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'Some Championship clubs would be envious of the support'

By Liam Heagney
Where William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball and ran (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Alex Grove can’t wait for June 24. It was 2016 when the frustrated three-cap Scotland midfielder stepped away from the pro game, retiring at the age of just 29 even though his body was still in rude health.

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Grassroots coaching is now the property developer’s sporting fix, his latest assignment coming as the defence coach at Bournville, the Birmingham-based National 2 West club just a few miles away from Villa Park where his late grandfather Ron Wylie was a venerated football midfield schemer.

It is hallowed turf of a different kind that will be the talking point next Saturday, though. It’s now 200 years since William Webb Ellis famously picked up the ball and ran with it in Rugby and following a reenactment of what took place in 1823, Grove will play in the bicentennial match celebrating the birthplace of the game at the school.

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With it, the memories will come flooding back for the former Rugby School pupil who spent five years there before forging his professional playing career at Worcester. “I was at the school when I was 16, about 2004 time when they did Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Stephen Fry was the acting headmaster,” he enthused to RugbyPass about the colourful history of his alma mater.

“The actor Alex Pettyfer was Webb Ellis. We were at the school and were extras. Everyone wanted to be an extra as you had the week off school which was great, and you got to wear all the old gear and run around.

“They pulled the posts down, they put the old wooden sticks up, had to remove all the cars from the road outside and dress the whole Close as it was 200 years ago, and we were all in the old shorts there. That was cool to be part of that and that is kind of what I am expecting for the re-creation next weekend.”

It should be a hoot of an occasion, even though Grove doesn’t have a standout Webb Ellis moment of his own that comes to mind. “It was more so an intercept,” he quipped when asked whether he had a best picked-up-the-ball-and-ran incident.

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“My first Premiership start was Worcester against Wasps and we ended up winning the game with a last-minute drop goal, not by me but I was able to get on the end of a loose pass and an intercept which emulates that of Webb Ellis.”

Grove’s appetite for the sport at Rugby is engrained. “I’m particularly passionate,” he chuckled. “I was a keen rugby player before I joined the school at 13 and I was fully aware of the history.

“You get a lot of foreign students at a school like that who have never heard of rugby, the sport, never mind played the game. They would come over and to them, understandably, it doesn’t mean a great deal but to me, I still say it was my favourite place to play.

“I played at some great grounds but that is the favourite without a doubt to go and play. Not everyone was allowed to walk across The Close. There are pretty strict rules about who can and can’t walk across it outside of games time, and just the 15 were allowed to play on it. Certainly, if you didn’t know about its history and its importance and significance before you joined, which I did, then you certainly did by the time you left.

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“We had a sevens tournament on Easter Monday where I was asked to pull a group of players together and I thought this could be a bit tricky, but I went through my phone book, people that I hadn’t seen since I was 18 in some cases, and it was great. People jumped at the opportunity to come and play again.

“That was because we wanted to catch up and have a beer at a reunion but also it’s like your last cap, you never know when it is until 10 years down the line when you haven’t been picked or you have retired. We thought that our last time on The Close might have been when we were 18, so to get invited back and have one more opportunity was particularly special.

“Guys jumped at it, had a bit of a runaround, and it was everything that rugby should be about, coming together. The rugby itself was almost a sideshow, for us anyway. It was about catching up with a lot of old mates, chatting nonsense, playing a bit of rugby, and reliving memories we made 20 years ago.”

Tell us more – what makes The Close the very special place that it is? “You see pictures and videos online of these New Zealand and South African schools where you get the whole school coming and watching you. That doesn’t happen as much in the UK as in the southern hemisphere, but for the last game of the season there was always a touring side and the whole of our school would come and watch as well as parents and teachers.

“Some Championship clubs in the UK would be envious of the support we would get on the touchline at Rugby. Okay, it might not be a huge pedestal, but they would put the first team guys up there and make a fuss and it was a proper honour. You’d be awarded your cap, you’d be allowed on The Close. It was the hallowed turf that not everyone was allowed to step onto. To be able to take the field every week was particularly special.

“At the end of the ground, you have got the plaque that commemorates Webb Ellis, the fine disregard for the rules of football. That is there on the wall as your drive in and for me, particularly when I go back, it’s the memories as well. I had really good memories in my five years at that school and some of my best mates are still from there and with time, those memories grow stronger like a rugby career.

“The longer I’m retired the better I become as a player in my head. It just exaggerates and all your stories exaggerate,” he joked before setting the scene for next weekend’s festivities. “It’s a mixture of ex-pupils and members of staff. Sam Pointen, who plays for Moseley, runs the first XV at Rugby School and is still playing regularly.

“He will be a welcome addition as it is very much rolling subs. There is a whole day of activities with the re-creation of the game at lunchtime with the students and then there is a women’s game, the men’s game and a big celebration ball in the evening.”

Capping it all for Grove is the involvement of Wooden Spoon as he is charity-minded himself having swam the Channel in 2020 in under 14 hours to raise funding for a separate charitable cause. “Rugby prides itself on being a game of strong values and bringing people together and part of that is giving back.

“The swim I did was for Acorns Children’s Hospice and there are parallels between that and Wooden Spoon, which is for children with disabilities and disadvantaged children.

“It’s quite nice that the Wooden Spoon’s 40th anniversary aligns with Rugby’s 200th and it is rugby’s main charity and an obvious choice to collaborate with this series of events. Wooden Spoon are so well backed.

“They have supported north of 70 different projects in the last 40 years ranging from foodbanks to specialist playgrounds to schools and everything. It has grown a huge amount in the 40 years and it’s nice and appropriate that Rugby School aligns with Wooden Spoon in this 200th celebration year.”

Sadly, this motivating strength-to-strength mantra can’t be applied to Worcester, the Sixways club that Grove debuted for in 2006/07. They fell out of the Gallagher Premiership last September, their finances miserably collapsing, and there is no sign yet of the club re-emerging.

This idleness saddens him greatly, but it also reinforces his relief that he stopped playing professionally when he did and wasn’t in the cruel situation that has now occurred to players at three top-flight clubs in just eight months.

“I stepped away from the game full-time in 2016. There were options to keep playing full-time, but I was ready to do something different. I’ll be honest, I was probably a bit too fussy in terms of, I wasn’t good enough to be as picky as I was. I made the decision then that I wanted a family and stuff like that and thought that was a good time to kick on and try something different.

“I played a couple of years semi-pro. I still love the game, but I realised that my career was waning, which wasn’t great, but it made the decision a little earlier than I probably would have done. Seeing what has happened over the last 12 months in the Premiership is just awful as a lot of those Worcester players I knew personally.

“It is awful for all the clubs and probably worse for London Irish because those players are entering a market flooded by players now. I really do sympathise with them and the staff. It’s pretty desperate the state of the game and I dare say there are other clubs in financial difficulty as well.”

Worcester is a regular talking point as Grove routinely meets up with his old teammates. “We met last week actually, some old Worcester players who all live within the vicinity. We catch up once a month, go for a curry and a few beers and stuff.

“It feels particularly weird for us because we are from the area and still live around the area and are immersed in it a bit more than other people who might have only been at the club for a couple of years and are not from the area.

“It is hard. We had an event a month or two ago to support the Worcester Warriors Foundation and the work they do in the community. Chatting to a few of the supporters, these people love the club and who back these events, getting their perspective as a fan, they have never worked there, never played there but they are probably mourning a loss.

“The way it has been dealt with over the last 12 months where anyone interested in the club has been strung along by promises, updates and hope, none of which has materialised – if it was a dog, you would just put them down and end the misery.

“The supporters have been strung along by ‘this is the update by the end of the month’, ‘this is what is going you happen’ and none of it has actually happened, so it has been really tough for some of those supporters who literally lived and breathed it for 20 years or so.

“Talking to them they are disillusioned with the whole game now. Even after nearly 12 months, they are struggling to get back into the game, even if that is going to watch your amateur club. That is still too raw for some people, and I hadn’t actually appreciated that until speaking to some of the fans the other week. It is really tough for some people who are not ready yet to get back into any sort of rugby.

“It is a real shame what has happened, but I’m pleased that a lot of the players at Worcester anyway have found clubs and employment and seem to be doing pretty well from what we pick up.”

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