy, evidently unimpressed by immediate predecessor Jacques Chirac's penchant for offering apologies for past wrongs done by the French state - and in particular under Vichy - has said he intends to look ahead rather than back.
His Minister of Sport and Youth will be Bernard Laporte, once he has concluded his unfinished business as coach of the French national team in the World Cup. Unless Laporte has an unexpected shock in store for his former employers, it seems as though rugby union's remembrances - magnetic or otherwise - will remain defective.
Huw Richards is visiting researcher at the International Centre for Sport History and Culture, De Montfort University, and author of A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union , to be published in November by Mainstream.