Charlie Catchpole's Column: The Union Game Takes a Toff Line on Rugby History

Article excerpt

RUGBY was once memorably described as being "a game for hooligans, played by gentlemen".

After watching the first of the BBC's new four-part documentary series The Union Game: A Rugby History (Sunday BBC2), I was sorely tempted to add ... viewed by Marxists as an inspiring example of the workers' heroic struggle against oppression by the bourgeoisie.

The sub-title, A Class Game, said it all. If you enjoy the spectacle of bashing English toffs (and, speaking as an Englishmen, but not a toff, I must confess that it's a sport which gives me considerable pleasure), you'd have been on your feet cheering as a succession of academics described the development of the game in terms of posh southern aristocrats determined to keep northern oiks and Welsh peasants in their place.

It was impossible for the commentary, narrated by actor Jonathan Pryce, to use the words "public school" without adding "privileged confines" or, even better, "bastions of privilege".

The programme mocked the legend that the game was invented at Rugby School by William Webb Ellis, who picked up the ball and ran with it during a footie match, as a "cosy and popular belief ... which hides a more revealing and intriguing story".

But it offered no proof that Ellis didn't. And why else is the game called rugby? Winchester had a version of their own, so did Eton, so did Harrow.

But it was Rugby's famous headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold (immortalised in Tom Brown's Schooldays) who saw the game as an expression of his pet theory of "muscular Christianity". …