William Webb Ellis, the renegade day boy at Rugby very probably was not the first to ‘take up the ball in his arms’ and run with it. All over Europe, archaic forms of football, typically classified as mob football, would be played between neighbouring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would clash in a heaving mass of people struggling to drag an inflated pig’s bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. By some accounts, in some such events any means could be used to move the ball towards the goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder. Both Oxford and Cambridge banned it.
Woodcut images show protagonists bloodied and with broken limbs. High passion was no doubt a feature on both sides. It still is and a glance at a newspaper when visiting England this last week revealed an article about bloodstained clashes between Arsenal and Spurs supporters. The high drama on the pitch gets carried out of the stadium remarkably easily, it seems. There has been much determined bleating from senior doctors about banning tackling in Rugby football in schools on the grounds that it leads to torn ligaments, broken bones, concussive head injuries and any number of other grievous bodily harms of greater or lesser severity. Our Big Sisters and Brothers, who manage the budgets of the health services, reason that the less opportunity young men have to damage each other in contact sports, the healthier we shall all be.
People, especially young men, like to take risks, sometimes ill-advisedly. They take drugs which they know is unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening. They drink far too much alcohol and brawl in public places. Because to some extent they are programmed to do so. Taking risks pushes the envelope of progress, it causes us to reach a little beyond ourselves, and in games like Rugby, reminds us that we hunted mastodons and saber-toothed tigers in groups, so we learned co-operation and what used to be called ‘character’ or ‘team spirit’. If there is no element of risk in a contact sport, young men may find less attractive ways of oxidizing their enraged hormones, like cage fighting. No, it should not be made compulsory for hundred pound delicates to be trampled to splinters on bone-hard Rugby pitches on freezing February afternoons but neither should a nanny state take away the sheer exhilaration of stampeding over a try line with the opposing forwards trying to tear your shorts off.