From our special correspondent
In the Vieux-Château cemetery, which overlooks Menton and the Mediterranean, this tomb is the only one to be indicated by signs and arrows. At the edge of a gravel-covered path, on a terrace, elegant white grilles surround the recently renovated stele. Here lies the Reverend William Webb Ellis, “late Rector of St Clement Danes Church, London”, who died February 24, 1872.
For rugby players, he is above all the man whose name was given to the trophy rewarding the victorious team of the Rugby World Cup, the sport he is supposed to have invented. Before becoming a pastor and ending his life on the Côte d’Azur, this Briton was a student at Rugby College in England. As a teenager, during a football match, he broke conventions by grabbing the ball with his hands to run, one day in 1823.
The veracity of this fact is widely debated by historians. But the memory of the gesture was etched in stone as the founding act of a new sporting discipline named after the city where it actually appeared. The plaque affixed to the tombstone recalls it, in English, without leaving any room for doubt: “William Webb Ellis, with complete contempt for the rules of football as played in his time, was the first to take the ball in his arms and ran with it, creating the distinctive character of rugby.” The grave has become a place of rugby pilgrimage. “With all our gratitude and deep respect,” reads another plaque, left by Ukrainian players. Equally “grateful”, the French Rugby Federation also paid two tributes, the first time in 1960, the second in 1983. More modestly, representatives of the US Vinay placed a sticker in the colors blue and black of this Isère club.
A statue of the pioneer was also inaugurated at the entrance to the cemetery, there is a Webb-Ellis street near the Menton-Garavan station, and a plaque in honor of the pastor adorns the St John’s Anglican church in Menton. As for the city’s rugby club, created in 1970 under the name Rapid Rugby Club, it has been called Menton Webb-Ellis Rugby club since 2001 and has 160 members. To attract new ones, the association has increased its initiatives this World Cup year.
In June, more than 300 children took part in the “Webb-Ellis challenge”, the conclusion of an initiation cycle in schools. “We are not in oval land,” recalls Jean-Baptiste Martini, the president of the club. “Here, football comes first,” adds Gaëtan Garcia, its development manager. Two routes have also been designed through the city, with explanatory panels and QR Codes, to help you discover both the City of Lemons and the history of sport.
Finally, from September 8, a space will be set up in the center of Menton to allow rugby fans to watch the French team’s matches on a large screen. “It will be friendly,” announces Jean-Baptiste Martini. Compatriots of William Webb Ellis are welcome. The Nice stadium, 30 kilometers away, will host England, Wales and Scotland matches. Their supporters will perhaps push their curiosity so far as to climb the Vieux-Château cemetery. The view is beautiful.