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Webb-Ellis embraced by French as their own

SPOTLIGHT: William Webb-Ellis may or may not have been the creator of rugby but the residents of the French Riviera town of Menton where he is buried have embraced the Englishman as one of their own.


His grave in Le Vieux Chateau cemetery with a vista of the Mediterranean looks out over the town of 30,000 people – quite a climb for those of a delicate disposition, but for rugby lovers it is a pilgrimage.

Webb-Ellis is the man who, according to legend, first picked up the ball, thus establishing the basic principle of rugby.

His final resting place has been spruced up at the behest of the veteran councillor responsible for cemeteries, Patrice Novelli.

A new guard rail, which has a couple of rugby shirts left by visitors draped over it, has been installed, the tomb surface cleaned and there is now a small green verge to leave flowers.

“They are occasionally overcome by the view of the sea and forget it is a cemetery,” the cemetery guardian Patrick Gilli told AFP.

“It is not that they are being intentionally disrespectful but I have to remind them that this is above all a place of contemplation.”

– ‘Godfather’ –

There is also a street named in Webb-Ellis’s honour and St John’s Anglican church, which is lower down from the cemetery close to the sea, has a plaque dedicated to him.


Webb-Ellis himself, though, remains a man of mystery – his grave was only uncovered in the late 1950s, by a local journalist.

He might or might not have first come to Menton for pastoral reasons or he came, like many of his compatriots, because the climate was reputedly beneficial for those suffering from tuberculosis.

He certainly appears to have borne no ill will against the French, despite his British Army officer father being killed in the Napoleonic Wars.

Being a man of the cloth he would probably derive greatest pleasure from Rugby Club Menton Webb-Ellis nurturing their own flock of school children.


The amateur club’s two co-presidents have displayed typical French flair using France’s hosting of the World Cup to move with lightning speed to place rugby firmly at the centre of the town’s culture.

No easy task given that it is the last town before the border with Italy and football dominates this region.

Jean-Baptiste Martini, a former prop, and Julien Repiquet, who took up rugby in 2007, initiated the Webb-Ellis Challenge, now an annual event.

“This was the culmination of Lucas Betron, a coach at the club, visiting the schools in the area and introducing them to rugby and also the name of Webb-Ellis,” Repiquet told AFP at the club headquarters.

“Then in June we welcomed one and sometimes two teams from the schools, 350 pupils in all, for the Webb-Ellis Challenge with former France captain Jean-Francois Tordo as the godfather of the tournament.”

– ‘We have Webb-Ellis’ –

Repiquet and Martini, who has been president of the club since 2004 and admits it is a passion that will “not feed me nor my family” as he dispenses both his money and time for free, have also developed close ties with Rugby School.

The prestigious private establishment in central England is where Webb-Ellis is said to have first taken the ball in his hands.

“The Webb-Ellis story is funny because there is a belief that both the Romans and the Greeks played a form of it,” said Martinez.

“At the Paglio in Florence, which dates back centuries, they play a type of rugby, using their feet and hands.

“Attention, though,” he said. “For me the Webb-Ellis story is true. Whether he was the first or not is open to debate.

“Every sport requires a particular moment or a spark to set it on fire, and he provided it for rugby,” added the 46-year-old.

Webb-Ellis’s renown and fame only goes so far with the Menton youngsters, though, as Repiquet concedes.

“If I were to put 50 of them in front of you and asked them who Webb-Ellis was, I would wager just 10 would know the answer,” the 40-year-old said with a chuckle.

However, thanks to Martini and Repiquet’s efforts a meeting with the headmaster of Rugby should soon transform that.

“We had a very fruitful meeting with him after a church service one Sunday,” said Repiquet.

“Along with J-B we approached the town hall to see if we can organise lodgings for around 20 students and teachers as an exchange for a week.

“In return we will send 20 youngsters and teachers there.”

Martini and Repiquet have combined with the town hall to set up a 21-stop QR code tour of the town – and a shorter ‘safari’ one for children – which finishes at the tomb, melding Webb-Ellis’s story, rugby history and the town’s past.

Jean-Claude Alarcon, the councillor responsible for Sports, had been banging the drum for Menton and rugby at the opening of a new club house at Toulon.

“I said we might be stuck between Italy and Monaco but do not forget us,” he told AFP.

“We show up well too, not least because we have Webb-Ellis.

“We also have William Percy Carpmael, the founder of the Barbarians, who is buried in Menton.”

And would a request to return Webb-Ellis to England be successful? It seems the chances are as high as out-of-form England’s hopes of lifting the Webb-Ellis trophy for a second time.

“We will not be giving him back,” said Novelli.

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