Rugby: Who’s game is it anyway?

Non Gwilym and Clíona Saidléar

Originally published in 1999/2000, Issue 1– Interstate’s 35th Anniversary Issue

Rugby is an extraordinary game for a number of reasons. In the five nations of the Five Nations Championship, it excites great enthusiasm, but across the five that enthusiasm represents very different hopes, dreams and desires. For some it is a national game, for others it represents a past era, for others it is an arena in which to reproduce class and political division.

By the time this issue of Interstate reaches the printers, we have no doubt that Wales and the wider world will be recovering from a serious and definitely contagious case of rugby fever. Wales has never seen anything like it before. Being selected as host nation to Rugby Union’s greatest extravaganza is a huge undertaking, as anyone following the Western Mail’s daily account of the Millennium Stadium’s not so straightforward, yet steady development would surely agree.

Whilst the World Cup acted as some sort of impetus, the main reason for putting pen to paper lies in this very simple fact – we enjoy rugby. And though we share a huge interest in the game, and “our” teams’ play by the same rules occasionally, the game has a very different meaning for all of us, and for the societies we live in.

In this, the age of deconstructing subjects, five nations rugby seems to us to be a somewhat under-developed field of inquiry. What we present to you therefore, is an insight into how the history of this fine sport, “chase the egg” as a member of staff lovingly refers to it – is in many ways a description of the various practices of the rugby five nations, and tells the story of these islands, past, present and futures.

Here, in Wales rugby is a religion. We have an extraordinary number of heroes (Barry John, Gareth Edwards etc) a place of worship and a hallowed ground (Arms Park/Millennium Stadium) numerous prodigal sons (Scott Gibbs et al ex league players) and now, we even have our very own saviour, the great redeemer Graham Henry.

At school, assembly was a five-minute ‘sermon’ followed by twenty minutes appraisal of the rugby teams fortunes, all five teams – good or bad. We had three assemblies a week – it was a bit much by Friday. Football was hardly ever mentioned from what I recall, and reference to the netball or hockey teams or any girls’ sporting activities were limited to say the least. Classes were cancelled when the school’s first fifteen were involved in the final rounds of the county tournament: a fantastic and legitimate excuse to get out of double home economics on a wet Friday afternoon if there ever was one. Also, the rugby team never seemed to suffer from any sort of cash-flow problems. During my seven years at school I must have sold thousands of raffle tickets to help the funding of rugby trips abroad to such exotic locations as Canada, the USA, and Australia. Once, we arranged a netball trip to Holland. It was cancelled due to lack of interest – not the team’s, I hasten to add. So from a very early age, rugby has been an important part of my life. And my personal experience seems to reflect the experiences of my peers at most of the other schools of South Wales, English or Welsh medium.

In contrast to England, in Wales rugby has traditionally been the game of the working class. Moreover, it is the game of the South Wales Valleys, as the constitution of the Welsh premier league will testify. Rugby then was a game for the macho men of the south Wales working class, as the history of the game – thoroughly researched and enthusiastically documented by such great Welsh historians as Gareth Williams and Dai Smith – have testified. Moreover, this imagery has played an integral part in the traditional, stereotypical portrayal of the Welsh ‘boyo’ – until recently. If you believe the Welsh media, these days rugby is the game of the whole of the Welsh nation and all of the Welsh people, the game of the east and west, north and south alike, the sport of men and women, of interest to the rich, not-so rich and the poor. What has happened?

To claim that rugby is the game of the Welsh working class today, is to ignore a multitude of changes which have rocked the very foundations of the game in Wales and Welsh society as a whole during the past decade or so. For one thing, the nature of the Welsh working class has been totally transformed. Gone are the days when miners and steelworkers ruled and played the game in the Valleys. This is not to claim that the support of the working classes is waning. Rather, that the support is now cross-class, and that the organisation, the funding, sponsorship and the decision-making process are now located in the hands of a new class. A class whose roots are in the old working class but whose children will know a very different class identity.

Secondly, rugby may have been and still is a macho, lads’ game. But women play rugby in Wales today – in fact lots of women play rugby, and thousands more enjoy and even understand it. The truth is, it is far more accessible to women today than it has ever been before. Two ex-members of the Welsh women’s rugby squad are now amongst the most well known rugby commentators in Wales. One of the most popular drama series in the Welsh language this year was the story of a group of bored housewives, somewhere up north whose lives are spiced up thanks to the help and coaching of a smooth-talking rugby fanatic from somewhere down south.

Which leads us on to another characteristic of the game in Wales to date. Mainly its relative secondary status in contrast with football in North Wales. By and large, football is the game of the ‘Gogs’. For example, some northerners would consider Sale to be their local ‘rugger’ side, and Wrexham their local ‘footy’ team. A divide which seems to concern the WRU if the Welsh squad’s pre-tournament tour of the north, and the use of the Cae Ras in Wrexham as location for one of the Welsh groups fixtures are anything to go by.

Lastly, Welsh rugby is now an international game. Gone are the days when the prospect of a South African and a New Zealander playing for Newport, an Australian playing for Cardiff, or a Quinell playing for Richmond, was unthinkable. A New Zealander playing fullback for the national team? A young Australian upstart on the wing? Never say never. Gwl@d, a website dedicated to the current views and gossip regarding Welsh rugby is incredibly successful. A typical message last week read as follows, “Where are you guys watching the opening ceremony in Toronto?” or “Anyone need a lift to Cardiff leaving from Paris?” Proof of a Welsh diaspora rugby nation. There is also a growing sense that members of the Welsh squad are also Welsh ambassadors. Graham Henry sat alongside Alun Michael on the panel of a recent Welsh adaptation of the Question Time programme format. It is fair to say that the great Redeemer’s views on Welsh governance and Independence were given a fairer hearing than the First Secretary’s opinions on say the Jason Jones-Hughes saga. Graham Henry, this man to whom dozens of poems, television programmes, endless biographies and an infinite number of complementary headlines have been devoted, is the hero of the hour. What that says about the state of Welsh politics and Welsh rugby is telling, to say the least.

Cymru is, yn ol pob son, cwl. Recent political developments, and the popularity of Welsh bands and entertainers are proof that the Welsh nation is now being radically re-imagined, and is enjoying the kind of international recognition pundits have deemed it deserves. The opening ceremony of the World Cup promised to be a celebration of all that is best of old and new Welsh talent. (A pity then that the expectation far outdid the event.) In some respects, the story of the 1999 World Cup, modern Welsh rugby, and even the line up for the opening ceremony, all serve as an indicator to the on-going imagining of the Welsh nation today. They serve as indicators to the tensions between old Wales and new Wales, modern Wales and traditional Wales. But now that the last penalty has been kicked, the last scrum played, and as the 72,500 – give or take a hundred or so “lost brown envelopes”- ticket holders side stepped towards the bars of the City Arms or the Old Arcade, one fact remains – even if there is a welcome in the hillside, there will be no need for a welcoming committee for the wooden spoon come the Five nations this year, not for Wales anyway.

Rugby in Ireland is largely seen as a sport for the urban middle-class. The rest of the country devoting itself with obsessive zeal to the Gaelic games of football (the foreign type of football being referred to as soccer) and hurling (not related in any way to excessive drinking), which pits all 32 counties of Ireland into ferocious but friendly (except on the pitch, where bones are occasionally broken) competition with each other. In Northern Ireland Gaelic games supporters are largely nationalist, given the rather political birth of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) during the turn of the century Gaelic revival which later became co-opted into a nation building and winning exercise. The GAA still holds a ban on British forces participating, which under their definition includes the Northern Ireland police force, nor does it allow the playing of foreign games on its soil. Therefore the revered Landsdown road, seat of international Rugby in Ireland, is a mere whisper of a stadium in comparison to the Croke Park (named after a bishop) GAA headquarters.

Given that the nation is entirely gaga over the GAA, who does that leave for the playing of rugby? Well, rugby in Dublin is generally fostered through the schools system rather than a clubs system: mostly through the Jesuits who became the educators of the new middle/upper class elites after the withdrawal of the British, seventy odd years ago. The Jesuits were at the forefront of Irish nationalism at the start of the century and continue to preach staunch nationalism and anti-popery simultaneously in Irish schools (causing some degree of confusion for anti-papist Unionists up north – Paisley et. al), moulding the future leaders of the country through the great character building team sport of rugby. Yet despite the lingering English accent of this class of people, they are almost wholly without historical connection with the imperial establishment. Essentially this class is a curious mixture of the customs, airs and graces of the old British establishment, hence the habit of referring to graduates of these schools as ‘West-Brits’, and new Irish self-confidence. For this class, therefore, the playing of rugby is seen as a mark of ambition and success. Alternatively it can be seen as a mark of snobbery. The small Protestant minority in the Republic, on the other hand, plays rugby as a matter of tradition rather than design, likewise for the rest of the country, where rugby has strong traditional roots in the old garrison towns of the provinces of Connaught and Munster.

In Northern Ireland support for Rugby is overwhelmingly Protestant and middle-class, particularly in the urban areas. Working class Unionists tend to be supporters of soccer as are the Nationalist working class, both communities tending to support teams which correspond with their own particular atavistic tendencies.

Rugby, however, unlike the island is not partitioned. Almost half of the Irish team’s international lineout is from Northern Ireland. The north-south mix has continued with remarkably little controversy over the century. This is perhaps attributable to the somewhat similar class origins and outlook of Rugby supporters, north and south. Despite the great political differences on the island of Ireland, rugby has managed to remain aloof from the conflict.

It wasn’t until very recently that a political question challenged the equilibrium of these reasonably minded, civilised supporters. For years the question of which anthem to play at match openings was dealt with in a gentleman-like manner. The Irish anthem was played when they were in Landsdown road, Dublin and the British anthem when they were in Ravenshill, Belfast. When abroad the foreign band’s members were occasionally imposed upon to learn and play both anthems. It was only as recent as the early 1990’s that Dublin could stomach ‘God Save the Queen’, being played in Landsdown and visa-versa with ‘The Soldier’s Song’ in Belfast. However in the mid 1990’s this arrangement was no longer satisfactory. A new anthem was composed by Northern Ireland’s answer to Phil Collins – Phil Coulter, with an ‘Ireland Ireland,’ chant, to be played after the Irish anthem. This controversy points to interesting changes in the identity of the communities of Ireland since the peace broke out in 1994. Peace and reconciliation for northern, mostly Unionist, followers could be understood as a step closer to a united Ireland. Therefore fears of having their culture imminently subsumed fuelled disquiet with the ‘Ireland’ rugby team’s identity. Some assertion of separateness was called for. Southern followers became increasingly self-confident in their ‘Irishness’ in the 1990’s to the extent that they no longer felt threatened or offended by the British anthem being played on Irish soil. This new found confidence and the resultant lack of deference to London, further worried the northern contingent. The gentlemen followers of southern rugby began to take on a decidedly greener hue than Unionism was comfortable with. Thirdly everyone got a tad carried away with ‘touchy-feeliness’ due to the wave of optimism caused by the peace process, the end of the cold war, peace on earth and Bono singing ‘Let It Be’ flanked by Trimble and Hume in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast. The new all-Ireland anthem seemed to perfectly articulate the desire to stand united, but apart, with ‘parity of esteem’ for all the distinctiveness of the peoples of the island while they were arguing about how nice they were going to be to each other.

Rugby, in the past has reflected political and class differences. The new elite in Dublin betrayed an inferiority complex by using a British yardstick, rugby, as a measure of success. The improved economic condition of the Europeanised Celtic Tiger dispensed with such measures leading to the decline, in recent years, of the extreme social stratification and exclusivity of the game’s supporters. Last year the Ulster team won the European cup in Landsdown, Dublin. The citizens of the Republic were just as ecstatic about the occasion as were they up north. But it has to be remembered that success plays a key role in any ‘coming together’. In the 1980’s when the Northern Ireland soccer team was having a very successful run, support for their endeavours grew to be island wide, crossing all political divisions. Since then their success has waned and so too has their support, to the extent that it is again seen by nationalists as a largely ‘Proddy’ game. Many northern Nationalists will chose to support the Republic’s soccer team against the Northern Ireland team despite the presence of a number of their own ‘Taigs’ on that team.

Scotland to a lesser extent reflects similar social stratification on the socio-political practices and allegiances to the game. The largely working-class Glasgow region is often referred to as ‘little Belfast’, particularly when there is a Celtic/Rangers match being played, which comes with all the frills – parades, painted kerbstones, sectarian songs and violence. Rugby in Scotland is left to the more prosperous eastern regions around Edinburgh, their socio-political qualities betraying much the same post-colonial/peripheral characteristics as the Irish rugby supporters.

France’s inclusion in the Five Nations is of course an attempt to rewrite history to incorporate France back into the central role in these islands. It is quite evidently the attempt to reinstate the Normans as the monarchs, leaders and first amongst the nations, on these islands. And most recently the inclusion of Italy of course leads to its own obvious conclusions, although taking us back to the Romans is probably overdoing it. The lack of comment on the English nation’s relationship to rugby also stems from the realities of the socio-political understandings surrounding the game. There is scant academic interest in theorising England and certainly no discussion of any evolution in that ambiguous identity post-devolution. This is hardly the place to begin to redress that void, suffice it to note its absence. Any takers?