A History of Rugby at Blundell's
The earliest mention of ‘football’ in the Blundellian was in 1861 and the first recorded ‘rugger’ match played by boys at Blundell’s was in 1868 against Tiverton RFC, making the school one of the oldest anywhere to formally play the game. The Blundell’s crest still proudly hangs in the main room at Twickenham in recognition of this. In the earliest days the Masters often played alongside the boys and against the stronger men’s sides, the boys were often permitted to play ‘with odds’, twenty versus fifteen or fifteen against twelve.
The opposition for most matches came from clubs in the local area and the few school games were against Newton College, Allhallows and Exeter School. Fixtures with Newton College ended after one of the highest recorded victories by any school of 146-0, with H Mainprice scoring nine tries and S.P. Kingdon seven and P.J.Newby-Vincent converting twenty-five tries. A reputation for competitive rugby was quickly established and Blundell’s Past and Present defeated the rest of Devon 8-0 in 1886, 10-0 in 1887 but lost 3-10 in 1888.
Earliest records referred to the games as ‘football matches’ and they were played on any space that was available. Blundellians were apparently famous for their robust kick-and-rush ‘hacking’ tactics perfected for games played on their school yard at Old Blundell’s. The Tiverton Gazette of 22nd Nov 1870 reported, ‘There was a slight hitch at first as the Newtonians, when they saw Blundell’s time-honoured yard, positively refused to risk their persons in it’. Fortunately a local field was supplied by a Mr Glendinning and ‘the Blundellians under the disadvantages of strange rules and a roomier ground than usual, were the harder pressed of the two’; the result 0-0. This led to a letter to the Editors of The Blundellian which read ‘Sirs-complaints have reached my ears lately that the Green is not large enough to play Football in, that the wall and trees are in the way, that there is no room for a good run down behind goals and several other inconveniences’. 1870 saw a move to a regular playing field and the adoption of the new Rugby Rules with regular mention of ‘scrummage’, ‘backs and forwards’, ‘collaring’ and ‘the squash’ and the ‘struggle’. Senior rugby is still to this day divided into the Green, made up of the 3rd and 4th XVs and the Field for the more serious 1st and 2nd squads.
The 1877 Blundellian records several informal games, one in which the whole of the Sixth Form took on The Rest and another where the 1st XV played against twenty five of The Rest; both games ending in a draw, presumably owing to the lack of any running space.
Rugby descends from an 18th Century Cornish or Welsh sport known as "hurling" in which a ball was thrown up and the players acting either as individuals or as teams attempted to carry it to a goal. The goal could be set as far as several miles away thereby creating the opportunity for large-scale brawls in intervening villages. In Welsh the sport is called cnapan or "criapan," and has medieval roots. The old Irish predecessor of rugby may be caid, not to be confused with Gaelic "hurling" or "hockey" which has the difference that the ball was hit with a stick rather than carried. Rugby Football is commonly known as "rugby" and as "rugger". In the UK, an old saying goes "football is a gentleman's game played by ruffians and rugby is a ruffian's game played by gentlemen". Wikipedia
1878 must go down in Blundell’s long history as one of the finest as the school side did not lose any of their matches and did not even concede a single point. The Blundellian reports ‘before I take leave of this, the most successful of our football seasons, I cannot forbear to add a word on the increased number of football accidents. These, though not serious, have often compelled boys to stay away from school for some time. Now football is one of the best things in the world, but it must not elbow education out of the way. It is to be hoped that attempts may be made, in unison with neighbouring clubs, so to modify the rules as to diminish the liability to accidents. Some such effort ought most certainly to be made by those who do not wish to see the old Rugby game supplanted by a milder and less dangerous form of football’. So some things never change!
The 1883 match versus Tiverton RFC was surrounded by controversy, ‘At the conclusion of the game a dispute arose, Blundell’s asserting that Tiverton had changed a man in the course of the game. Tiverton replied that the man who was changed had played without the Captain’s knowledge, and it was decided to refer the question to the Field, which on November 17th pronounced in our favour, at the same time suggesting some arrangement might be come to. Owing to this decision it has been agreed to consider the result a draw;’ ever the gentlemanly sport!
Until the 1920s the only schools on the Blundell’s fixture list were R.N.C. Dartmouth, Downside and Sherborne and so a London Tour was started in 1921. Opponents on the tour were Cranleigh, Denstone, Dover and Mill Hill. Local rivalries were commenced with Taunton School in 1925 and Clifton College in 1932 and still continue today. Cheltenham College and Kingswood were soon to be regular opponents, although King’s Taunton did not enter the fray until 1945. The Blundell’s XVs continue to compete at the highest level amongst the public schools of the South West, with Bryanston, Millfield, Monmouth and Plymouth College now being regular opponents.
The first OB to gain International Honours was R.S. Kindersley for England in 1884 but the strongest years for Blundell’s were the two decades post WW2, when R.C.C.(Clem) Thomas gained 26 caps for Wales 1949-59 (Captain 1958-9), R.A.W. Sharp (Richard) won 14 caps for England 1960-67 (Captain 1963 & 1967) and D.J. Shepherd won 5 caps for Australia 1964- 66. Both Thomas and Sharp played in two tests for Britain in South Africa.
The first major post-war figure to lead the coaching of Blundell’s rugby was Grahame Parker, who had been a Cambridge Blue in both rugby and cricket, before playing rugby for England. His reign over the 1st XV produced the likes of Clem Thomas and Richard Sharp. There then followed the difficult sixties and seventies, when numbers at most boarding schools fell and OB Ted Crowe manfully kept the sport going. In 1977, South African all-rounder, Terry Barwell arrived to revitalise Blundell’s rugby. Barwell brought new ideas and training methods, and once Blundellians had adjusted to a more cerebral approach to the game, results began to pick up. Barwell was also responsible for the controversial change from the traditional all-white shirts to the striking cherry and white hoops of today. The eighties saw consistently strong XVs peaking in 1981 when Blundell’s won the Rosslyn Park National Sevens title. In 1940 Blundell’s had won the second ever Open Final 28-0 against Dulwich College, but during the eighties and nineties they were regular quarter-finalists and losing finalists in 1983 (16-18 to Ampleforth), 1993 (17-21 King’s Canterbury) and 1995 (5-27 Wellington College).
Norman ‘pain is only temporary, glory lasts forever’ Ridgway took over the XV in 1990 and he has continued to build on the Barwell legacy, producing sides of the highest standards. Ridgway has raised the profile still further with International Tours to Australia, New Zealand, S. Africa and Canada. Blundell’s XVs have a strong reputation on the top West Country circuit and even Millfield came a cropper on Big Field in 2000 and 2002. The 28-24 victory in 2000 was widely acknowledged (including by gracious opponents) as one of the finest schoolboy matches witnessed for many a year. The side was captained by Jemba Bull, who went on to represent England U18s and scored the only try against the All Blacks on tour. Other recent U18 Internationals have been Ryan Hopkins, Ben Boswell and Will Gingell.
Following the retirement of Ridgway, 2009 saw Ed Saunders come down from Edinburgh Academy to be Director of Sport and the new 1st XV guru. Ed's background of school at Sedburgh and studying at St Luke's should have given him an excellent preparation to take Blundell's rugby into the next era.
Blundell’s is amongst the smallest schools by number competing on its circuit and the competitiveness and sportsmanship of their XVs is well known. Firstly, when a Blundellian crosses the touchline to represent his school, there is always a sense of pride, of willingness to compete and, above all, a spirit that is the envy of many other establishments. Blundell's rugby sides don't quit, they pull together and that says a huge amount for the bond that exists amongst the players and within the School.
Secondly, we as a School are lucky to have such a wide variety of dedicated coaches, all of whom offer so much and all of whom contribute enormously to rugby development. They do it with an equal sense of pride and commitment to that shown by their players and I know that their efforts are appreciated by all ...and long may it continue.
PGK, July 2008