The problem with English rugby

PROFESSOR Tony Collins laughs when you ask about the reaction to his new book: “I’ve gotten a good response from people who aren’t English,” he says.

“But there’s been a deafening silence from English rugby fans themselves. Which is interesting.”

You’d hope it’s not that they’re ignoring the book, A Social History of English Rugby Union, because it’s a fascinating look at the construction of England’s rugby identity. If that sounds stuffy, it isn’t meant to. Collins explains how much your idea of what rugby means depends on one book published in 1857. “I wanted to see what motivated people when it came to the idea of rugby as a moral force which gave people confidence,” says Collins. “I went back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays – which is not an easy book to read, it’s really dated – it’s clear that much of its comes from that.”

The novel, a huge success at the time, is a primer in creating ideal Victorian Englishmen – honest, loyal, hard-working, not over-intellectual – and the fact that it was set in Rugby School meant being a rugby player soon became part of creating an ideal Victorian Englishman.

“Rugby School had immense self-confidence – at one point, a character in the book says it’s the only part of the empire that’s properly ruled – so if you come from that background, then it explains how the English Rugby Union became, and remains, so self-confident. Those involved in the RFU, players and officials, have tremendous self-confidence to this day, even if England aren’t playing well. They convey a sense of being superior to everyone else. When I revisited Tom Brown’s Schoolboys, I saw that the reviews when the book was first published commented on this self-confidence; one reviewer said it was as if these people were in a secret society,” Collins says.

It wasn’t secret for long. Rugby Union was hugely popular in the 1870s and 1880s, its gospel spread by public schoolboys who wanted to continue playing their favourite game. You had to play a particular way... “There’s a great example of the captain of Cambridge walking around the field with his hands in his pockets, until the ball came in his direction,” says Collins. “I think that Corinthian, studiedly amateur, ‘appearing disinterested’ approach is a typically upper-class English thing, because it excuses failure – ‘we lost but we weren’t that interested’. It provided an in-built excuse for failure. And that also applied a bit in terms of amateurism, before the game went professional – you could say ‘we haven’t beaten the All Blacks in so many years, but they play a different game to us’, that kind of thing.”

SOON, there really was a different game. In 1895, the northern powerhouses of rugby met in the George Hotel, in Huddersfield, and split off to create Rugby League. It was officially a dispute over compensation for broken-time payments for working men playing rugby, but Collins gives a deeper background.

“The split was a direct result of the huge popularity of rugby in the 1870s and 1880s. It became a mass spectator sport on the same level of soccer – even in Manchester and Liverpool, which were rugby strongholds at the time.

“The problem was the guys leading the game, the guys driving the RFU, had been brought up on the Tom Brown’s Schooldays ideology and they didn’t like the fact that the working classes were not only coming into the game, which was acceptable, but that they didn’t know their place, which wasn’t.

“They were frightened the working classes would take over. Teams in the north weren’t professional per se, but were playing in a professional way – they won a lot – and they provided much of the England team.

“What really tilted the scales was soccer going professional in 1885. That meant former public schoolboys completely lost their dominance in that sport overnight, and their teams never appeared in an FA Cup final again. The RFU saw what happened to soccer and wanted to make sure it never happened to their game.

“And to show that, there’s a great quote from a player of the time – ‘we learned this game with our Latin grammar and we’re not about to give it over to people who don’t understand the philosophy of the game’,” Collins says.

One of the many extraordinary nuggets in the book is the revelation that, on average, boys from the public schools were five inches taller than their non-public school counterparts. Collins points to that as a consideration in the split. “It makes you wonder how the northern teams were able to compete, because, obviously public school kids were bigger, stronger and healthier. And it tells you something else, maybe – those former public schoolkids were playing a game that meant everything to them, against kids who didn’t even look like them – and they were losing. It’s hardly surprising, as a result, the RFU were prepared to go to such lengths to make sure they didn’t lose control of their game. For over a hundred years, then, the vast majority of players came from a very narrow stratum of society. When I researched the backgrounds, I was staggered that, historically, 75% of England internationals came from a public school background, when only 7% of the population attends such schools,” Collins says.

That led to a uniformity of outlook. A couple of years ago, England international, Will Greenwood, suggested that playing international rugby was ideal preparation for the cut-and-thrust of business. The quote rang a bell with Collins. “There’s a lot of sports histories about players and teams, but I felt that Rugby Union, in England, mirrors how the country developed. Over the last 20 years, the national team has improved – Grand Slams, the World Cup, and so on – and that mirrored what was going on in the 1980s and 1990s – Thatcherism and the growth of the City.

“Certain underlying principles stay constant. The thing about the Will Greenwood quote – that amazed me, because I’d already found a quote from 1911 or 1912 where someone had said the same thing, ‘the rugger scrum is great training for the floor of the stock exchange’. That shows how things come around again, which is one of the themes of the book – what starts with Tom Brown’s Schooldays ends with rugby’s re-assertions of traditional principles, despite all the changes that have happened,” Collins says. One of the changes may have stimulated the international game. The split with Rugby League, in England, might have weakened the men in white jerseys, but it may have been the makings of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. “If there hadn’t been a split, there might have been huge implications for the international game. The strongest players, from the north of England, went to League, and, after the split, it took 20 years for England to regain its position as a top international team. Wales dominated after the split and Scotland came on a lot, and both were able to beat England regularly.

“What’s paradoxical is that if the split hadn’t occurred, and England had continued as strong as they’d been, then international rugby mightn’t have developed, because other countries would have been playing a far stronger English team and wouldn’t have won as much, so the appeal wouldn’t have been there.

“It became a big incentive for other countries – Ireland, Scotland and Wales – to beat England. It was something to aim for, and the likes of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa would all aim for that, also. You could say it’s a problem with English rugby that they don’t have an English rugby to target as opponents it’s extremely important to beat,” he says. Given the often privileged backgrounds of professional English rugby players, is Twickenham missing out by not drawing on more disadvantaged constituencies, breeding grounds for professional sportsmen in other codes? “It’s true that many professional sports have people trying to escape their backgrounds, which may be impoverished or disadvantaged. That’s not true of most areas Rugby Union draws on, so that’ll be interesting in the next few years, if the make-up of English teams changes,” Collins says.

A Social History of English Rugby Union, by Tony Collins (Routledge).

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