Rugby union: it’s not just for the posh boys

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

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8 Responses to “Rugby union: it’s not just for the posh boys”

  1. Robert says:

    I can remember watching clips of the 1974 Lions tour and wondering why the Lions had so much support. It was from the non-white part of the ground.

    I don’t care what happens in the Six Nations as long as Wales beat England in Cardiff.

  2. Ian Stewart says:

    Robert – that should be a great match. I will be shouting for England, but I am hoping for a good game. Incidentally, it was at a rugby game that Land of My Fathers was first sung as the National Anthem in welsh, in response to the Haka. The same goes for Flower of Scotland – Murrayfeild 1968.
    Have just watched Taylor’s legendary kick from the 1971 Five Nations match against Scotland , which has been called “the best conversion since Jesus”. Thanks to youtube you can also watch the 1974 Springboks getting creamed, and it is an absolute joy every time…

  3. An absolute prohibition on the use of foul language on the field of play has long worked perfectly well in rugby. And I mean both codes, so this is not about class or what have you. Why should it not also work in football?

    Why does the Welsh working class so love the game of those who gave it its martyrs at Tonypandy? Other than cricket (arguably – it is very much the summer game of the old mining communities in these parts, and the old pit villages often have remarkable grounds to reflect that fact), rugby is quite the least likely game for such implacable foes of the ruling class of yesteryear.

    For that matter, why do the Boers, of all people, love rugby, of all sports? Mind you, the supposed Tories in the present Cabinet managed to love the Boers and their anti-British revenge republic, which would have been just as improbable if they had really been Tories at all. I understand that rugby was, and to an extent still is, a way of expressing a Basque or Catalan identity in south-western France, distinct from the football-loving French.

    In Argentina and Chile, although it is a small minority pursuit in those countries, it is nevertheless a way of expressing longstanding ties to Britain, and especially to Wales in the Argentine case; there were far more British subjects living in Argentina than on the Falkland Islands at the time of the Falklands War, for example, and Welsh is still spoken in part of Patagonia.

    In Portugal, it is a way of expressing very longstanding ties to England specifically, like the use of the GMT and BST that Spain is also considering adopting, like the popularity of Cadbury’s chocolate, and like the making available of the Azores during the Falklands War. In Australia and New Zealand, the link is obvious. In Italy, it goes back to Welshmen who went over there to work in the mines.

    But in Wales, in South Africa, in the Scottish Borders – isn’t it just a bit English, and posh English at that, for them? What is the story there, as there must surely be one? But then, look at the cricket-playing (and the Episcopalianism) in the Scottish North East, in no sense an Anglicised area, but rather one where the SNP has long done well electorally.

    For that matter, look at the popularity, real or otherwise, of football among the English middle classes since 1990, even though England has not won an international football tournament since 1966 (at home), when football was pretty much a working-class peculiarity, although they had only ever been taught it by public school curates who had wanted to give their young male parishioners something to do in their spare time.

    There is a book in here somewhere. So much so that someone must surely have written it by now. Ian Jack, perhaps. Or David McKie. Someone like that, anyway. Does anyone know?

  4. Ian Stewart says:

    I think that the genesis of most team sports and their modern codes gets traced back to the public school system, where aristocratic pupils were being taught by “inferior” masters. They needed a way of exhausting and disciplining the boys – and channelling teenage high spirits.
    There have been versions of football around for centuries of course, with mass participation games on high days and holidays.
    The growing middle class popularity of football since 1990, is a phenomenon that is perhaps intertwined with Sky and the Premier League, and the drenching of that game in money.
    In Ireland, union was for many years seen as a protestant preserve, although it certainly is not so now. I think in some cases, the loyalty to Rugby union as opposed to football is seen as part of a regional/national identity – Wales, Cornwall, and perhaps the Scots Borders, as well as in northern Italy, around Venice.
    If you find that book David, let me know…

  5. Ian, I have an awful feeling that I might need to write it. Once the next three, four or five are out of the way…

    In Ireland, rugby’s popularity, at least during international tournaments, indicates to the extent to which “Castle” Anglo-Irishness is integral to, and in many ways definitive of, Irish identity as a whole, which exists plainly and simply within that of this Archipelago and of the ties that bind it, for good or ill, to the world that the Irish, no less than anyone else, went out to conquer and to colonise.

    In Fiji, the game’s followers are the indigenous and long-Christian Melanesians (notably, most of whom are Methodists, which recalls Wales, and the playing of Rugby Union as a working-class game in the North East, unlike in Yorkshire and historic Lancashire), who are now a minority, while the descendants of Indian indentured labourers have come to predominate in what has become a republic. But the President is nevertheless elected by the Great Council of Chiefs, which continues to acknowledge the Queen as Paramount Chief. And the people who look to Her Majesty as their Paramount Chief not only join the British Army in remarkable numbers, but they also play rugby.

    Both being part of the culture of this Archipelago as a whole, and looking to the Queen as Paramount Chief, ought to include the full benefits of the British model of social democracy. The same goes for staunchly Labour and Unionist rugby-loving South Wales, as it does for the Borders, where the SNP gets nowhere. What does it say in Dumfries? “Vote SNP, so that you can no longer use the hospital in Carlisle”?

  6. uglyfatbloke says:

    Game of dreams – personally I dream of Scotland producing a decent team.
    Not so sure about the gnats getting nowhere in the borders. last Holyrood elections saw them do OK on the regional list and they would have done rather better if there had been proper PR.
    Many years ago I read that the demise of Rugby in Germany in the 1930s had a lot to do with it’s popularity among communist and socialist sporting clubs which were suppressed by the nazis..I’d be interested to learn more about that if anyone can help?

  7. AnthonyKelly says:

    What a fantastic thread. As a Labour Party activist I often feel, but never asked, to apologise for loving rugby. This has given me perspective

  8. bigbaldbloke says:

    Just wondering if the Queen is now on the same level, as collaboration with Vichy.

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