A Cultural Preview of the 2007 Rugby World Cup

[28 August 2007]

By Robert Collins

It’s that time again. After four years of waiting and speculating, the Rugby World Cup is soon upon us. Your correspondent, naturally, is foaming at the mouth in anticipation.

But let us not speculate about potential World Champions and Dark Horses here. For this is a site about matters cultural. And rugby’s cultural rivers run deep. Because unlike soccer’s homogenous globalisation of the World’s sporting culture, rugby’s meaning and relevance changes wherever it’s played. Outside New Zealand, Wales, a few Pacific Islands and possibly South Africa, rugby is no country’s number one game. Yet wherever it is played, the minority lucky enough to have fallen under its spell are inevitably hooked for life.

At the game’s highest level, national teams perpetually maintain their countries’ unique characteristics. The English are big and strong but lacking flair. Australians don’t know when they’re beaten. The French are full of Gallic flair but prone to losing their composure. The Irish are courageous beyond reason. A New Zealander pulls on the black shirt and he instantly takes on superhuman powers. And you wouldn’t want to meet a bunch of South African forwards in a dark alley. Or, for that matter, anywhere else.

Which is just one of the reasons that the quad-annual World Cup, this year taking place in France through September and October, makes compulsive viewing. If you’re unfortunate enough to live in a country without regularly televised rugby, seek it out on line. Study your cable channels. Locate your nearest Australian bar. You won’t regret it. But before you fall in love with the action, you might as well know where it’s coming from.

In 1823 at Rugby School in the English Midlands a game of football was taking place. In a flash of inspiration a pupil called William Webb Ellis, who by all accounts wasn’t much of a player, picked up the ball and ran with it. After receiving a sound thrashing his peers realised that perhaps Webb Ellis was on to something. Before long the rules of ‘Rugby Football’ were being formalised and the game quickly spread across the playing fields of England’s schools and across the British Empire.

Willie John McBride

Willie John McBride

As a game to strengthen the body and stiffen the mind, rugby was the perfect sport for Victorian Britain and its colonies - the proverbial game for ruffians played by gentlemen (as opposed to soccer, a game for gentlemen played by ruffians). By the 1880s England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were regularly fielding representative national teams.

An essential element to Rugby Union was its strict code of amateurism. But in 1895, working class players from the North of England wanted to claim expenses to make up for work they were missing on Saturdays. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) weren’t having any of it. The Northern clubs rebelled and created their own code of the game, the professional, 13-a-side sport of Rugby League that, while ignored by much of the world, still remains the preferred game in Northern England, Australia and, I’m not making this up, Papua New Guinea. Over 110 years later England fans of the two codes are still divided along class lines. Northern working class, League. Southern bourgeois shandy-drinkers, Union.

For over 100 years playing for the love of the game was considered rugby union’s ultimate virtue. That was the ethos at its heart. You’d train when time allowed, play your hardest for 80 minutes on a Saturday, drink with your team-mates and the opposition, and back to work on Monday morning.

Naturally, as rugby became a major televised sport from the 1960s onwards, this adherence to a Victorian code became a ludicrous anachronism. For a sport where athleticism and strength were prime components, expecting athletes to compete in packed stadiums for World Cup glory (the first one taking place in 1987) while keeping themselves gainfully employed as doctors, farmers and bank clerks seemed hopelessly outmoded. Although under-the-table payments to top players had been commonplace for years, it was as late as 1995 when the International Rugby Board (IRB), in their infinite wisdom, finally allowed the game to go fully professional.

Twelve years later the inevitable comparison to soccer doesn’t portray rugby in a position of great prosperity. It’s the number one sport of New Zealand, most Pacific Islands, Wales and (economically at least) South Africa. Everywhere else the game is played at a competitive international level – England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, Australia and Argentina (you could possibly throw Canada and Japan in there too), in terms of participation and spectators, it lags way behind, if not soccer, than another apple from the football tree.

But therein lay its strength. Playing or following rugby puts you in an exclusive club. International soccer is haunted by the spectre of hooliganism. In over 100 years of international rugby, the bond of friendship and love of the game between fans of different nations has never wavered. The violence is on the field. Off the pitch it’s about sharing memories, stories and, of course, beer.

If all this sounds that rugby is a big boys club with a game that’s merely an excuse for a post-game piss-up, you’ve obviously not been watching. Because at the highest level, especially since the game turned professional, international rugby is consistently the most exciting game in the world.

International Soccer is big business. And the FIFA World Cup is the event that unifies the globe. But the millionaires that make up every national team playing at 70 percent in a sequence of revenue-generating ‘friendly fixtures’ is an insult to the good name of competitive sport. There’s no such thing as an international rugby friendly. Every game is a Test Match. You’re representing your country. You are expected to put your body on the line. If you didn’t consider pulling on the shirt to be an honour, you wouldn’t be there to begin with.

You can’t watch a game of Test Rugby without being in awe of the pride and physical bravery of the players. This isn’t the NFL, where there’s an oxygen tank on the sideline and a million-dollar trade waiting at the end of the season. You’re playing for everything. And in a World Cup year, there are no second chances.

Rather than write a guided tour of 140 years of rugby cultures, here is just a sample of great and important, moments. If this doesn’t get you excited about Rugby World Cup 2007, then you’re not paying attention.

New Zealand Rediscovers The Haka
When Londoner Charles Munro arrived in New Zealand in the late 1860s, he found the indigenous population to be, let’s say, not averse to a punch-up. Munro figured the locals would appreciate rugby. He was right. In 1905 a team of New Zealanders sailed to Britain and wiped the floor with the best the motherland could throw at them (the sole exception being a controversial loss to Wales). Ever since then, the All Blacks (so-called because they wear black shirts, shorts and socks) have been the dominant nation in World rugby, although South African readers would almost certainly disagree with that. And in a tribute to their country’s cultural heritage, every All Black team performs The Haka, a Maori ‘challenge’ before kick off.

But if you look at video footage of The All Blacks’ Haka from the 1960s or ‘70s, it seems more hokey-cokey than war dance. That all changed when Wayne Shelford became New Zealand captain in 1987. Realising that this cultural artefact was a weapon in waiting, Shelford took The Haka’s performance deathly seriously. Always led by a player of Maori descent, The Haka was turned it into a ferocious assertion of New Zealand heritage and power. By the time of the inaugural World Cup Final against France, half the French team were too scared or psyched out by The Haka to even face the performance. The All Black victory was never in doubt.

Don’t let this report of Shelford’s cultural achievement suggest that he was more choreographer than rugby player. Midway through one particularly vicious game against France, he had a testicle ripped out of his scrotum. After discovering the injury he walked over to the physio and calmly requested it stitched back together.

Haka

Michael Jones Puts His Principles First
Some sports positions are sacred. Number 7 for Manchester United. Middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Shortstop for The Yankees. Near the top of any list of mythical team places is open-side flanker, number 7, for the All Blacks. The greatest All-Black open-side of them all was Michael Jones. Samoan by birth, but at the heart of the New Zealand team for over a decade, he was, with no little hyperbole, the best and most feared player in the world. He was also a committed Christian. And he wouldn’t play on a Sunday.

When New Zealand’s schedule for the 1995 World Cup was released, it showed that their quarter and semi-final games would be played on a Sunday. Jones’ beliefs never wavered and he was left out of the squad before the tournament started. There were no hysterics, nor an outcry from the rugby fans of New Zealand. Jones’ commitment to his religion, sport or country was never in question. Which begs the question, with so many NFL players pledging their Christian credentials on a daily basis, what the hell are they playing at?

Mandela Gets Rugby Fever
Unlike New Zealand, which saw rugby used as a tool to bring its white and Maori populations together, the sport in South Africa has long had more sinister overtones. The chosen sport of the Afrikaans settlers from the early 1900s, for decades the brutal nature of South African rugby represented the pioneer spirit and toughness of the white minority. After spending the majority of the 20th century vying with the All Blacks for global dominance of the game, The Springboks fell victim to the international sporting boycott from the early ‘80s to the end of Apartheid.

However, The Boks’ return to the international arena was cloaked in the old values. Before their return Test Match in Johannesburg (against New Zealand, naturally) the new national anthem was replaced at the last moment by the Die Stem, the anthem of apartheid, putting their hosting the 1995 World Cup in doubt. When the South African squad for that tournament was announced, it was all white. The one black player up for consideration, Chester Williams was injured, and couldn’t prove his fitness in time.

But things were changing in South Africa in the ‘90s. A suspension opened up a place for Williams, and by the time they had made their way to the final against what appeared to be an unstoppable New Zealand team, the entire nation was getting behind this return to the international sporting arena.

The game itself was dramatic, but not as much as the post-game presentation. Nelson Mandela, dressed in a Springbok shirt and cheering harder than any world leader before or since, handed the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar. Moments later, Pienaar was asked by a TV reporter what it was like to have the support of 65,000 South Africans in the stadium. With remarkable clarity of thought Pienaar replied, “We didn’t have 60,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans”. For just a few moments, South Africa was a united nation.

1995 Rugby World Cup Final

The Choker at The Croker
National unity in South Africa is a rarity. Until recently, you could say the same about Ireland. Apart from on the rugby field. Because although Northern Ireland and the Republic are two separate countries, the national team of Ireland is made up of players from north and south, and represents both simultaneously.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why rugby has never been the number one sport in Ireland, lagging behind the traditional and uniquely Irish pursuits of Gaelic football and hurling.

However, since the turn of the century, Irish rugby has undergone something of a renaissance. Led by its brilliant and charismatic captain, Brian O’Driscoll (voted Ireland’s sexiest man in 2004), Ireland have become the dominant team of the British Isles, winning the mythical Triple Crown (victories over the other three home unions in the annual Six Nations championship) three years running.

This year’s game against England was particularly memorable. Lansdowne Road, archaic home of Irish rugby, was undergoing some much needed rebuilding. The replacement venue was Croke Park, the 82,500 capacity stadium formerly reserved for the sole purpose of Gaelic Games. No ‘English’ sport had ever darkened its turf. In 1920, British troops opened fire on spectators at a Gaelic Football match, killing 13 fans and one player. Since then, Croke Park was viewed as a sacred place for Irish sport. But the new generation of Irish rugby players deserved the opportunity to play on Dublin’s biggest stage. For the first time, the doors were opened.

The game against the World Champion English was charged with emotional and historic significance. The moment wasn’t lost on the players. As ‘Ireland’s Call’, the unifying anthem of Irish rugby, was sang by 80,000 Irishmen, hard cases like Gerry Flannery and John Hayes unashamedly had tears rolling down their cheeks. To no-one’s surprise, Ireland slaughtered England.

Irish Rugby Anthem - Ireland’s Call

The Lions Show Their Teeth
An essential part of the life of the amateur player was the rugby tour. Get a group of players, take them to another part of the world, pit them against similar-minded individuals and let the rugby and the beer flow. The greatest of these touring teams are the British and Irish Lions. With a squad comprising the elite players from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, selection for the Lions, before and since the advent of professional, remains the ultimate honour for a player from the British Isles. For most of the twentieth century the Lions toured the rugby powerhouses of South Africa and New Zealand, regularly having the shit kicked out of them by provincial and National sides from both lands.

The same was expected when the 1974 Lions toured South Africa. But these Lions had teeth. Led by the rugged Ulsterman Willie John McBride, they agreed that if any of the team were getting a bit of rough treatment, every Lion would instantly locate the nearest opposition player and lay them out. After a sequence of ugly brawls, South Africa got the message. It was too late to save the Springboks’ proud record against touring sides. Cheered on by black South Africans, savouring the humiliation being heaped on the white minority, the Lions took the series 3-0, with one controversial tie being the sole blot on their otherwise perfect record. It was the first home series defeat for the Springboks of the 20th century, and conclusively proved that the northern hemisphere could compete with the world’s best.

The Lions were no angels off the field either. During one boozing bout in an unfortunate hotel, the manager knocked on McBride’s door to find the Irishman sitting in a chair in his underpants smoking a pipe.

“Mr McBride,” cried the hotel manager, “Your players are smashing up the bar. The police are on their way.”

McBride drew on his pipe and simply replied,

“How many?”

Robert Collins is a freelance journalist based in London. Since 2000 he's been Features Editor of Playmusic magazine, edited the musicians' sections of NME and Melody Maker, and has contributed to The Sunday Times, Globe&Mail;, The Toronto Star, thelondonpaper, Ryanair Magazine, FourFourTwo, Sleaze Nation and many others. He earned his degree in American Studies at the University of Manchester, where he developed his exacting standards for chicken kebabs, and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he learnt the finer points of the pick and roll. Robert writes about global sports culture in his column, Sticky Wickets. Before you ask, his favourite sports moment of all time is the Second Test between The British & Irish Lions and South Africa in 1997. He cannot dunk and has never even come close.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/a-cultural-preview-of-the-2007-rugby-world-cup/