It’s Rugby (Union) World Cup time, which means the English press are in the midst of their usual dilemma of getting behind a sport so heavily associated with posh boys, but enjoyed by millions of people. The right-wing mag The Spectator acrobatically found its way around this, arguing that since the game went professional in ’95 these old stereotypes have eroded away into dust. Gavin Mortimer claims, in classic Spectator fashion, that playing the “posh” card is now just the preserve of the “left” (by which he seems to mean Guardian writers and (*ahem*) Tony Blair).
The article makes sense but, like many others, completely misses the point of rugby’s class tensions. For one thing, rugby union has never been solely the preserve of posh boys, which is why it has a much larger following than, say, polo. More importantly, the argument given isn’t true; a BBC Sport report, also released at the start of the tournament, found that 61% of male rugby union players in England are privately-educated, and that professionalism has actually concentrated this divide. English schools that play union are, for the most part, the same old schools, predominantly private or grammar.
The Spectator, as well as those it criticises, are both playing the same game – using rugby union’s enduring association with elitism to spin their own yarns about Britain’s class tensions. Think carefully about the way rugby (both codes, but especially union) defines itself against football, as the “gentleman’s game” where everybody gets along, the referees are all-powerful, where values and sportsmanship trump the diving, the “softness,” and alleged thuggishness of football.
So where does this tension come from? We have to go back to the start, to the legend of William Webb Ellis, to circumvent the loaded arguments that symbolise rugby one way or another. And why does it even matter? It’s just a game, right? Maybe, but sport is often more than just a reflection of social and cultural tensions within a society, it can provide an outlet for their expression. Conflicts in British society have often spilled over into the sport, and rugby’s internal tensions, built on class, race and masculinity, have helped to mould larger stories of the past.
The Legend of William Webb Ellis, Praeposter
Back before the Victorian Era, sport was for the rich. The poor toiled for six days, and on the Sabbath sport was banned. The exception was public holidays, when massive games of ‘football’ were held on common ground, often with hundreds of participants, a pig’s bladder (hence the shape of the “hand-egg” rugby ball) and very few rules. Industrialisation saw the decline of these matches, but the wealthy, under the influence of “muscular Christianity,” adopted the game and began to codify it (so beginning rugby’s longstanding association with manliness).
One such rulebook, described by the author of rugby’s legend Matthew Bloxam, told that the best players would position themselves at the front, “hacking” the opposition and advancing the ball with feet, whilst anybody who caught the ball was able to “call the mark” (as it is now known) whereupon he was free to retreat, as the opposition could not advance past that mark. One day, it is said, in a match between Rugby School and Bigside, a boy, William Webb Ellis, caught a high ball, and in contradiction to the accepted way of doing things, ran forward with bladder-in-hand. A new game was born.
This legend, first told by Bloxam in 1876, is now widely held to be false. The truth of it doesn’t matter however, its importance as a founding myth in rugby’s history is undiminished, and the Rugby Union World Cup’s big shiny trophy carries Webb Ellis’ name. Webb Ellis, the creator, was from a family of modest means. Salford-born, his widowed mother moved the family down to Rugby to take advantage of Rugby School’s fee exemption for all “town boys” who lived within 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower. It was not a “posh boy” who invented the game, by this telling of the story.
But Bloxam pointed out that the creation of the game was dependent on the hierarchies of public school, that reflected patterns of domestic labour and class domination. Ellis, an older boy, was a “Praeposter” or prefect. Were he a “fag” (a younger boy who served the every whim of the upper school), Bloxam argues, “he probably would have received more kicks than commendations. How oft is it that such small matters lead to great results.”
For Gentlemen Only
Perhaps, or was it symbolic of the fact that, throughout the 19th Century as rugby separated from football and spread, the upper echelons of rugby’s participants held the keys to the running of the game. Rugby was now very popular in the industrial North, but the richer participants dominated its administration and were now obsessed with the concept of “amateurism.” This belief, that players should take no payment, was ostensibly designed to protect the game from bad sportsmanship, but underneath aimed to keep the sport for “gentlemen” only. Rugby’s hits were harder than football, injuries were more severe, and an uncompensated working-class participant risked losing vital wages and even a job if injured during a match.
If sport was to be for gentlemen only, it was the latter syllable that was especially enforced. Women’s football of all forms was met with fierce protests; matches were often abandoned due to violent protests. Women’s rugby was therefore largely played behind closed doors, but women have played some form of rugby since at least 1881. In Ireland, Emily Valentine is recognised as the first women’s rugby player, after she played for Portera Royal School’s team in Enskillen. But it was not until the 1960s that women’s rugby was tolerated in the public sphere.
Amateurism became strictly enforced, as infringements were many. Rugby’s ruling class (including those in Lancashire and Yorkshire) feared losing control of what they saw as their game, after exactly that happened following the messy professionalization of association football in 1885 after similar tensions. Players caught taking any payment were often banned for life.
In 1895, the tension reached critical mass, over the issue of “broken time.” Northern clubs largely recruited their players from local factories, mills, and mines; physical labour that could not be done with a serious rugby injury. Broken Time would install a system of compensation for time missed from work and medical treatment. But the Southeastern self-appointed guardians of rugby were firmly against it; they saw it as a nail in the coffin of amateurism and the guarantee of a move to professionalism and all of its (largely-imagined) demons.
There was no explicit intention to go professional at this time, but the schism still came. The Northern players found an unusual ally at this juncture; their bosses. These industrial kingpins, often heavily involved in the local club, had a stake in Broken Time too – local rivalries had sprung up, and success for their club gave them regional prestige as well as bragging rights. At the George Hotel in Huddersfield, 20 clubs from Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire announced their departure from the RFU to form the Northern Union, later becoming the Rugby Football League. The heartland of popular rugby had seceded; what appeared to remain of rugby union was a sport of the public schools and universities.
Salford v Batley, 2nd November 1901, showing the early popularity of Northern Union Rugby and its importance life to in Salford. Source: Salford Reds Heritage
Don’t Mention Wales
Rugby league, it’s been said, was the sport of the “new (trade) unionism,” getting its participants a fairer deal. It quickly developed in this manner, embracing professionalism, removing the lineout and the ruck for a faster, fan-friendlier version of the game. A “people’s game,” maybe, but union never completely purged the poor from its ranks, even as it clung dogmatically to the Gentlemanly code of Amateurism. “Don’t mention Wales, it gets complicated,” writes Stuart Maconie, endorsing the Masses vs the Classes tale of league and union. Well, in this story,…you HAVE to mention Wales. Rugby Union is the national game there, especially in the (traditionally working-class) Valleys, and I can tell you from personal experience that it is ingrained into the psyche of every person born west of Offah’s Dyke. But that’s not just why Wales must be part of the story, instead, it’s because even here class politics have shaped the game, once again highlighting the complex and essential relationship between rugby union and British society.
Rugby came to Wales in the same way; via Oxford and Cambridge. Wealthy Welsh students brought it back to Cardiff and Swansea, and the game slowly migrated up the Usk and the Taff. The Welsh People’s Game, in these early days, was not immune from privileging the Gentlemen; the earliest national sides were [controversially] comprised of the Oxbridge boys. Things changed, however, after the dragons got demolished by England 82-0 (on modern scoring) in 1881. A collective embarrassment, in a way, helped narrow the class divide. In the future they picked more miners at the front (known as the “Rhondda forwards,” they began a trend of increasingly-bulky characters in the front-row).
This alone wasn’t enough to ensure league didn’t take off in Wales. It helped that the WRU turned many a blind eye to broken time payments. Distance was probably the biggest roadblock. It was simply too difficult for Welsh clubs to find enough opponents nearby; a Welsh league club didn’t have the money to travel up to the North week after week. Pofessionalism costs money, and despite the efforts of the Northern Union, investment never materialised. Although clubs in Ebbw Vale and Mythyr Tydfil formed, they were not to last. Wales was, however, far from hostile towards league; the first every international league match was held there between Wales and New Zealand, who themselves were causing controversy back home receiving payment to play, slandered as the “All Golds” by a fiercely pro-union press.
Over the following decades, many Welsh players would go on to “take the Northern pound” and join the professional league, particularly when hard times hit the mining towns. In the tough 1980s, when many industries left never to return, the Welsh union team suffered. Players such as Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs went North so they could afford to live. The success of the Welsh team has been linked to the physicality of mining; when the pits closed, they took the work and with it the primary source of conditioning. Professionalism rescued Welsh union, to an extent, but the Welsh clubs have struggled to hold on to their players, many of whom now play in the lucrative (and balmy) south of France.
The West Country, another region of widespread participation, similarly remained loyal to the old form of the game. Not coincidentally, Wales and the Southwest both had very popular forms of folk-football (Cnapan and Cornish Hurling, respectively) before all this codification began. Gloucester, a working-class club, was one of the strictest adherents to amateurism, ironically after its reputation was heavily damaged for frequent violations regarding payments prior to the schism. Union remains popular in that part of the world, increasingly so, if you look at the Chiefs and the Pirates. World Cup winner Phil Vickery is a proud Cornishman, former dairy farmer (and qualified cow inseminator, for what it’s worth).
The Wrong SIde of History, Vichy and Apartheid
The two codes went their separate ways, but both went on to cross the channel. Rugby played a part in the establishment of the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. The decade prior, league was growing in popularity in southern France, but as the Vichy regime was established, the situation changed. Philippe Pétain was suspicious of the “socialist” rugby league and moved to ban the game, encouraged in his actions by French rugby union, who informed him that league was “un-French” and a “corrupter” of young Frenchmen. The Fédération Rugby Française became Vichy collaborators, and French rugby league was stripped of its assets, worth millions of Francs, to help fund the Nazi-sympathetic regime. In contrast, prominent league players such as Paul Barrière would join the Resistance.
Back in Britain, rugby union again largely found itself on the wrong side of history as the Home Nations and the British Lions frequently played the Springboks, the pride of Apartheid South Africa, during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1968, the Welsh flanker and school teacher John Taylor, otherwise known as “Basil Brush,” made himself an exception. What happened next speaks volumes.
“I wanted to be a Lion. I put all the misgivings to the back of my mind, believed all the twaddle about building bridges and that we weren’t supporting apartheid and as soon as I got there I realised very much that we were.”
He was instructed by the authorities to ignore the “politics” of it, told instead that “our rugby and our girls are great so go and enjoy them” (another example of how the “manliness” of rugby was evoked). After ’68, he refused to wear the red of Wales, or of the Lions, when facing the ‘Boks. The WRU didn’t ban him, but inexplicably left him out of the team for four games.
“I had been told very clearly that had I been English I would have never played international rugby again.”
The episode is indicative of the enduring elite dominance of union administration into the ‘70s, how it reinforced itself on racism and global politics. The case of Taylor shows that their attitude was not shared by all of its players, but the significant pressure from above to unquestioningly prop up Apartheid ensured that dissenters remained the exception. At the time of the 1974 Lions Tour to South Africa, Taylor recalled,
“’74 was the big deal. I was absolutely convinced that the rest of the sporting world was right and that there was this sort of massive arrogance in rugby that the brotherhood of rugby, the fraternity of rugby, meant more than the brotherhood of man – that they couldn’t be bad chaps because they played rugby. It was very much that sort of arrogance that I absolutely deplored in rugby. I had no doubts at all.”
(11min) Highlights of Lions ’74 tour of South Africa. Notice how it focuses on the sport and nothing but the sport. The only “controversy” mentioned was over a legitimate try not given. Also note how good JJ Williams was.
Rugby (both codes, but especially union) has correspondingly been a historically unwelcoming place for players of colour. The first black player to play for England was in union; another pioneering Salfordian, James Peters, made his debut on 17th March 1906 against Scotland. “His selection was by no means popular on racial grounds,” reported the Yorkshire Post, and he became known in the rugby world as “Darkie Peters.” In 1907 the RFU refused to select him against the Springboks, who did not want a black player on the pitch. A working man, Peters played and worked in Plymouth but was kicked out of the union for playing a single league match in the West Country. He saw out his career in the northern league.
The first black league international was George Bennett who played for England in the 1930s. Bennett, by birth, was a Welshman, but was forced up north after ostracism within Welsh rugby by a governing body hostile to black players. The WRU, as the Taylor episode shows, did not cover themselves in roses when it came to racial equality. Until Glenn Webbe made his debut against Tonga in 1986, the Welsh team was all white. Colin Charvis would become Wales’ first captain of colour, leading his side at the 2003 World Cup. Although English league and union have become increasingly diverse in recent years, both codes have failed to make inroads amongst Britain’s significant South Asian population.
Women’s rugby union has expanded rapidly in the last twenty years, despite hostility from the IRB, who attempted to undermine the second women’s world cup tournament in 1994. Participation is increasing in both codes. 11 000 women play union in England, and up north, the women’s RFL is the largest in the world. But rugby’s association with masculinity endures, and women’s rugby receives little mainstream coverage. BBC Sport, for example, since 2012 has extended its coverage of women’s sport; football is regularly on TV (with the BBC showing all of the recent World Cup in Canada), and the Ashes was broadcast on Test Match Special. But women’s rugby has not been as much a part of this. England women won the Rugby Union World Cup last year. Few people noticed. Progress is slow, but hopefully the inclusion of women’s rugby sevens in the 2016 Olympics can provide a catalyst for change.
Local elites, global elites
“Bagehot” in The Economist said it well. “Britain’s main team sports, football, cricket and rugby, have always reflected the big tensions in society: conflicts over wealth and class, of north against south. Only rugby has been rent by them.” But this, and many of the sources here, are inward-facing. As the Lions tours to Apartheid South Africa suggest, rugby union’s history and politics have also reflected the relationship between its participant countries.
Professionalism has exacerbated the one aspect of rugby union that intrinsically favours the wealthy – increased strength and conditioning (and with it, increased injury). And to the richest, go the spoils. During the group stages Tonga’s Epi Taione slammed World Rugby for its continued concentration of resources in the hands of the “elite” of world union: the Home Nations, and the former settler colonies of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. So spoke Taione.
“Rugby is so out of touch. It’s run by colonialists who still think they run the world like it was 100 years ago.”
The poorer unions in the Pacific Islands have to share World Rugby bursaries, and their national teams are increasingly forced to raise funds for tours, training and world cup campaigns. Before Japan’s heroics this autumn, it is worth remembering that it has been Samoa, who ran the formidable 2003 England team close, Tonga, who beat finalists France in 2011, and Fiji, twice quarter-finalists, who have brought what might be called the “spirit of rugby” to the RU World Cup, saving it from dull predictability. Yet these nations, poorer, distant, and so important to the history and character of rugby, are being increasingly pushed from a game that is ostensibly committed to increasing global participation.
Villiame Vaki scores for Tonga against South Africa, RUWC 2007
I’ll talk about them more in another blog post next week. For now though it is worth saying that, although never solely the domain of the wealthy, the class and imperial divisions of rugby, both in Britain and worldwide, have always and continue to affect and damage the game. As the world of rugby union pats itself on the back for Japan’s recent success, the increasing struggle of the Pacific Islands should be remembered.
(Title picture is of current England players dressed as “Gentlemen” (source Daily Mail), and a soggy mountain pitch in Wales)