LEGENDS of the game of rugby are lining up to help celebrate the 200th anniversary of its iconic birth on the fields of Rugby School.
Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson are among seven rugby superstars who have signed up as the first patrons to back the school’s 2023 celebrations.
The Rugby World Cup winners are joined by former teammate Jason Leonard, former England international and sports commentator Maggie Alphonsi, current England women’s captain Sarah Hunter, Emily Scarratt – the highest ever England rugby points scorer – and Nigel Owens, the most capped referee in the sport.
They have agreed to back a calendar of rugby-focused events planned for next year, which will mark the bicentenary of William Webb Ellis taking the ball in his arms and running with it on the school’s famous Close back in 1823.
The celebrations will include a host of national and international matches, Sevens tournaments and festivals alongside exhibitions, celebrity dinners, re-enactments and more.
Jonny Wilkinson is a familiar face at Rugby School, where he played a cameo role with Prince Harry in the launch of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Martin Johnson and Jason Leonard are also regular visitors, and agree the role of Rugby School in the anniversary couldn’t be more significant.
Jason said: “The eyes of the world may be on France as the host of the World Cup, but this is the very place where the glorious game began.” Martin added: “I delighted and proud to be a patron for the bicentenary.”
Webb Ellis’s actions 200 years ago are of particular significance to Nigel Owens, who said: “I refereed my first match aged 16, and if it hadn’t been for Webb Ellis, I would have been refereeing a very different game. I am delighted to be a patron of Rugby School’s 2023 celebrations.”
An inspirational leader in women’s sport, Maggie Alphonsi has become a media professional commentating on live matches for ITV, the BBC, SKY Sports and BT Sport since her retirement in 2014.
She said: “It will be a great pleasure to support Rugby School during its 200th anniversary and I am looking forward to a year of celebrating rugby and all the opportunities this will provide to promote the game.”
2016 World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year Sarah Hunter is keen to not only encourage girls into rugby but to promote the benefit of all sports for young people.
She said: “I hope Rugby School’s calendar of events will inspire young players, and to play on The Close where the game began is an incredible opportunity.”
William Webb Ellis and Rugby School were the inaugural inductees into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin said Rugby School was ‘the very beginning’ of the sport’s ‘global family tree’.
He said: “As we look ahead to 2023 and a celebration of 200 years of the sport, we are excited by the plans the school has to mark its central role in the development of a sport that is played by more than seven million people and enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.”
Rugby School’s Executive Head Master, Peter Green, said it was an honour and a privilege to welcome such an ‘incredible selection’ of sportspeople as inaugural patrons of the 2023 celebrations.
He added: “I am absolutely delighted these rugby greats are on board. We have some ambitious and exciting plans for the year which will involve all ages and abilities from U9’s club tournaments to international matches.”