by Ian Stewart
Aside from politics, I find both codes of rugby excellent spectator sports, especially rugby union. I can’t say that I like football all that much, excepting an interest that Norwich City stay up, and Ipswich Town do badly.
I know this puts me in a minority, and in some leftwing circles such an admission seems as outrageous as professing a liking for bullfighting.
After all, isn’t the fifteen player game synonymous with class privilege, as in the Jam’s excellent “Eton Rifles” (unlike David Cameron, I actually do understand the point of the song), what chance do we have against a tie and a crest indeed?
From the historic meeting at the George hotel in Huddersfield in 1895, rugby league has been seen as the workers version of the game. True enough, the league sanctioned payment for players, was (and still is) firmly rooted in the working class culture of the industrial north, and quickly became the biggest code in more egalitarian Australia. Yet at the top, the game was still controlled by the same hard-nosed men as football, probably best portrayed as the Leeds United and Derby County directors were in the stonking “Damned United.”
Snobbery was out, but although workers could afford to honestly play, there would be no question of any workers control (Incidentally, what a history Huddersfield has – the best choral society, rugby league, the philharmonic, and the last British performance of the Sex Pistols in 1977, a benefit for striking fire fighters, puts other towns to shame.)
Yet in south Wales and south west England, rugby union remained a popular working class sport, both for players and fans. The 1908 county champions, Cornwall represented Great Britain at that year’s Olympics, gaining Silver against Australia, and although a lacklustre match, the team included a true working class hero – Bert Solomon. A shy man devoted to his pigeons, this legendary winger sold the first dummy in international rugby.
The snobbery of the game, so the tale goes meant that after the match ended, he was left to make his own way home, as the gentleman players went of to their clubs for the night. Although selected for four more internationals and a Lions Tour, he refused to play international Rugby again. Englands loss. Yet in Cadrew Close, if you were a good kid and helped him feed his beloved pigeons, then he would, as a treat, show you his England cap.
In Wales, the tradition of miners and steelworkers needs no introduction, yet one player must surely stand out as a shining example of principle. It is perhaps truer of union that the utter bollocks about sport being “non-political” is more clearly demonstrated than anywhere else, save cricket.
For the home nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, this is shown by the history of Lions tours of South Africa during apartheid, and the return Springbok tours of the 1960s and ‘70s. The right-wing old farts simply ignored the United Nations, the Commonwealth and basic decency in providing cultural succour to the racist regime in Pretoria. Almost no player had the moral guts to refuse the invitation to play, apart from Welsh flanker John Taylor.
Part of the legendary flowering of Welsh rugby in the late sixties and through the seventies, Taylor uniquely refused to play in the 1968 Lions tour, and again in 1974, also refusing the Wales jersey when South Africa toured Britain in between. He paid the price – his international career stopped abruptly in 1973, and was refused selection for the Barbarians by right-wing Brigadier Glyn Hughes thus: “He’s not playing. The man’s a communist!”
By the law of unintended consequences, the sanctions-busting Lions tour of 1974 gave heart to anti-apartheid forces within South Africa. Rugby was seen as the sport of Afrikaaner ascendancy, to be so completely, utterly trashed by some of the greatest players on the planet, to be physically beaten by Willie John Macbride’s team gave a small fillip to the opposition. They should never have gone, but it was just as well that they won so comprehensively.
Then there is the utterly appalling shame that was rugby union’s collaboration with Vichy between 1940 and ’42. The French union used its influence to get rugby league banned as “un French”, and profited financially from the seizure of assets. The French league game has never fully recovered, although there are French teams to this day. Yet the photos of the England Soccer team giving the Nazi salute in 1938, and the whole spectacle of the 1936 Olympics show that rugby was not alone in its disgrace.
There are though also highlights to the history of union: Florica Murariu, the captain of the Romanian side, died fighting for freedom on Christmas Day 1989, in the battles that ended the Ceacescu regime. Steven Biko was an avid player, as was Che Guevara, indeed, Guevaras first nickname “fuser” came from his habit of barrelling down the pitch, shouting “here comes FUrious de la SERna!”
The attraction to rugby as a team sport is I think due to the nature of the co-operation required. Unlike football, where England’s finest often seem to put in lacklustre performances and get away with them, any lack of commitment is pretty much instantly penalised, often physically. Yes, there are bad games, and awful tours, but so far during the professional era, it is the players who cop the fans ire, and get the bruises.
Of course, vast amounts of money coursing through the game will eventually leave it in the same position as football, and public schoolboys are certainly overrepresented at international and top club level, but the likes of Brian Moore and other tough players from working class backgrounds over the years can still make watching a joy.
This weekend as the six nations’ starts, just forget the posh boys and scandals for the moment, and give rugby a try.
Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs at http://clemthegem.wordpress.com/