Hard. Honest. Beautiful Rugby League Was Forged on the Anvil of Victorian Snobbery. It Grew Ou T of Social and Regional Division, and the Certainty That Twickers Is the Home of Treachery. It's Cup Final Day, and What's Changed? Everything and Nowt, Says Colin Welland

By Welland, Colin | The Independent (London, England), May 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Hard. Honest. Beautiful Rugby League Was Forged on the Anvil of Victorian Snobbery. It Grew Ou T of Social and Regional Division, and the Certainty That Twickers Is the Home of Treachery. It's Cup Final Day, and What's Changed? Everything and Nowt, Says Colin Welland


Welland, Colin, The Independent (London, England)


The young Leeds winger was 18 and had just been selected to play for England in the last World Cup, out of the blue. His eyes shone with the excitement of it all. "Do your Mum and Dad know yet?" asked the TV man. "No," the young man smiled, "they're at work. But I rang me Nana - she'll tell them."

I could have hugged him. In that couple of seconds of uncomplicated, totally up-front reaction before the television millions, this young man had encapsulated all that I love and admire about his great game. It would never have crossed his mind that he was now a celebrity, or that the demands of the media might require him to adopt a more sophisticated persona. He'd rung his Nana. That's what he called her: Nana - so what's the big deal?

Rugby league is like that. I don't want to be folksy about it but it really is. How could it be otherwise, given its roots, and the place it came from? When that clump of Northern clubs broke away from the rugby football union a century ago in 1896, it wasn't just a schism within a game, it was a social revolution. The north, with its raw industrial power base, was beginning to realise its potential. The Labour Party was being conceived. Trade unions were flexing their muscles. Manchester and Liverpool were among the world's most powerful cities. So when that great string of rugby clubs straddling the Lancashire/Yorkshire border discovered that, out of sheer necessity, their players were demanding compensation for lost Saturday wages, they presented their problems to Twickenham. And believe me, they made a substantial lobby. Of the Lions who toured Australia in the early 1890s, 80 per cent were from these northern clubs. If they'd had any common sense at all, the union hierarchy would have realised the value of the Wigans of the rugby world and sought at least to meet them half-way. But even to this day common sense is a rare commodity down Twickers way. And the notorious telegram was dispatched: "If they can't afford to play, they shouldn't play." The northern union was formed in an atmosphere of acrimony that has not diminished over the length of the century. Purple with indignation, the Rugby Football Union set about destroying any ambitions this fledgling association of working- class upstarts might have had. A campaign of attrition was launched against it, almost Stalinist in its attention to detail. I was brought up at my grandfather's knee on tales of the hypocrisy and downright vindictiveness of one against the other. And as I grew older, the evidence for it was plain to see in the very fabric of our small Lancashire community. Because union remained intrinsically an establishment game - "the Tory Party at play", my Dad called it - its influence pervaded all aspects of our social life, even our education system. Those kids who went to grammar schools played union; secondary modern children played league. The perniciously divisive 11-plus not only cleft our town in two socially but on the rugby field as well. The rugby union club was to become the stomping ground for the professional classes - the teachers, the dentists, the solicitors and so on - while the "roughy 'eads", the so-called factory fodder, were to flock to the local amateur rugby league. At least, that was the plan. However, boys will be boys. Surrounded as we were by great league sides - Wigan, Warrington, St Helens and Widnes - how could we fail to fall under their spell? Not that the hierarchy didn't attempt to stop us. Wade Deakon Grammar School Widnes, for instance, tried to forbid their pupils from attending league matches, not recognising the fact that the success of their union side was in no small measure due to the input of Widnes' professional league players. We schoolboy fanatics revelled in the diversity of it all, playing union for the school on Saturday mornings, watching the pros in the afternoon and, more often than not, turning out for the league amateurs the following morning.

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Hard. Honest. Beautiful Rugby League Was Forged on the Anvil of Victorian Snobbery. It Grew Ou T of Social and Regional Division, and the Certainty That Twickers Is the Home of Treachery. It's Cup Final Day, and What's Changed? Everything and Nowt, Says Colin Welland
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