Webb Ellis Cup

The Webb Ellis Cup, trophy for the Rugby World Cup competition

The union that wins the Rugby World Cup final keeps the Webb Ellis Cup until the next tournament. At 38 cm high, the gilded silver trophy is similar in size to football’s FIFA World Cup. Both are dwarfed by the Bledisloe Cup, which is competed for annually by the All Blacks and the Wallabies, and by the Dave Gallaher Cup, which has been contested in recent years by New Zealand and France. The Six Nations Trophy is also large – it was designed to hold the contents of five bottles of champagne.

The Webb Ellis Cup was adapted from an existing model – a 1906 trophy based on a 1740 design. The satyr on one handle perhaps represents rugby’s traditionally macho culture. The nymph on the other handle looks pleased to be forever unattainable. The ball portrayed on the cup is nearly round, suggesting it may have begun life as a trophy for another code. The design was chosen at the royal jewellers in London in 1986 by the English chairman of the organising committee, John Kendall-Carpenter, and the then secretary of the IRFB. In August 2011 Kit McConnell, the IRB’s Head of Rugby World Cup, revealed that two versions of the trophy existed. Both had been acquired before the 1987 tournament and they were used interchangeably.

The Webb Ellis name was apparently insisted on by the home unions, anxious to show that a game slipping out of their control remained their intellectual property. It revived a tradition that William Webb Ellis invented rugby during a football match at Rugby School in 1823, defying convention by running forward with the ball in his hands. In reality, few sports have a single founder, let alone a moment of creation. Most evolve haphazardly over decades.

Webb Ellis was indeed a pupil at Rugby, but the version of football played at the public school did not become the basis of the sport that now bears its name until several decades later. And no such claim was made either by or for Webb Ellis while he was alive. The Old Rugbeian Society dismissed the story as unlikely in the 1890s, and no new evidence has emerged since. Some argued that the Webb Ellis Cup should be (as football’s Jules Rimet Trophy was) awarded forever to the first country to win it three times and replaced by a trophy called simply the Rugby World Cup. But when the All Blacks won the competition for a third time in 2015, no such action was takeb.

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