Thursday, 15 March 2018

The World Rugby Museum

Twickenham Stadium
Whitton Road

Thursday 8 March 2018

After the grim English showing in the Calcutta Cup Match, you may be surprised to learn that we visited this celebration of all things Rugby.  But we did, and found it very interesting.

The Museum is based in the enormous stadium, a short bus ride from Twickenham Station.  You enter through (and purchase your ticket in) the gift shop, and then take the lift in a rather unfinished looking area, to reach the galleries on the first floor.  The museum is very new and shiny, having been open for only a few months.  It was not very crowded, though a French school group passed through swiftly while we were there.

The Museum begins with an account of medieval football, where whole villages fought, bit, punched and kicked their way to victory.  Such games were banned from time to time as being too dangerous.  Moving into the private schools, football remained pretty fierce:  for example at Rugby School, the Big Side game involved the 75 students of School House against the 225 pupils of the other houses.  Because of the legend of William Webb Ellis's 'fine disregard for the rules' in picking up the ball and running with it, there was quite a lot about the School, and the various rituals involved in the game.  We had not known that WWE became Rector of St Clement Danes, an example , we thought, of muscular Christianity.

Things became more formalised in the 1870s, with the establishment of the Rugby Football Union, and the formulation of the Rules.  The handwritten first version is on display here, with a diagram of the standardised pitch, and definitions of 'punt' and 'place kick' and so on.  By 1909, after various rows, the International Rugby Board - now World Rugby - was established. We felt itchy as we examined the England Schoolboy jersey. made of wool...

Rugby spread across the Empire and the world, and there was a plan on the floor which showed the dates at which different nations succumbed to the lure of the game.  It was thought to have amazing character building properties.  Indeed, there is an episode in the Imperialist stories of Sanders of the River in which a Junior District Officer in West Africa puts an end to inter-tribal warfare by encouraging the local people to play Rugby instead.

There was a case of the shirts of different nations, ranging from the sober to the lurid, including such countries as Slovenia as well as more familiar ones.  It was not long before the marketing opportunities of such a major sport attracted attention, and we saw some splendid posters linking Rugby with smoking and drinking, among other pleasures

An interesting display grappled with the issue of Amateur status.  In the days when the working week included Saturdays, the provision of 'boot money' was essential for working men, and thus 'veiled professionalism' became a serious issue, especially in the Northern Union.  The problem of course was that the more wealthy players did not need such subsidising since, even if they were in employment, it was unlikely to involve Saturdays....

Next came a section about Twickenham itself, and the growth of the stadium since the early 20th century, with photos and plans to illustrate the ambition of the place.  There were gaps in the growth.  the pitch was used for grazing during the First World War, and for 'Dig for Victory' allotments in the Second.  It was also the local Civil defence HQ.  It was at this stage that we enjoyed the presents from around the world for the 25th anniversary, particularly the packets of seeds labelled 'Twix Mix' suitable for growing your own rugby pitch.  Since 2003, the stadium has been an important music venue, hosting, for example, the Rolling Stones, as you can see here.

The statue, demonstrating the core values of the game, was put up in 2010 and there were new dressing rooms in 2013, including recovery areas and hydrotherapy facilities.  How surprised William Webb Ellis and his team-mates would be.

We then needed a bit of recovery and went into the John Douglas room, to sit and watch a film, The Rose and the Poppy, narrated by Lewis Moody, about rugby players in the First World War.  A number of interviews, including with Harry Patch  are interspersed with photos and film and chilling statistics.  There were rugby leagues in the army, the navy, and the Royal Flying Corps.  According to the posters, 90% of rugby payers enlisted before the conscription act came into force in 1916;  certainly 28 players from London Irish died during the war.  The stadiums's own memorial for the centenary of the war is the beautiful Rose and Poppy Gate, made from German shell cases.

 A brief reference to the Olympic Games (Rugby has been in and out of the games for more than a century) brought us to some quite political stuff:  a section about Women's Rugby, and then a great deal of material about the South Africa Sports boycott and the end of Apartheid, culminating in statements from the 'keep politics out of sport' factions agreeing that the banning of international sport had eventually helped the final outcome of the struggle in South Africa. 

We saw material about wheel chair rugby, about teams for deaf, blind and learning disabled players and clubs for gay people, and also about rugby teams in prisons.

 One of my favourite exhibits was a 'touch the table' gadget, which played film, with subtitles (in two languages where appropriate) of the Six Nations teams singing their anthems. I never knew that the Italians sang about putting the helmet of Scipio on, or that the Flowers of Scotland were determined to send Edward's men home to think again (certainly worked in the Calcutta Cup match this year). On the other hand, the film of the All Blacks doing the Hacka just caused us to marvel that that seems to be the only sign of New Zealand's first nations on the Rugby pitch

 A little account of the development of the Seven-a-side game brought is to a mock-up of a dressing room with -yes! - dressing up opportunities.  This area was enlivened by opportunities to see how high and how fast one could move, as well as having a go on the rhino trainers for learning how to scrummage.

Here was also some careers advice about how to become a referee, a coach or a physio.

 A further gallery told us about Lions' and Barbarians' tours, though we did not know whether the torn shirt was the result of age or violent play; and we finished with a display about dinners, banquets and other celebrations, with accompanying menus and souvenirs, before we exited, as Banksy says, through the gift show.

We thought this museum measured up well to the other sporting museums we have visited (Lords, Wimbledon) and would certainly recommend a visit, though obviously we should prefer it to be in the flush of an English victory.

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