'Why football will always trump rugby'

Posted by ap507 at Oct 12, 2015 11:05 AM |
John Williams discusses the nation's attitude towards rugby in comparison to football
'Why football will always trump rugby'

Source: Leicester Mercury; A view of Twickenham during the Rugby World Cup clash between England and Wales

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk

Where were you after the autumn's sporting disaster story, England's defeat by Australia in the Rugby World Cup? Were you hungover, under the covers perhaps? I was in Bloomsbury, London, thanks for asking.

In the capital, the sporting world still seemed to be moving smoothly on: the Miami Dolphins fans were at large, their club incongruously hosting the New York Jets at Wembley. Arsenal were welcoming Manchester United. There were no obvious signs here of national grief.

I was in London to do an interview for the German ARD television channel. The interviewer was slightly bemused. Why, he asked, did intelligent pumped-up men in England, Wales, Australia and New Zealand play rugby while those in Germany seemed perfectly capable of resisting its attractions?

I said something about sport and Empire – the British upper and middle classes civilising its ex-colonies, teaching them leadership and courage via cricket and this peculiarly brutal masculinity test. And how some parts of the world – New Zealand, South Wales, Fiji – had managed to spread the game downwards by almost defining their national identity through rugby.

He still seemed confused: middle class men in Germany, he argued, seemed rather more sensible then their English equivalents. He had me there.

Apart from areas in the south-west – another story – rugby union in England has struggled to escape its educational enclave of the south east and the public schools, a hangover from the split with football and union's resolute amateur roots. Even today, as working men – farmers and builders – play professional rugby, two-thirds of the current England squad were privately educated.

There are large cities in the north of England – Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle – where union, or its poor class relation rugby league, barely registers against football. Rugby has meagre Premiership club outposts and the narrow M62 league corridor. Ironically, England are finally wrenched to play in the north when the World Cup dream is already over. Terrible planning.

But union is also facing another problem today: its sheer physicality. Once, rugby people rightly swooned over the glide and side-steps of the Welsh poets, Barry John and JJ Williams. Now the gasps come increasingly for demonstrations of sheer power: what TV calls the "big hits" in midfield. No wonder parents are concerned about injury. Backs and forwards seem almost indistinguishable in size, with England league convert Sam Burgess moving seamlessly between the two divisions.

Which means football in England and in most other places in the world still wins out: it remains more democratic and more accessible than union. It is played in state schools, by all sizes and on the streets. The game's greatest player, a certain Argentinian waif, is 5'6" tall and weighs 148lb wet through. Go figure.

John Williams is senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester.

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