Prizewinning historical account of Rugby Union in England

Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire

Tony Collins
A Social History of English Rugby Union
288 sidor, inb.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2009
ISBN 978-0-415-47660-7

Tony Collins is best known for his two excellent academic histories of rugby league that debunk many of that game’s myths while asserting its social and cultural significance. These histories explore broader issues of class, empire, masculinity and the often fractious struggles that take place within civil society institutions. They are histories that set the bar high for this foray into the other British oval ball game with its own mythologies of class, masculinity and empire – rugby union. The book does not disappoint.

One of the things all football codes have in common is their close association with locally significant if not dominant forms of masculinity, often with specific class and national flavours; almost all codes share a common origin – although Gaelic football was, in some versions of its origin stories, specifically designed as an anti-English code meaning it can be seen as having elements of being an anti-football football, while the indigenous influence on Australia football remains contested (in this instance, Collins seems to align himself more with the Rugby School origin than the indigenous origin). The three dominant football codes in England – Association (soccer), Rugby Union and Rugby League – all share public school origins and were all originally codified around the same time. There is good evidence that the initial plans for the Football Association were that there would be rules covering the handling and non-handling versions of the game, that eventually became the various forms of rugby, including American and Canadian football , and soccer respectively (Adrian Harvey’s outstanding Football: The First 100 Years shows this clearly to be the case). The final decisions in 1863 resulted only in the kicking game being codified by the Football Association; the handling game was finally codified in 1871 along the lines most associated with Rugby School (hence the name). Despite the myths surrounding origin claims, these are modern rationally designed games.

Collins’ previous work on rugby league, especially his 1998 book Rugby’s Great Split, takes apart simplistic and monocausal relations and explanations by showing that the question of control of the culture of the game was as important in the split as the more obvious and immediate question of payment to players for wages lost due to time away from work to play. Collins returns to that question of cultural control in his debunking of rugby’s mystical origin myth that in 1823 William Webb Ellis ‘picked up the ball and ran’ during a football match at Rugby School, thus ‘inventing’ the handling game. This myth is classically Barthesian; it is not entirely untrue – Webb Ellis existed and went to Rugby, the Rugby version of the game did allow handling. But, as Collins notes, the story appeared over 50 years after the event and gained popularity only when soccer began to develop its working class strength and rugby in the north of England gained popularity in working class communities; that is, the Webb Ellis myth emerged at a time when rugby’s class origins as a middle and upper class game needed to be asserted and protected. And yet, in 1987, International Rugby Board perpetuated the myth by naming its ‘world cup’ the Webb Ellis trophy.

Collins’ overall case that making sense of rugby union means making sense of the broader dynamics of English views about themselves is here constrained by two important factors; this is a history of English rugby union, and it ends in 1995 with the final acceptance of professionalism in the game. It also follows a broadly chronological structure, but each chapter is thematic exploring the mythic origins of the game in public schools and its subsequent significance in schools more generally, dealing with the intense debates about the amateur status of players and the Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) obsession with stamping out rugby league, the various ways the game’s hierarchy positioned itself around outbreaks of war as well as the presence of the game in the armed forces, rugby’s specific and often idiosyncratic assertions of masculinity and manliness, its claims to and assertions of class identities, the various ways in which the game might be played – or what we might think of as the science and spirit of the game, its place in empire and the Commonwealth, and finally its commercialisation.

A recurrent theme is the RFU’s attempts to protect the game from what it seemed to see as a context of corruption that it equated with commercialisation which it equated with professionalization. There is a potent sense in which the RFU saw the game as being about the players only. This led to its rejection of organised competition in the form of national leagues until the 1970s, and even then Collins shows it as ‘forced’ into action by the development of unofficial ‘Merit Tables’ (p 190). Its opposition to league tables and the language used to condemn them in the 1970s showed how little it had changed since it expressed its opposition to league competition in Lancashire and Yorkshire during the 1890s.

A cartoon lampooning the divide in rugby. The caricatures are of Rev. Frank Marshall, an arch-opponent of payments and James Miller, a long-time opponent of Marshall. The caption underneath reads:
Marshall: “Oh, fie, go away naughty boy, I don’t play with boys who can’t afford to take a holiday for football any day they like!”
Miller: “Yes, that’s just you to a T; you’d make it so that no lad whose father wasn’t a millionaire could play at all in a really good team. For my part I see no reason why the men who make the money shouldn’t have a share in the spending of it.”

The book is well constructed for academic and more general readers, and Routledge attempted (unsuccessfully) to position it as a mass market title. Each chapter opens with a vignette about a particular key match that encapsulates the point of the chapter and anticipates many of the issues to be drawn out. In doing so Collins highlights key aspects of English class relations and gender formations as embodied (literally) in rugby, and also helps orientate the book to a wider audience by building a path-through-the-game to the issues explored in each chapter.

This is a social history in the best traditions of that approach. It explores social ideas, ideals and ideologies of gender, class, empire and sporting activities; it tells a tale of the making of modern England through one of its more contested sports and one of its most recalcitrant sporting bodies. Despite Collins’ access to RFU records and his detailed analysis of things such as player occupations, schools attended and the locations of clubs affiliated to the RFU – all important markers of the sport’s social associations – the case he makes prompts a number of further questions. First, as is the case with many other sports histories, we know very little about the clubs themselves, noting that clubs are notoriously difficult things to get much information about, although many rugby clubs have great longevity. Second, as a social history this leaves unanswered many cultural historical questions about internal and external depictions of the game.

The third major question is one where there is much to do. Rugby’s embodiment of class, gender and imperial relations deserves much more exploration – that is, rugby union seems to be a useful way to tell the broader story of 20th century men’s bodies. Joanna Bourke, in her exceptional Dismembering the Male, an analysis of men’s bodies during and after WW1, shows just what a good history of the body can be; it seems to me that these kinds of questions are the things we should be exploring through sports history where use of the body is the central feature of sports participation. Collins’ decision to end the book in 1995, with the acceptance of professionalism, implicitly points to a clear shift in rugby’s bodies – in the ensuing 18 years players’ size and body shapes have changed so that they no longer resemble the ‘ordinary’ men of the amateur era. The amateur era rugby player seemed to embody an ideal of English embodiment, and one that could be casually attained, as with all other success in the sport as idealised by amateurism success was casual. Saying this should not blind us to the changes in embodiment during rugby’s existence; an attempt in 2005 to use then current rugby players in a film reconstruction of the 1905 Wales-New Zealand match ran into difficulties when players ‘looked wrong’ and hence the game ‘looked wrong’. Bourke’s analysis of post-war Britain through her investigation of cultural and medical-scientific literature about men’s damaged bodies shows what a good cultural history of embodiment can do; sports historians should consider and explore these issues more to open up our role in cultural histories. There are vital explorations of masculinity to be carried out.

These are not the questions Collins set out to answer, however, and the point is not that he should have answered or even asked them – but that his social history of English rugby prompts the questions about rugby’s constituent parts, its clubs, and its cultural significance, its cultural texts and its players’ bodies. He paints a compelling picture of a game that throughout its amateur era remained culturally and ideologically associated with Tom Brown, with the myths of public school ideals and with the defence of a specifically classed view of the world; he also suggests that those ideals and that ideology remains in the professional era of the game – but that is a different story. The book won the British Society for Sports History’s prize for the best book in sports history in 2009; the win was totally justified; it is, quite simply, superb (even the bits I disagree with).

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2013

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