Visiting the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham

Stuart Forster describes the experience of visiting the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham Stadium in London.

Twickenham Stadium is home to the World Rugby Museum. The sporting tourist attraction is in the East Stand of the famous rugby ground in west London.

The attraction opened as The Museum of Rugby back in 1996. It has operated under its current name since 2007, undergoing a major revamp in 2013.

I visited while in London to watch the Killik Cup game between Argentina and the Barbarians. Ahead of kick-off in the 82,000-capacity stadium a visit to the World Rugby Museum provided me with insights into the history of the game and an opportunity to test my rugby skills. I then sat down in the museum cinema to watch a film about the Rugby World Cup.

Visiting the World Rugby Museum

I learnt that the codified sport now played by three million people around the world was preceded by games known as tsu chu in China, harpastum in the Roman Empire and episkyros in Ancient Greece.

One of the walls debunks the popular notion that William Webb Ellis invented the game, though the cup presented to world champions New Zealand on 31 October still bears his name. You can see a replica of the trophy in the museum.

The sport’s name is derived from Rugby School, which had a significant influence on the game during the late 19th century. A number of terms now associated with the game – including ‘try’ and ‘offside’ – were originally used there.

Additionally, the tradition of awarding caps to international sportspeople is said to be based on a precedent set in 1839, when the school’s boys played in velvet caps in front of Queen Adelaide, the widow of King William IV.

Scotland versus England rivalry

I’m based in the north-east of England, so it’s significantly easier for me to watch Test matches played in Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium than it is to get to London for internationals. I’ve enjoyed many keenly contested matches featuring Scotland over the years. At the World Rugby Museum I discovered the first rugby international was played in Edinburgh, between Scotland and England, back on 27 March 1871. The hosts won.

Remarkably, J.H. Clayton’s jersey from that day is displayed in the museum. His white top bears a red rose, just as England shirts do today. White was chosen partly because of associations with Rugby School and because it meant England jerseys would be easy to boil wash. Perhaps that shrank the shirt? It looks tiny compared to the kit worn by the hulking internationals of the modern era.

The English beat the Scots to establishing their Rugby Football Union. In a wood panelled room I read how representatives of 21 clubs met at the Pall Mall restaurant in London to form the RFU. The Scottish Rugby Football Union was founded in 1873.

Facts about the sport

Wandering through the rooms of the museum I learnt how the split between Rugby Union and Rugby League took place back in the 1890s. It was only in 1995 that the 15-player code also went professional.

There’s also an overview of the game’s introduction and development in countries beyond the British Isles.

In total, the World Rugby Museum’s collection encompasses more than 25,000 artefacts, including rare items such as a New Zealand jersey from ‘The Originals’ tour of 1905-06. That was when the New Zealanders first came to be known as All Blacks.

Inside the World Rugby Museum.
Inside the World Rugby Museum.

Rugby as an Olympic Sport

Rugby became an Olympic sport at the Paris Games of 1900, when six nations competed for the gold medal. The sport featured just four times. Surprisingly, the USA is the most successful nation in the history of Olympic rugby, having won golds in 1920 and 1924, beating France in both of those tournaments.

Harsher critics of England’s performance at the Rugby World Cup 2015 might argue Great Britain foreshadowed it in failing to enter its best selection of players into Olympic tournaments. Moseley and Cornwall were among the club and district teams that represented the nation at the summer games.

British Lions and streakers

I enjoyed learning a handful of quirky facts during my tour of the museum.

A selection of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish players travelled in 1888 to tour Australia and New Zealand. However, it wasn’t until the 1924 tour of South Africa that the British team won its Lions nickname. The red jerseys came only in 1950.

After looking at the Twickenham Wall of Fame – featuring international players such as Roger Uttley, Philippe Sella and JPR Williams – I browsed a section of the museum recording exploits by the likes of Erica Roe and Michael O’Brien.

O’Brien, an Australian accountant, went down in history as the first streaker at a sporting event. For a £10 bet he ran onto the Twickenham pitch during England’s match against France match in 1974. The fine for his actions was set at £10.

‘Play Rugby’ interactive zone

On a chilly afternoon I welcomed the opportunity to test my kicking, scrummaging and jumping skills in the ‘Play Rugby’ interactive zone. The area also has reaction, running and sprint tests. Believe me, it gets competitive in this part of the museum.

The World Rugby Museum proved a fun and informative way of spending 90 minutes ahead of the match. It is also open on non-match days and can be combined with a tour of Twickenham Stadium.

Twickenham facts from the World Rugby Museum

  • In 1907 the Rugby Football Union purchased land at Twickenham for £5,572, 12 shillings and 6 pence.
  • The first rugby game played at Twickenham was contested in 1909, between Harlequins and Richmond.
  • The inaugural international match at the ground was played in 1910, between England and Wales.
  • Horses grazed on the Twickenham pitch during World War One.
  • The first Varsity match at Twickenham took place in 1921.

Further information

See the England Rugby website for up-to-date information about the prices and timings of Twickenham Stadium tours and visits to the World Rugby Museum.

Twickenham is a working stadium, so tours vary accordingly. On some tours visitors might see the pitch or ground being prepared ahead of games. During others there might be opportunities to observe a hawk warding away pigeons. Art, group and educational tours can be arranged in addition to the scheduled public tours.

The photographs illustrating this feature were supplied courtesy of the Rugby Football Union, which holds the copyright to the photos.

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The ‘Play Rugby’ interactive zone at the World Rugby Museum.
The ‘Play Rugby’ interactive zone at the World Rugby Museum.

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