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  • Rugby Union Memorabilia by Phil Atkinson

    OBSERVED OR OBTAINED: OLD ‘OVAL’ OFFERINGS & ODDITIES …….

    There were two reasons why I was particularly delighted to be asked by Amberley to write the short introduction to Rugby Union Memorabilia which was published in September. One was that I had long wished to attempt such a volume, the other that it would be the first, and much-needed, such look at the world of collecting the fifteen-a-side game’s wide range of interesting items.

    rugby-union-memorabilia-1 Games between Wales, England & Scotland, home and away, early twentieth century. (c. Tim Auty, Rugby Union Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    It is perhaps fitting that it emerged just after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, held in England: an event which underlined the spread and popularity of the sport, with two million fans at the stadia and a global TV audience very many times that. At the same time another rugby record-breaker arose - nearly £200,000 being paid at auction for a 1905 NZ All Black jersey!

    Yet no-one to our knowledge had yet put into print and picture a survey of those jerseys, caps, cups, programmes, prints, photographs, autographs, cards, stamps, badges, medals, trophies, ceramics, books, archived records, ephemera and whatever else might evoke a nostalgia for and encapsulate the development of the game.

    Football of the Association variety, Cricket, Golf and to an extent Tennis have had their sample artefacts and accessories recorded: now the handling code which was allegedly born at Rugby School nearly two centuries back has seen a start on a similar process. The book briefly outlines the field, from Victorian kit and cigarette cards through flimsy first images and programmes and early Lions' and Colonials' tours to the 'merchandise' of the professional era.

    rugby-union-memorabilia-2 (c. Rugby Union Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    With strict word and picture limits the problem – as is so often the case – was more about what to leave out, rather than what to include. My own collection and my connections within and/or due to the Rugby Memorabilia Society, whose ‘Touchlines’ magazine I edit, have helped provide a wide variety of information and illustrations, many not generally available. I have tried to show the novice collector how comparatively easy it is to begin - and indeed, to build up quite a mass of material relatively cheaply in the first place.

    ‘It’s not just programmes’ is one of our regular refrains, and indeed my own fancy has grown from those early reminders of games seen, heard or read about to focus more recently on the easier-to-store cigarette, trade and post cards with a rugby connection, and old rugby prints. Friends swear by their own interests, too, and I have tried, however concisely, to mention their many various sectors as listed above!

    It’s a matter of taste, of course, but another of the ‘anthems’ of ‘us anoraks’ is to dismiss much of the current corporately-produced club and country merchandise as not being true memorabilia. Pre-signed, pre-framed, prepared items cannot produce the same frisson as the actual jersey, say, muddied or washed, from a notable game and player. Some like them signed, some like them not: it’s up to you and, of course, the original owner.

    rugby-union-memorabilia-3 Four Nations jerseys, 1955 and 1959 (c.Bryn Meredith, Rugby Union Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    They, especially the older school, often have no concept of the importance placed on ‘their’ items by those of us stricken by the collecting/preserving/recording bug. Recently I helped organise the sale of the memorabilia of the great Bryn Meredith, Newport, Wales and three-times British Lion tourist 1955-1962.

    Marvellous gentleman Bryn, now 86, found it hard to credit that many were prepared to bid and battle for his jerseys, badges, socks(!), balls and other material from his stellar, pre-professional, pre-payments, pre-eBay career. He was particularly amused to learn that the Welsh Rugby Union, bastions of (sh)amateurism and strict expenses in his day, had now paid substantial sums for some of his items!

    rugby-union-memorabilia-4 (c. Rugby Union Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    We in turn were shocked to find that these magnificently-evocative mementoes had been stored somewhat haphazardly in Bryn’s ancient touring suitcase in his garage. It reminded some of our members of their stories of horror or salvation when contents of Clubs, attics and archives have been saved from the skip at the last moment – or, sadly, sometimes not.

    Individual contacts, auctions real or ‘virtual’, collectors’ fairs, dealers there or online, car boot sales, and diligent delving: these are the methods by which your small scalpings may grow into great gatherings of rugby relics.

    Cost? Well, each to his or her own, but more recent material is cheap and there’s always a bargain to be had, if less frequently than of yore. However, at the top end of the market, material from between the wars or particularly pre-WW1 commands a considerable premium. Thus it was that a year ago that a world record for a single rugby item was not just beaten but demolished. The previous high was around £20,000 and indeed, the Cardiff auctioneers entrusted with the item expected only £20k to £40k for it. However, with interest from Down Under as well as premier British sports collector Nigel Wray, owner of Saracens Rugby Club, bidding soared to £180,000 hammer price plus considerable costs before Mr Wray won.

    rugby-union-memorabilia-6 1905 'Originals' record-breaking £180,000 jersey. (c.Rogers Jones Auctions, Rugby Union Memorabilia, Amberley Publishing)

    The jersey was an icon from an icon. Dave Gallaher, Irish born captain of the ground-breaking ‘Original’ 1905 All Black tourists to the British Isles, twice lied about his age to assist Britain in conflict: exaggerating it to fight in the Boer war, then ‘reducing’ it to do so on the Western Front in the First World War. There he fell in 1917.

    He had exchanged jerseys with Wales’ skipper Gwyn Nicholls after the epic and controversial 3-0 Welsh win, perhaps the most famous rugby match ever. Nicholls later gave it to a young worker at his laundry business, and decades later that family must have been as amazed as was auctioneer Ben Rogers Jones as the famous black jersey ‘cleaned up’.

    A number of families and clubs have since sought to cash in, without huge success due to the unique circumstances of the ‘Gallaher Garment’. Some of the jerseys ‘liberated’ from Club or family cabinet’s revealed one of the drawbacks of long such display: the faded front which has seen value, as well as dye, leak away.

    So, if you or yours are lucky enough to have, or to find, something old and related to the oval code, hang on to it. Get advice, store it or display it with great care. (Or sell it to me or my fellow members!)

    You can join the Rugby Memorabilia Society via Membership Sec., 21, Coulson Close, Newport NP20 2RQ or go to www.rugby-memorabilia.co.uk

    9781445657493

    Phil Atkinson's new book Rugby Union Memorabilia is available for purchase now.

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