On Monday 16 April 2018, the journalist, author and playwright Hans Pienaar led a seminar at JIAS on ‘Rugby and original sin: an alternative history’. This was the sixth in the 2018 JIAS Writing Fellows Seminar Series.
The sport of rugby has always had an attractive origin story, namely that a youngster called William Webb Ellis got so bored with kicking a ball around during a soccer game that he picked it up and ran with it across the field to the opponents’ goal post. This legend has been institutionalised as the William Webb Ellis Trophy, for which teams vie during the quadrennial World Cup. However, in recent years, an alternative history has revealed that rugby, and other forms of football, including modern soccer, is based on a ball game with roots as deep as Roman times, when carrying the ball was very much its basic movement. Another quirk is that rugby has by far the most rules of any sport, which makes it impossible for a side not to give away at least a dozen penalties during a match. This means that original sin lies at the basis of rugby which players cannot avoid committing, no matter how well they train or prepare, or how hard they pray.