THE HISTORY OF RUGBY AT WARWICK SCHOOL
Given the very close proximity of the towns Warwick and Rugby, it should come as no surprise that rugby football became the major winter game to be adopted by Warwick School at some stage in the second half of the nineteenth century. The precise date when the game reached Warwick remains unknown, but it is likely that it was during the headmastership (1843-1876) of Herbert Hill, who had been a master at Rugby School. Certainly, one of the games played on the School playground at the time was “a moderately rough game, occasionally resulting in heavy falls which necessitated some slight hurts. It provided splendid practice for collaring (an early word for tackling) and the boys managed to keep their wind good and to harden their muscles”. The School at that time occupied a cramped site in the centre of town, but would occasionally venture onto land near Warwick racecourse to play ‘organised’ games of rugby football. The first recorded ‘away’ match was against Stratford upon Avon Grammar School in 1879, with a last-minute drop-goal securing a “dramatic but deserved” victory for Warwick.
A major impetus was the move of the School from the town centre site to the current location amidst 50 acres of playing fields close to the river Avon, combined with the appointment of the Rev. William Grundy as Headmaster (1880-1885). He would watch every match intently from the touch-line “vehemently censuring any boy who funked the scrummage, with post-match interrogations to follow in the Headmaster’s study”. De-briefing 19th. century–style!!
Over the next fifteen years, the school expanded, the rugby fixture list grew, and the launch of a school magazine – The Portcullis – meant that match reports and team photographs became a permanent record of the growth of the game. Many editorials take sport as a theme, for example in 1888, when the editor was brave enough to suggest that “the rugby game is not simply an exercise of brute strength, but offers endless opportunities for the exercise of skill”. Fixtures were played against local schools, the Parish Church XV and several colleges of Oxford University, as well as the first match against the Old Boys in 1887. Successful expansion is further reflected in the development of 2nd and 3rd XVs.
Sadly, this impetus was to be halted and reversed in the ten years after 1896, and the School fell on lean times. The impact on rugby was immediate and dramatic. The fortunes of the 1st XV over the period 1899-1906 tell their own story:
P W D L F A
62 2 0 60 116 1182
Perhaps the saddest season was 1901/02 when the team not only failed to secure a win but also failed to score a single point!
These troubled times brought about a reorganisation of the School in 1906, with the Middle School and its Headmaster Mr.H.S.Pyne moving down from the town to be amalgamated with the Grammar School. There follows of period of rationalisation where the school plays both association and rugby football, with, sad to report, more success in the former than the latter. Gradually, however, all efforts were directed towards the oval ball game, including the launch of a ‘club’ side which contained seven members of staff and eight boys, with matches against local club sides such as Moseley.
Although the First World War saw the continuation of rugby fixtures (including some against locally stationed armed forces), the time was an extremely sad one for the school, with news of many Old Warwickians killed or injured in the war. One fatal casualty was Sidney Nelson Crowther, the first Old Warwickian to gain international honours for Great Britain, on a tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1904. Interestingly, a boy from the same Warwick rugby team, R.C.Challoner, emigrated to Australia and represented New South Wales, before being selected for Australia in the second test against Great Britain in 1899. There was a time when we thought these two – having been in the same team at School – might have played international rugby against each other, but research shows that there was, indeed, a three year gap between their selections.
The return to peacetime conditions meant a period of consolidation for the School, and numbers began to settle between 300 and 400 for much of the inter-war period. Many of the fixtures that have become Warwick’s closest rivals in recent years were established in this period – for example, Rugby School in 1923 and Solihull School in 1930. The earliest action photograph survives from this period taken during a match against Bablake School, Coventry. Included in the photograph is J.M.A.(Jack) Marshall, a hugely talented sportsman who later returned to the school as a very influential sports master and coach. Matches were now regularly arranged at junior level, House matches were played with great fervour, and even the (occasionally reluctant) members of the 5th and 6th games seemed to get enjoyment from their games afternoons, despite complaints that these were “too much of a scramble and too noisy”.
The war years brought inevitable disruption to fixtures, but the teams took on all-comers, including, once again, some (rather strong) local Service sides. The school facilities were shared with the boys from King Edward’s Camp Hill who had been evacuated from Birmingham.
It is the fifty years since the Second World War that has seen the greatest expansion and the greatest success for rugby football at Warwick School. This has coincided with the growth in numbers at the School, with 800 pupils now in the Senior School. The number of teams has increased accordingly, and the current season saw a record number of sides representing the School. Enthusiastic staff have been essential to this progress, together with the support of successive Headmasters and loyal support from parents and friends on the touchline.
The impact has been to create some outstanding teams at 1st XV level, some of whom have been capable of taking on the very best in the land – and from overseas. Success in national competitions (including victory in the National 7-a-side Competition in 1986 and a semi-final place in the National 15-a-side in 1993) have followed, together with representative honours at schoolboy international level. Several Old Warwickians have moved on to play in the higher echelons of club rugby in England, and Tim Dalton was awarded a cap for England in 1969.
Throughout the 1990’s 1st XV results have been something of a roller coaster ride. In England, schools rugby at senior level has been revolutionised with the advent of sports scholarships, rugby academies and the prestige of national cup competitions. However, the statistics indicate that the years between 1992 and 1997 were some of the best in the history of the school. Since 1998 results have been disappointing at 1st XV level. This is not to say that rugby at the school has not moved forward. In season 2001-02 a record 23 teams represented the school involving more that 350 boys.
The fixture list remains as strong as ever and in recent years we have added fixtures against Eton College, Uppingham School and Oundle School.
Touring is very much part of that game, and to play sport in a different environment amongst different cultures provides some of the most vivid memories of one’s sporting career. In recent years Warwick have embarked on Tours to New Zealand and Australia from which new associations and friendships have developed. Long may these links continue.
In 2007, Warwick reached the pinnacle of school boy rugby in England - winning the Daily Mail Cup final played at Twickenham in a memorable final against Barnard Castle School. The following year, the 1st XV almost reached another final at Twickenham, but unfortunately, lost a very closely fought Semi-Final to Wellington College, who went on to win the Cup.