It seems in Rugby Union the translation of tempora mutantur is plus ça change: Since the last Rugby World Cup was staged in England (1991), rugby has moved from the days of amateurism to full professionalism in all the top leagues around the world. What started as a scraped together first event in 1987 in New Zealand that was to change Rugby forever, the Rugby World Cup has morphed into the third biggest sporting event in the world after the Football World Cup and the Summer Olympics. Organisers have sold almost all of the 2.3 million tickets, while television broadcasts the entire competition in many countries for the first time. The World Cup (in public perception, media coverage and economic interests in sponsorship and hospitality) remains the “lifeblood of the game, underpinning its growth worldwide”, also providing support to the minor nations where rugby is not financially self-sufficient.
Even in the UK, the extent of rugby coverage was minimal compared to that of the football Premier League. Especially after the omnipresent notion of a “legacy” around the London Olympics 2012 and the inclusion of rugby as an Olympic sport in Rio next year (for the first time since 1924 and only the fifth time ever), there is a feeling that now is the time for rugby to take the next step as a fast-growing sport. Women’s rugby is on the up; the highly successful Women’s World Cup in France last year was won by England and led to partial professionalisation of English women’s rugby. Rugby is also growing in non-traditional locations like the US, Russia and Germany, and the English Rugby Premiership is flourishing after a season that Times pundit Stephen Jones repeatedly labelled the “best ever”.
The sociology of rugby is fascinating, easily historically traceable and more pronounced than football’s, affecting current traditions and social elements, together with the unique nature of the game. Even 20 years after professionalisation, rugby is still caught between tradition and modernity, arguably looking for an identity like never before.
Rugby Union, the more common of the two rugby codes (League and Union), shares its roots with football and other traditional and often regional European ballgames. Descended from various Classical ballgames, rugby can be identified in embryonic form in games like Calcio Storico in Florence, La Soule in France, the Jedburgh or Kirkwall Ba Game in the Scottish Borders and on the Orkneys, Caid, a predecessor of Gaelic Football, Cnapan in Wales (attested from the 9th century by Nennius as a nameless ball-game), and Viking Knattleikr, recorded independently in five Icelandic sagas.
It is noteworthy that many of the medieval games were played predominantly in regions where modern-day rugby caught on and became the most popular sport, for instance in South Wales and the Scottish Borders. Unsurprisingly, given the later codification of both football and rugby in England, it was mainly in Britain that medieval football games flourished, as depictions of so-called mob-football show.
While the historical, more rustic forms declined in early modern times, the codification of Rugby Union Football and Association Football followed in the 19th century, resulting in the modern games.
Public schools and universities played a crucial role in the rugby’s initial spread. While a vaguely rugby-like game was first attested to have been played in a university context as early as about 1300 (The earliest reference to ball games being played by university students comes in 1303 when “Thomas of Salisbury, a student of Oxford University, found his brother Adam dead, and it was alleged that he was killed by Irish students, whilst playing the ball in the High Street towards Eastgate”), it was rugby rather than football that was then taken up especially by the upper classes, first in public schools and specifically at Oxford and Cambridge, who have played annual Varsity matches since 1872. This contributed to the specific culture of rugby with the notion of amateurism and fair play enshrined in the core of the game, as well as in the rules. This is illustrated by the creation of Rugby League, a game deemed more suitable for a working class context, initiated by the Northern English movement to introduce professionalism in the form of compensation payments for missed hours of work – something frowned upon at the time by the elitist Rugby Football Union. Rugby Union, like cricket and tennis (which only opened the game to professionals in 1968), was seen as a pastime not for professionals, but for people who could afford it.
The culture of the sport was transferred with rugby’s spread to other countries across the British Isles and the globe and to non-elitist contexts. In England, the rural Southwest and West became Rugby heartland, with some strongholds in the Midlands and London. In Ireland, the English upper-class game originally became a sport of the English-rooted ascendancy, but also regional to Munster and especially Limerick. In Wales it got taken up by Southern Welsh miners in the Valleys, but subsequently became a ‘Welsh religion’, though now under serious threat from football. In France, rugby established itself in the rural south, among the peasants especially along the Pyrenees and in the Basque country – though it was initially introduced by students (like in Romania, Georgia and Argentina). In Scotland, the game flourished mainly in the Borders and among the upper middle classes in Lothian and the universities. In New Zealand, rugby is the popular sport played by everyone, from hinterland framers to urban Maori and Polynesian populations, and fulfils a strong integrative function: the All Blacks are almost a national symbol of their own; about a quarter of 40 suggested national flags for New Zealand resemble the All Blacks’ shirt colour or emblem, while three of four in the closer selection are reminiscent of the team.
South Africa’s Troubled History
South Africa is a special case in that rugby traditionally was and predominantly still is the sport of the white population, leading to South Africa largely being banned from international competitions during apartheid. Allegations of racism in selection in South Africa are the biggest blight on the otherwise exceptionally inclusive ‘game they play in heaven’; most recently, the South African coach was accused of racist team selection, though structural inequality and racist structures in the entire system are the likelier culprits for a lack of non-white players. The debate escalated up to the suggestion that the selected team might be forced to “surrender their passports, preventing them from flying to London on the grounds that the government’s policy on transformation has not been met with the Springboks’ squad”. Such is the status of rugby in the country that a decision to actually prevent the participation of the Springboks would have been likely to result in severe antagonism if not civil unrest, opposite to how Rugby World Cup 1995 in South Africa achieved small steps towards unification for the long-divided nation. Late former South African President Nelson Mandela, released from imprisonment only five years previously , had openly pledged his support to the Springbok team, a symbol of apartheid to many South Africans who in fact supported their biggest rivals, the New Zealand All Blacks. The picture of Mandela in a Springbok jersey with captain Francois Pienaar is famous; Mandela single-handedly turned the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup into possibly the most meaningful sporting event of all time.
Rugbyis seen by some, like the Agency for New Agenda (ANA) party that took the South African Rugby Union to court, as a “metaphor of disillusionment” at best, a “stubborn refusal by some sections of [South Africa’s] society to change” and a “legalised form of racial discrimination” at worst; 21 years after apartheid, the minority white population still supplies two thirds of the team – by 2019 that ratio is hoped to be below 50%.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki once asserted that if boosting black representation meant losing some more rugby games that would be a price worth paying. While it is hard to argue against this in terms of the overall relevance of sports versus societal change, it does not take into account the role of sport in a society. Sports minister Mbalula sees the quota system as a failed experiment and favours a grassroots approach, focussing on access, equality and excellence, while newspaper columnist Peter Bruce argues quotas do not work if the team loses support, which may lead to more antagonism.
Now retired Springbok captain Jean de Villiers said after the recent upset defeat to Japan, arguably the biggest upset in the history of any sport: “What saddens you is to see how a loss like this can break the country apart. The responsibility we have is to rectify that. Rugby is a game, but in South Africa it more than just a game.” Whether it is such a defeat that breaks the country apart or the continued debate over racial issues (be it the Protea versus Springbok emblem debate or the singing by some only of the Afrikaans (Die Stem) part of the national anthem (Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika), a symbol of African liberation beyond the confines of South Africa) is debatable. It is clear, however, that the team lost to an underestimated Japanese side after weeks of political distractions, then thrashed the more fancied Samoans a week later after focussing solely on the sport again, spooked bythe threat of a first ever pool-stage exit at a World Cup.
Still, the “cultural wars”, as academic Xolela Magcu refers to the events, will persist as long as the issues of representation and inequality continue. The very notion of the existence of different groups will be hard to overcome in any sport and in any country, though rugby with its different kinds of players who combine in a communal effort, and its ideal of inclusiveness, may be better placed than most to achieve a degree of unity. Kaya Malotana, who labelled himself a “quota player” when he represented South Africa in 1999 and emphasised the difficulty of imposter syndrome and conflicting identities, is convinced that South Africa has to overcome its addiction for drama, while there is a “dire need to transform South Africa in all spheres of life and society so that, one day, sport becomes a natural representation of our oneness.”
How a sport can help to move beyond token unity and become instead “a daily effort by all (…) to create a fertile environment in which our children have genuinely equal opportunities” can be seen in grassroot efforts like the rugby charity Bhubesi Pride. Founder Richard Bennett believes that “similar to Bhubesi Pride [or its football and basketball equivalents] across Africa, the South African government should invest time, money and human resource in growing mass participation grassroots rugby development programmes, outreach initiatives and effective player pathways.” Bhubesi Pride has been bringing rugby and its values: respect, teamwork, sportsmanship and discipline, and with it valuable opportunities and education to underprivileged children across Eastern Africa since 2011.
The underlying beliefs and set of values that could be taken right from a playbook of 19th century elites mentioned above in their competitive but ultimately leisurely sport are still the same as in the early public schools. Rugby, according to Bennett, can contribute towards instilling in the children of today the values on which we want tomorrow’s society to be built. Similar to the English Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) “Code of Rugby”, Bhubesi aims to “unite, empower and inspire” with rugby’s core values and life-skills. Much of this harks back to the amateur era when rugby was seen as an instructive instrument to prepare young men for life and leadership. In doing so, the focus is on “meeting the needs of the community”. Projects like Bhubesi, as well as the World Rugby federation’s supports for the game in financially weaker countries, despite recent criticism from Pacific Islands expert Dan Leo, shows the strong focus on development in international rugby.
Moreover, the notion of education and the educational value of rugby (as well as Association Football) was present in the very roots of the modern game, distinguishing it from the often dangerous and lawless rural mob-football. The idea was to channel naturally occurring aggression in adolescents, while personal contact with the opponent can have character-building effects if the right attitude and spirit is in place. Hence the old adage of rugby being asport for thugs played by gentlemen. Or as Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said, rugby is a “ferocious way of not killing your neighbour”.
Rugby prides itself on having ideals of fair play, with games at every level still always ending in a guard of honour, and respect for the opposition and the referee being taught to players from a young age. Rugby’s inclusiveness can also be seen in the positive reaction of the rugby public to the coming out of some homosexual members of the rugby community like referee Nigel Owens and former Welsh international Gareth Thomas, who wrote his award-winning memoir Proud about his struggles before his coming out. He got invited to a German sports talkshow where he famously stated that not a single person in Rugby had distanced himself from him as a reaction.
Another example is that the Republic of Ireland has always been represented together with Northern Ireland by only one team unlike in other sports where both countries play for themselves, sharing shirt, flag and an anthem. This practice continued even during “the Troubles”, with some famous stories of the respect paid to the England team that showed up in 1973 despite threats of terrorism. There was not even booing from the crowd during the anthems when God Save the Queen had been played when England played at Croke Park (scene of the killing of 14 civilians by ‘Black and Tan’ police auxiliaries on the original Bloody Sunday, November 21st 1920) for the first time (2007). Instead, there was a sustained ovation of applause.
The British and Irish Lions also encapsulate the spirit of the sport, as well as the historic reasons for its element of unity. The best players from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland tour one of the three Southern Hemisphere superpowers together once every four years. For that period, national identity boundaries are all but forgotten, an international bonding experience of rare dimensions.
This can be seen even at the highest level at this year’s event: England coach Stuart Lancaster, after some rather traumatic English indiscipline at the last World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, appeared to have picked a team based on character as much as skill or talent, as the omission of virtually every player with a disciplinary record showed. When looking at the hot favourites, New Zealand and Australia, it is interesting to note that both of these teams also have a clear statement of identity in place or have introduced an explicit team culture, as described also by the successful Argentina team that surprisingly came third at the 2007 World Cup. The bigger picture is sometimes part of this, as in the case of Lancaster’s quest to establish an element of specific Englishness in his team, something perceived to be missing. It should not come as a surprise that the mutual benefit of creating a positive team culture and success for a team and thus an identity for a whole community can be attested by the successes of two of the most successful teams in their respective sports in recent times: Germany at football and the New Zealand All Blacks at Rugby. The latter are even held up as models for leadership and business skills. Moreover, both of these examples also feature high levels of inclusivity in their team cultures and the composition of their squads: while the mixed nature of the New Zealand team is already an established tradition, Germany’s improvement in both style and success at major football tournaments coincides with the evolution of a team that is much more representative of its modern multicultural society. In turn, the success and the identification factor of the team led to a fertilisation of a new national identity, though there is no agreement on whether the new German nationalism is a positive or a negative phenomenon.
In a similar vein, the Rugby Paper’s Nick Cain calls for the home World Cup to be used to fly the flag for a multicultural English society with the modern, integrated multi-ethnic English team featuring players with varied backgrounds from New Zealand, South Africa, Tonga, Samoa, the Caribbean and African countries. Class boundaries are still visible in the composition of the English national team, which for many long decades was seen as the preserve of grammar school boys, and in fact more pronounced than in the 2003 World Cup winning team, but with projects like the All Schools Programme, there is a feeling that the tide is turning – with the overall success of the current World Cup playing a huge role.
Rugby is at a crossroads of traditionalism and modernism, torn between the amateur game with its traditional societal and community values and the need to grow the professional game for entertainment and sponsorship deals. It is also performing very different roles within its respective societies, from a fringe sport of a few insiders, the sport of a specific part of the population as it once was in South Africa and England to the ultimate instrument of integration like in New Zealand. One constant is the absence of hooliganism in rugby at any level and the civilised behaviour of the supporters.
If the former ring-fenced group of former British colonies can be opened up properly to create a truly global game, then the international spirit of the game, where it is not uncommon to hear groups of fans singing another nation’s anthem in pubs during the Six Nations, may yet reach further. The upcoming inclusion in the Olympics is possibly the biggest change for the game since professionalism, especially in countries like the USA and Russia keen to invest in medals. RWC 2019 in Japan is the next step in Rugby Union’s global economic and sporting market development, tapping into a market outside the traditional core, undoubtedly aided by Japan’s surprise win over South Africa at this World Cup.
Soft eligibility rules (with only three years of residency required to be eligible for a country) lead to a player drain from developing countries to Europe, which offers golden opportunities to players looking for lucrative ways of supporting entire families at home: the second biggest source of income for Tonga, the South Sea Island whose population of 100,000 could almost fit into Twickenham, after agriculture is rugby players sending money home from abroad.
There is an even stronger element of a brotherhood in rugby than in most other sports, and partly due to historical, and hence family, connections, many players represent countries other than that of their birth or upbringing. This can be problematic, with alleged player poaching by Australia, New Zealand or France (systematically in the case of some French clubs). But it entails development opportunities for players beyond rugby (again highlighting the educational element), and has also been described as a space for counter-hegemonic collective self-expression. The undeniable further benefit is the breaking-up of mental boundaries and blunting the edges of nationalism, much like the civic nationalism of the SNP has been claimed to do for the Scottish nation. Integration, acceptance and multiculturalism are only likely to benefit from a diversification in national sports teams, sweetening the effects of globalisation with potential success. There may even be hope that future success of a more representative future South African team, once equal opportunity is given to the entire population, may contribute to true unity in South Africa.