By the early 20th century the primary tenets of sound Rugby were team work and combination. Every man had his place and his assigned role. Players were a cog in an industrial machine.
Individuals who went for glory on their own were derided as a “gallery player” and accused of looking to earn the cheers of the crowd and get their name in the newspaper.
Yet just a generation earlier it was individualism that was lauded, with boys brought up on feats of solo derring-do Rugby, particularly in the popular The Boy’s Own Paper (launched in 1879).
The tales in Boy’s Own though were not merely thrilling yarns about Rugby and other sporting exploits. Their primary purpose was as a Christian moral educator, couched in stories that boys would want to read and could then relate to.
It was a vehicle that taught and reinforced messages of behaviour that was to be celebrated, and decried the activities that belonged to loafers and under-achievers.
The best and most popular of the articles circulated for decades, re-printed in annuals, books and other newspapers and magazines. In these stories the writers extolled the desirable qualities that young men could, and should, aspire to.
Many encouraged boys toward creative thought and originality – two necessary attributes for life, but which would soon form part of the now ageless Rugby conundrum of the place of individualism and responsibility in a game built on team work…
The original boys, on the other hand, are clever, and they are quick in their ideas. Every boy has in him the power to say “Yes” or “No,” and he has also the conscience in him which tells him when he ought to say the one or the other.
Now, when every one is saying “Yes” to a thing about which your conscience demands that you shall say “No,” it becomes your positive duty for once in your life to be original, and say it.
After all, most of us are medium sort of fellows. We are not geniuses, and we trust we are not dolts. The best thing we can do is to look out that we don’t lose all our originality while knocking through this world. The more we can keep of it, the more good we shall do.
In a style that echoed the earlier ball-carrying solo run of William Webb Ellis (mythical or not), the Rugby field offered the opportunity for boys – in the heat of battle – to take creative and original thoughts and put them into action.
The Boy’s Own storylines detailed fictional sporting deeds that, while rousing and inspirational to young boys, were nevertheless often on the edge of implausible. Written when Rugby teams had no structured back-lines and little ball passing, the narrative revealed to each young footballer that he alone could be the star of the day (by scoring a try and kicking the conversion goal), and what joy that would bring him and to his team mates and friends…
I scarcely slept a wink that night for dreaming of the wonderful exploits which were to signalise my first appearance in the Great Close — how I was to run the ball from one end of the field to the other, overturning, dodging, and distancing every one of the enemy, finishing up with a brilliant and mighty kick over the goal. After which I was to have my broken limbs set by a doctor on the spot, to receive a perfect ovation from friend and foe, to be chaired round the field, and finally to have a whole column of ‘The Times’ devoted to my exploits! What glorious creatures we are in our dreams!
After scoring the match-winning try or goal, the champions of these tales were cheered and applauded by one and all, lifting their spirits – and they revelled in the adoration and praise. Rather than being encouraged to downplay hero worship, they rejoiced in it. Meanwhile, their detractors and opponents could please themselves…
After that, who should say life was not worth living? The very weather seemed to change for Corder. The sun came out, flowers sprang up at his feet, birds started singing in the trees overhead. What a letter he would have to write home tomorrow! The captain’s pat on the back sent a glow all through him. Who wouldn’t be a Fellsgarth chap after all?
It scarcely damped his joy to perceive that neither Clapperton, Dangle, nor Brinkman shared in the general congratulations, but looked more black and threatening than ever as he passed. Pooh! what did he care for that!
How he enjoyed the glorious Rendlesham high tea, and the drive home in the rain with everybody talking and laughing and rejoicing, singing songs and shouting war-cries!
The message was clear – creative thought, active contribution and hard work produce positive results – and there is nothing to be ashamed of in making that your goal.
© Sean Fagan