Rugby union: played in heaven or trapped in purgatory?


The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan has, for one former England international, placed the sport on an unprecedented “knife edge”.

High tackling and refereeing controversies have, in Ugo Monye’s view, displaced skill and tactics as the main talking points.  From this point of view, the game is now a troubling spectacle of physical danger and technological capture.

It is a pressing problem for contemporary contact sports like the rugby codes, and American and Australian football.

For much of the last century there was comparatively little interest in athlete safety.  The various codes of football were physical pastimes borne out of chaotic folk physical play in which participants could be badly hurt.  Rules were gradually introduced to manage the mayhem, especially as a sport industry began to develop in industrial societies, starting with Britain.

The late 19th-century Olympic revival gave sport a noble face, but there was ultra-violence in some of the Ancient Games, such as the pankration, which according to some historical accounts made cage fighting and the UFC look like a model of sporting restraint.

Certainly, underpinning the very idea of modern sport was the regulation of physical contests.  This process of sportisation entailed the introduction of rules not just to reduce the carnage that could arise from ungoverned sport, but a preoccupation with performance measurement and scoring that could captivate fans and energise bookmakers alike.

Rugby union offers a compelling test case of how sport has developed.  A so-called hooligan’s game played by gentlemen, its origins in Britain moved from the village green to the elite public (fee-paying) schools.

Rugby mutated into a test of manliness, especially for those who were to populate the officer class destined to fight – or at least to lead – in imperial wars.

It also figured in the fantasies of the male members of the ruling class who, from their estates in the shires or grand homes in the cities, were prone to mythologise the muddied exploits of their boyhoods.

This inherently tough game was stubbornly amateur, disparaging the practice of being paid to play – a luxury that could be afforded by its privileged strata.  But the game, having escaped the schools, was now operating alongside professional sports such as association football (soccer) and cricket.

For this reason, rugby league broke away from its parent in 1895, as players demanded to be compensated for travel, injury and time.  It took almost nine decades for rugby union to follow suit as a professional sport, although in many parts of the world, such as France, ‘shamateurism’ had taken hold long before.

Indeed, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed that, as it became more organised and industrial, rugby union developed its own class structure, with the forwards doing the hard physical work like the proletariat, while the bourgeoisie of backs (from which ranks captains were drawn) directed the unglamorous toil of the game’s new working class.

At the elite level, rugby became much more visible to the general population through the media, especially television.  Its brutality could be both minutely inspected and, if outside the rules, negatively sanctioned.  At Japan 2019, all television viewers can watch and hear descriptions of every crunch of bone on muscle.

The 21st century ushered in, apart from high-definition television, late-modern notions of risk and new versions of masculinity.  Parents became less compliant about accepting the dangers of a sport that, in a small number of catastrophic cases, could result in paraplegia and other serious injury.  The largely unexamined notion that boys and men should suffer in macho silence and ‘play hurt’ was also being questioned.

A game that once was open to a range of bodily types narrowed in its physical range in favour of size.  Backs, historically teased as prima donnas by forwards, are increasingly as big as forwards in earlier periods, while forwards have become even larger.

The physical and psychological toll on players, especially those whose primary employer is a club but who are expected to represent their country in the Six Nations, Super Rugby and the World Cup, has increased along with the speed of the game. The increasing use of mouth and head guards has done little to assuage anxieties that this game may have become too dangerous.

Concerns about traumatic and degenerative brain injury, in particular, have led to increased vigilance about injuries to the head, leading to some complaints that tough spontaneity is being lost and caution encouraged.

All this has been taking place during a boom in women’s rugby, which is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.  The sport once monopolised by men and symbolising their masculinity now has many grassroots and elite female practitioners for whom, as their game professionalises, the same risks are manifest.

Adjustments to the game at junior level, and the global development of the less physically perilous Sevens game, have to some degree addressed these issues.  Still, there are louder demands that, for example, tackling should be banned among school-age players.

But, in the global spectacle of the 15-player game at the men’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, the attritional combat of rugby union is at its most advanced and watched.  Each further limitation on how contact should be performed leads necessarily to more infractions, send offs, suspensions and, inevitably, controversies.

The outcome is more complaint from the old school that the game is being emasculated, and greater demands for restrictions from those who want to lessen the risk of harm.  The game that proclaims that it is “played in Heaven” now often finds itself in Purgatory, trapped between the thrill and dread of its sporting spectacle that it has created.

Previously published by On Line Opinion October 9, 2019, and licensed under a Creative Commons License (some rights reserved).


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David Rowe, FAHA, FASSA, is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bath; and Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London. His latest book is Making Culture: Commercialisation, Transnationalism, and the State of ‘Nationing’ in Contemporary Australia (co-edited, Routledge, 2018). David’s work has been translated into Chinese, French, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Arabic.


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