RWC collection inspires visitors

(ER 2015) Friday 17 January 2014
RWC collection inspires visitors
Curator Michael Rowe at the World Rugby Museum which boasts a Rugby World Cup section

Nestled under the East Stand of Twickenham Stadium, the World Rugby Museum hosts a vast collection of rugby memorabilia.

From the Rugby Football Union’s archives dating as far back as 1871, to interactive scrum machines and examples of the latest technology shaping the modern Game, the World Rugby Museum takes visitors on an inspirational journey through the history of the sport.

We spoke to the museum’s curator, Michael Rowe, to find out more.

How would you summarise the collection on display here?

Michael Rowe: "We have the most comprehensive collection of rugby items anywhere in the world, including around 10,000 photographs, 300 jerseys and trophies such as the Calcutta Cup and a replica of the Webb Ellis Cup that was won by England at RWC 2003. We also have a match ball from that game, which may or may not be the one that Jonny Wilkinson kicked in the last minute of extra-time."

In 2007 the Museum of Rugby changed its name to the World Rugby Museum. Why the change?

MR: "We’re trying to emphasise England’s unique role in the sport. Rugby was born and codified here and then spread out to the rest of the world, so I think that if anyone is going to tell the history of rugby, then it’s logical for it to be told here. There are also excellent rugby museums in New Zealand and South Africa. The New Zealand Rugby Museum was refurbished for RWC 2011 and the recently opened Springbok Experience museum expertly tells the story of South African rugby. We also regularly correspond with international rugby museums, such as those in Uruguay and Argentina. Currently around a quarter of our visitors are international and this figure will no doubt increase around RWC 2015."

Rugby’s most iconic object is without doubt the Webb Ellis Cup, named after the schoolboy who, according to legend, invented the game of rugby. Can you tell us a little bit more about the origin of the Game?

MR: "The difficulty with the story of Webb Ellis is that’s it’s such a beautifully simple story – everyone knows it and can relate to it, but the real origin of the Game is actually much more complex. In Victorian England football was essentially a folk game that was played by communities in a fairly unstructured way. This was eventually codified by schools, and each school played a slightly different version of the game. Those that had grass playing fields played a robust tackling sort of game, and those that had hard stone playing fields played more of a dribbling and standing game. In 1845 the boys of Rugby School wrote down the rules to their version of football which set the basis of what became known as rugby football in 1871. William Webb Ellis was indeed a student at Rugby School, but there is no evidence to support the popular legend that he created the game of rugby by picking up the ball during a football match and running with it."

Tell us about the South African rugby jersey on display here.

MR: "The jersey dates from a match played in 1994 and in many ways it marks the start of an incredible journey for South African rugby which ended in the Springboks’ triumph at RWC 1995, and one of the iconic images from Nelson Mandela’s amazing life. RWC 1995 was a momentous sporting event but there was something above and beyond that which transcended the tournament, and this shirt is our link to that story."

What role does a tournament like Rugby World Cup have in the World Rugby Museum?

MR: "Simply put, it’s the pinnacle of the Game. I think if you speak to any player their dream would be to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. It represents rugby’s supreme challenge and in this museum the Rugby World Cup section is the one part which unites all of our visitors. Almost everyone who walks in here recognises the Webb Ellis Cup straight away and it brings rugby fans from across the world together like nothing else."

Have you had many distinguished guests come to the museum?

MR: "We’ve been lucky to have quite a few over the years. Owen Farrell, Jonny Wilkinson, Bill Beaumont and Jason Leonard have all visited recently. The New Zealand squad visited the museum in 2010, as did Jonah Lomu. It’s also very interesting to have some of the older figures from the pre-professional era come in, which from a historian’s point of view is fascinating as they have some great stories to tell."

Is there any object in the collection that you feel a particular connection to?

MR: "The Webb Ellis Cup replica. I really enjoy seeing the way people react to it when they see it for the first time. When England returned after RWC 2003 and did the Sweet Chariot tour, over a million people turned up to join in the celebrations and the original trophy was the focus of that. Almost all of our visitors without exception hone in on the trophy and as a curator I really enjoy seeing the way people project their thoughts and emotions onto our displays."

What other Rugby World Cup related object would you like to add to the collection?

MR: "A winner’s medal would be an obvious choice. But if I could tailor-make the dream artefact it would be a recording of people’s initial thoughts and ideas around the creation a Rugby World Cup, right through to the present day and how the tournament has changed the sport."

What are your stand-out Rugby World Cup memories?

MR: "The RWC 2003 Final was an amazing match and I’ll be astonished if we ever have another one that close. The RWC 1991 semi-final between England and Scotland was another unforgettable match with rugby’s oldest rivals doing battle for a place in a RWC Final. England eventually ran out 9-6 winners at Murrayfield, but as a Scotland fan I wouldn’t necessarily class that as one of my favourite memories!"