Magazine article Times Higher Education

Expect Some Top-Class Rugby - and Working-Class, Too

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Expect Some Top-Class Rugby - and Working-Class, Too

Article excerpt

John Morgan speaks to historian of a game 'vital in creation of a British sense of masculine identity'

This Saturday, the final of the Rugby World Cup will be played at English rugby union's headquarters in Twickenham, southwest London, in a frenzy of media coverage. The day after, to much less media fanfare but every bit as much passion from their supporters, the England rugby league team will kick off a Test series against New Zealand in Hull.

The juxtaposition in the same weekend of the two codes will reinforce the fact that rugby is "still steeped in the legacy and memory of the past in a way that other sports aren't", according to Tony Collins, professor of history in the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University.

Professor Collins, widely regarded as rugby's leading historian, is author of The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby, published in August, as well as works including Rugby's Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football.

Why research the history of rugby? The sport "reflects very closely the preoccupations of British society and those societies that modelled themselves on the British", Professor Collins said. "So class plays an absolutely central role in the development of rugby, most particularly through the 1895 split that led to the creation of two types of rugby: league and union.

"It's vital in the creation of a British sense of masculine identity, particularly middle-class masculine identity."

Professor Collins continued: "The role that rugby has played in the so-called former 'white dominions' of the British Empire - Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, in a slightly different way, Canada - has been absolutely central to their sense of national identity and particularly, again, masculine identity."

One part of rugby history Professor Collins has investigated is the William Webb Ellis myth, which holds that the schoolboy picked up the ball and ran with it during a match at Rugby School in 1823, thus inventing rugby.

The myth lives on: the winner of the Rugby World Cup will be awarded the Webb Ellis Cup. The tournament's opening ceremony included a film - with a cast including Prince Harry - imagining the Webb Ellis moment.

In Professor Collins' argument, there is no evidence to suggest it ever happened. The Webb Ellis story first emerged in 1877 and did not gain any traction until 1895, when it was taken up by an inquiry conducted by the Old Rugbeian Society (the old boys society for Rugby School) into the origins of rugby, he said.

"The key point is that the inquiry was set up in 1895, the year that rugby split," he added. …

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