tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

On the 120th anniversary of Rugby League

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the creation of the game of Rugby League, when we broke free from the control of Rugby Union. It's also our cup final day, when the entire North hires a couple of charabancs, and heads down the M6/M1, and goes to Wembley. And the day the rest of the country briefly notices that we're still inexplicably insisting on playing our silly Northern peasant game. So this is probably as good a day as any to explain a bit about what this odd game actually is, how it came to be, what it means to those communities that play it.

It's hard being a Rugby League fan. Most people know about rugby, and although the Union version is always first to mind, some people know that there are two types. This sport of ours, so fundamentally culturally important in those tough, battered communities it calls home, has no visibility at all outside. Those who do know the difference sneer and mock, even though they are often the same people who would stand up against class prejudice elsewhere.

And Rugby League in the UK is inescapably tied to social class. In the mid 1800s, there was a belief amongst the university educated types, that introducing the uneducated, rowdy working class to sport would be a means of 'civilising' them. Concepts such as sportsmanship, and the nobility of playing the game for the game's sake were central to this school of thought. Whilst the story goes that a certain Webb-Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, creating rugby, this is almost certainly apocryphal , as football (the dribbling code) and rugby (the running code) slowly emerged as methods of playing a generic 'get the ball to the other end with two teams' sport. Rugby in the North was initially organised through churches, social clubs, and places of work. It caught on rapidly, and fairly soon, the working class teams were regularly beating the upper class teams from the South. This did not go down well. What went down even less well, was that the huge popularity of the sport, and concomitant gate incomes, gave these working class organisations a tremendous clout in the running of the sport, and their philosophies and motivations for the game deviated strongly from its Southern upper class founders. They believed in playing the game for entertainment, and to win. Many individuals within the game saw the great paying attendances as a possible means to generate income. Not important to a toff with his own cash, but an irresistible carrot to a working class lad in the industrial age, where poverty was often extreme, and taking time to train and play meant less income from shift work.

These things came to a head in 1895, a period where the best players in England were frequently being banned for allegedly taking payment, and huge rowdy crowds were attending matches across the industrial North, generating massive gate receipts. In the George Hotel, in Huddersfield, on the 29th August, 22 clubs met, and agreed to form their own competition, free from being told what to do by the upper crust. So the 'Northern Rugby Union', later the 'Rugby Football League' was formed.

(This story is explored in fascinating length in the wonderful book 'Rugby's Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football' by Tony Collins. Simply the most intelligent thing I've ever read about this basically illiterate sport.)

The most remarkable thing about this great split, is how little things have changed in the intervening 120 years. Of the 22 clubs that broke away, 15 still exist in the professional structure. My own side, Salford, were Johnny-Come-Latelies, joining the code as late as 1896. The game is played in exactly the same geographical area. Attendances have been incredibly stable. And the reaction of the rest of the sporting world towards us has continued to be inexcusable.

Things you may not know.
From 1895 to 1995, if you played a SINGLE game of Rugby League, anywhere and at any level, you were banned from ever playing Rugby Union again. (and branded a 'professional')
Under the collaborationist government in France during WW2, Rugby League was successfully made illegal by the establishment, and all their assets given to Rugby Union. None of this was ever returned, and they were legally banned from using the word 'Rugby' to describe the sport till 1991. When I attended a match at Palau in the Elite 2 division about 6 years ago, the refreshment stand had been burned down overnight by Union fundamentalists.
Rugby League is either the second or third most watched domestic sport in the UK, depending on your measure. Yet it basically doesn't appear in the papers at all, or on the news.
The largest attendance for any sporting event in this country was the 1954 Challenge cup final replay between Halifax and Warrington, at Odsal in Bradford. The official attendance was 102,000, but unofficial estimates, from counting overhead photos are confident it was in excess of 120,000. That is considerably greater than the population of both competing towns combined. You can see wonderful footage of this event here.
The head of Rugby League in the UAE was recently arrested and thrown in jail, simply for promoting the game. His arrest was prompted by the Rugby Union approaching the UAE government with the charge that by using the word 'Rugby' in his promotions, he was committing fraud against Rugby Union.

What explains this remarkable grudge against Rugby League? The Rugby Union never forgave League for splitting. League had betrayed their principles of amateurism, sportsmanship, and the nobility of sport, and had replaced it with professional players, playing to win, and entertainment. This wasn't just a disagreement about the rules, this was a complete class war. How dare the working class steal this noble sport, bastardise it, and worst of all, make it POPULAR, with rule changes designed to appeal to the spectator?

The Rugby Union made damn sure it couldn't spread further in this country. Wales, which would have been ripe for conversion, having a very similar social and economic structure to the North of England, was just too far away in 1895 by public transport to participate in the breakaway, and although a number of clubs tried to join, they found the travel prohibitive. The Union made sure that professionalism went no further by using their establishment connections to ban all reporting of the game outside the North. Great efforts and expense went to ensuring that other clubs were not tempted to join up to the new code, and the game was soon ghettoised into what is today the M62 corridor.

Oddly, it's this containment that has conspired to make the game what I love today. In an era of over the top sports coverage, obscene pay packets, and teams made up of players entirely from abroad, Rugby League offers a refreshing community based approach to professional sport. Today at Wembley, Hull Kingston Rovers will play Leeds for the Challenge Cup, and a great many of the players will belong to the communities they represent. They will have grown up watching these teams play, and on their very modest wages, will live right amongst the community. For many players, today will be the highlight of their professional life. Most will go on to be brickies, PE teachers, or taxi drivers when they retire. Even where foreigners play the game, they become a huge part of the community. There's a strong Fijian community in Rochdale, who have settled there entirely as a result of a collaboration over decades with Rochdale Hornets Rugby League Club.

I own many books, including 2 shelves of cricket books, but I only have 4 books on rugby league. It's not that I don't want to own them, it's that aside from poorly ghosted autobiographies, they almost don't exist! Because the players come from deprived communities where education is tough and limited, and sport is a rare means of making oneself, it's a sport without the intellectual foundation to explain itself. Its greatest advocates have often been outsiders from an educated background who have discovered it. Rugby League is caught in a class trap that has both preserved the best and most honest elements of the game, and stopped it from growing and flowering into a much larger entity.

In a North devastated by the decline of industry, Rugby League is more than a diversion. In some towns, it's all that's left. It's all that they have to form unity around, to bind them together, to feel positive about as a community. Anybody who has stood on the crumbling terraces at Wheldon Road in Castleford, or ever been showered by rust when a ball hit the roof of the 'Shed' at the Willows in Salford, could fail to be moved by the enormous sense of community cohesion. Men and women, boys and girls, old and young. Rugby League has the highest proportion of female fans of any major sport in this country. Kids' tickets are free or very cheap at all grounds. And for the fans of Hull KR, this is a very special day indeed. Their desolate, abandoned end of a depressed former dock city, acres of decaying 1920s council houses and empty collapsing warehouses, generations of unemployment, suddenly transported to Wembley in vibrant singing Red and White. This isn't about sport at all. This is about living, positive community. About not being socially beaten, regardless of the score at the end. And every club sends coaches of fans to the final, as the final belongs to the sport, not just the two competing sides.

And all the fans will mingle freely and without incident, because to be a Rugby League fan is to be part of a community of fans first and foremost. Ignored by the media unless something bad happens, when everyone else gets a chance to confirm their prejudices against the residual working class, harassed by Rugby Union, always teetering on the edge of insolvency, we know that our sport comes first, because without it we've lost the last thing to be proud of. The one thing that's not been closed down, demolished, or made more cheaply overseas.

So don't begrudge us our sport. Don't belittle it. I've not tried to make a case for it being a better game than anyone else's. You can get tied in knots doing that sort of thing. I've not tried to explain the rules. You'd pick up the basics in 5 minutes. It's not a complex game. But it is fast, exciting, and skilful, as well as physically uncompromising, and it should be a good match today. If you're free from 3pm, give it a go, it's live on BBC telly. Even if it's not your sort of thing, it might be good to understand what it is, and why it matters so much to those who do love it. You might find it a pleasant antidote to the manufactured and overblown world of sport we see all too often on our screens.

Mine's a Bovril! See you on the terrace.
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