Try again

Rugby is not a panacea for all of England's ills.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

England has won the rugby World Cup, and all our problems are behind us.

Apparently, rugby union – a sport ignored by most people in England until about a week ago, and loathed by many – is now a role model for a prouder, healthier, more respectful nation. Yet in our risk-averse and self-doubting times, defeatism can still be snatched from the jaws of victory.

We are told that rugby is going to create a sense of English national pride. ‘We will now see a resurgence of discussion about Englishness’, wrote David Aaronovitch in the Observer. ‘The coincidence of the World Cup victory with two new movies that are centred in notions of England and its history will make sure of that.’(1)

To celebrate the victory, a parade will be held on Monday 8 December; however, even this decision has been beset with fears over terrorist attacks. So we can swell our chests with pride at winning a world championship (the ‘world’ now being the British Isles, one corner of France and three former colonies), but we have to think twice about parading the cup around on an open-topped bus. It’s hardly the Blitz spirit.

The fact that many are fretting about England’s self-image is a measure of decline, not a clarion call to a brighter future. And the fact that nobody seems to have done any contingency planning for a victory parade for the pre-tournament favourites suggests that nobody expected there would be much interest.

Also, as Duleep Allirajah points out elsewhere on spiked, rugby is not football. And since football has become an empty vessel into which all the evils of the world can be poured, this must be a good thing. Commentator Jeremy Clarkson summed up the stereotypical life of the modern footballer: ‘Wake up. Go shopping. Forget drugs test. Spend that day’s wages on a £160,000 Aston Martin. Forget to tax it. Have a roast for lunch. Go to the hairdresser’s. Have a drink. Have another. Have a nose full of coke. And finish off with a racially motivated fight.’ (2)

The implication is that given half a chance, most of the male population would behave in exactly the same way – but now rugby can provide a model for how boys and men should behave. In reality, many of the highest profile players in English football are stay-at-home teetotalers, while 70million extra pints of beer have been downed in English pubs during the rugby World Cup. If nothing else, winning rugby tournaments isn’t doing much for the campaign against binge drinking.

As for clean-living rugby players – fans may have missed the story of three Welsh rugby players up in court this week in France after a barroom brawl. And have any of those commenting on the model lifestyles of rugby players and fans actually been to a rugby club? Has the term ‘rugger bugger’ now been deleted from the lexicon as the term of choice for middle-class chauvinistic oafishness? ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ made the canon of after-match singalongs, not because of a latent concern with slavery, but because of the suggestive hand actions that accompany it – all the trickier to coordinate after downing a few yards of ale.

It has even been suggested that England’s rugby coach Clive Woodward may be the saviour of English football. England may not be worldbeaters just yet, but what could Woodward possibly offer – apart from being an English alternative to be promoted by those still annoyed that England’s football manager is Swedish?

We are also told that rugby is going to inspire a new wave of sport in schools. According to this theory, having high-profile world champions will encourage teachers and pupils to dig out their oval balls and learn the fine arts of scrummaging, rucking and mauling. But rugby in schools has long been in decline, and any hike after the World Cup victory will be a mere blip on an otherwise downward trajectory.

There has been a secular decline in school sports – but with rugby, it’s the fact that kids don’t like the idea of being forced down into mud, with a dozen other players lying on top of them, while someone kicks lumps out of them trying to get the ball out. For all those who say rugby is becoming popular for younger children, it should be noted that this refers to tag-rugby – a game devoid of all the physical contact that is supposed to be character-building. Tag-rugby is, to all intents and purposes, co-educational netball.

Add to this the risk-averse compensation culture which demands that referees, schools and local authorities may be liable for the rare serious accidents that occur, and there seems little prospect of a phoenix-like revival of rugby in schools. Already schools are being warned to get insured and to have properly trained staff to take charge of games. One recent court case involving rugby has found that schools can be held liable for the actions of their pupils on the pitch. (3) Even if there were a clamour from parents for more rugby, would the schools be willing, or able, to oblige?

Lastly, rugby is supposedly going to influence the next election. The election is at least 18 months away, so any feelgood factor will have passed long before we go to the polls. However, whether any political party could benefit from the rugby factor is another matter. While being associated with success is no bad thing, rugby union carries a lot of baggage.

The last thing the Tories need, when they are feeling more isolated than ever, is something that raises the whole issue of class. Labour will find it difficult to associate itself with rugby, having schmoozed up to everyone and anything to do with football. As Rachel Sylvester in the Daily Telegraph notes: ‘Jonnymania has put Mr Blair in an awkward position. New Labour has always preferred football to rugby. Until now, football has been the more demotic sport, and the “people’s party” has deliberately cultivated an association with the “people’s game” in an attempt to promote a youthful, classless image.’ (4)

Blair tended to give rugby a body-swerve at school. Gordon Brown probably wishes he had – he is partially sighted as the result of playing the game (5). While it is true that there are a few ‘classless’ heroes, like England’s black, northern, born-again Christian winger Jason Robinson, to spread a wholesome moral message, the associations of rugby union with Hooray Henrys and rugger buggers are still too strong for Labour to embrace the game.

The behaviour of the modern footballer is distasteful to New Labour types. But football itself is far too trendy among the middle classes, and too genuinely popular with the working class, for them to ignore. One of New Labour’s big themes has been the need to tackle social exclusion. Well, World Cup or no World Cup, the kids on the sink estates are not going to be running around with an oval ball any time soon, although they do seem to enjoy the odd ruck. Trying to overcome the disengagement of young people through football is a project doomed to failure. Attempting the same thing with rugby is ridiculous. Whatever next? Golf?

There are many people who enjoy watching and playing rugby and their numbers may swell for a little while. Let’s leave them to get on with it. But to assume that rugby can solve all sorts of other problems is wide of the mark. Nice try.

Read on:

Rugby and union?, by Mick Hume

Offside, 27 November, by Duleep Allirajah

(1) English actually, Observer, 23 November 2003

(2) ‘Rugger mustn’t replace football’, Sun, 24 November 2003

(3) Lawyers warn of legal ruck, Western Mail, 27 November 2003

(4) Labour discovers a sudden affection for rugby union, Daily Telegraph, 26 November 2003

(5) Gordon Brown: Having the time of his life, Guardian, 26 September 1998

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Topics Politics


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