A Social History of English Rugby Union
By Tony Collins
Routledge – 2009 – 280 pages
From the myth of William Webb Ellis to the glory of the 2003 World Cup win, this book explores the social history of rugby union in England.
Ever since Tom Brown’s Schooldays the sport has seen itself as the guardian of traditional English middle-class values. In this fascinating new history, leading rugby historian Tony Collins demonstrates how these values have shaped the English game, from the public schools to mass spectator sport, from strict amateurism to global professionalism.
Based on unprecedented access to the official archives of the Rugby Football Union, and drawing on an impressive array of sources from club minutes to personal memoirs and contemporary literature, the book explores in vivid detail the key events, personalities and players that have made English rugby.
From an era of rapid growth at the end of the nineteenth century, through the terrible losses suffered during the First World War and the subsequent ‘rush to rugby’ in the public and grammar schools, and into the periods of disorientation and commercialisation in the 1960s through to the present day, the story of English rugby union is also the story of the making of modern England.
Like all the very best writers on sport, Tony Collins uses sport as a prism through which to better understand both culture and society. A ground-breaking work of both social history and sport history, A Social History of English Rugby Union tells a fascinating story of sporting endeavour, masculine identity, imperial ideology, social consciousness and the nature of Englishness.
"This is sports history at its best – bringing the skills and standards of serious history to areas too often dominated by myth and hearsay. With an eye for anecdote, Collins makes a serious contribution to our knowledge of English rugby and disposes of more than a few conventional assumptions about the modern game." Huw Richards, Financial Times "This is a masterful analysis of the creation and culture of English rugby. In telling this compelling story Collins has lit up the past in a way that could provide answers to current problems, on and off the field, if English rugby is prepared to confront its own history." Spiro Zavos, Sydney Morning Herald
"This is sports history at its best – bringing the skills and standards of serious history to areas too often dominated by myth and hearsay. With an eye for anecdote, Collins makes a serious contribution to our knowledge of English rugby and disposes of more than a few conventional assumptions about the modern game." Huw Richards, Financial Times
"This is a masterful analysis of the creation and culture of English rugby. In telling this compelling story Collins has lit up the past in a way that could provide answers to current problems, on and off the field, if English rugby is prepared to confront its own history." Spiro Zavos, Sydney Morning Herald
"A brilliant book", Yorkshire Evening Post
"Tony Collins' engrossing history is full of unexpected facts – for instance, in the 1880s rugby was far more popular in the north than association football, and the Yorkshire Cup attracted greater crowds than the FA Cup final. But it also examines the conservative, middle-class social attitudes that have always underpinned the game." Simon Redfern, The Independent, Sports Book of the Week
"An unexpected treat", Peter Wilby, New Statesman
"Well researched and written, as may be expected from a Professor of the Social History of Sport, Collins takes his academic skills and creates a very readable overview of why and how the game of Rugby Union has evolved within England. I found it an immensely enjoyable and informative read and quite accessible to both the student and casual reader alike." Adrian Hunter, The Rugby History Society
"A fascinating look at the construction of England's rugby identity", Michael Moynihan, Irish Examiner
"I would warmly recommend it to anyone whose main interest lies in league [sic]", Dave Hadfield, Rugby League World
"What do you get when you mix one of the world's leading sports historians with one of the best sports archives bar none? One hell of a read, that's what. A must for your bookshelf", Alan Pearey, Rugby World magazine
"A work of this quality is deserving of readership beyond just historians of the rugby codes, and indeed beyond the ranks of sports historians. Collins is simply an outstanding historian, and this study certainly fits as easily into the realm of social history as it does to sport … an excellent work that is fully deserving of the praise that has justly been heaped upon it", Charles Little, Sport and Society
The book is well constructed for academic and more general readers, and Routledge attempted (unsuccessfully) to position it as a mass market title. Each chapter opens with a vignette about a particular key match that encapsulates the point of the chapter and anticipates many of the issues to be drawn out. In doing so Collins highlights key aspects of English class relations and gender formations as embodied (literally) in rugby, and also helps orientate the book to a wider audience by building a path-through-the-game to the issues explored in each chapter.
This is a social history in the best traditions of that approach. It explores social ideas, ideals and ideologies of gender, class, empire and sporting activities; it tells a tale of the making of modern England through one of its more contested sports and one of its most recalcitrant sporting bodies. Despite Collins’ access to RFU records and his detailed analysis of things such as player occupations, schools attended and the locations of clubs affiliated to the RFU – all important markers of the sport’s social associations – the case he makes prompts a number of further questions. First, as is the case with many other sports histories, we know very little about the clubs themselves, noting that clubs are notoriously difficult things to get much information about, although many rugby clubs have great longevity. Second, as a social history this leaves unanswered many cultural historical questions about internal and external depictions of the game.
The third major question is one where there is much to do. Rugby’s embodiment of class, gender and imperial relations deserves much more exploration – that is, rugby union seems to be a useful way to tell the broader story of 20th century men’s bodies. Joanna Bourke, in her exceptional Dismembering the Male, an analysis of men’s bodies during and after WW1, shows just what a good history of the body can be; it seems to me that these kinds of questions are the things we should be exploring through sports history where use of the body is the central feature of sports participation. Collins’ decision to end the book in 1995, with the acceptance of professionalism, implicitly points to a clear shift in rugby’s bodies – in the ensuing 18 years players’ size and body shapes have changed so that they no longer resemble the ‘ordinary’ men of the amateur era. The amateur era rugby player seemed to embody an ideal of English embodiment, and one that could be casually attained, as with all other success in the sport as idealised by amateurism success was casual. Saying this should not blind us to the changes in embodiment during rugby’s existence; an attempt in 2005 to use then current rugby players in a film reconstruction of the 1905 Wales-New Zealand match ran into difficulties when players ‘looked wrong’ and hence the game ‘looked wrong’. Bourke’s analysis of post-war Britain through her investigation of cultural and medical-scientific literature about men’s damaged bodies shows what a good cultural history of embodiment can do; sports historians should consider and explore these issues more to open up our role in cultural histories. There are vital explorations of masculinity to be carried out.
These are not the questions Collins set out to answer, however, and the point is not that he should have answered or even asked them – but that his social history of English rugby prompts the questions about rugby’s constituent parts, its clubs, and its cultural significance, its cultural texts and its players’ bodies. He paints a compelling picture of a game that throughout its amateur era remained culturally and ideologically associated with Tom Brown, with the myths of public school ideals and with the defence of a specifically classed view of the world; he also suggests that those ideals and that ideology remains in the professional era of the game – but that is a different story. The book won the British Society for Sports History’s prize for the best book in sports history in 2009; the win was totally justified; it is, quite simply, superb (even the bits I disagree with). Malcolm MacLean, University of Gloucestershire
1. Tom Brown’s Game 2. The Amateur Game 3. A Man’s Game 4. The War Game 5. The Middle-Class Game 6. The Imperial Game 7. A Player’s Game 8. A Divided Game 9. A Reborn Game? Epilogue