The Oval World - the impact of the RFU

This is the third part of the October 2015 talk I gave to the Institute of Historical Research about the themes of The Oval World, which has just been published in paperback.

The Oval World looks at the history of rugby in a comparative, international way. Perhaps the most striking thing about this approachis that it clearly shows that, despite being the dominant force in international rugby, the RFU was also the aberrant organisation in the game’s development around the world. 

What do I mean by this? In all countries that adopted the sport in the nineteenth century, rugby was initially the property of those schooled at elite educational institutions. This is obviously the case in England, but it is also true throughout the the British Isles (including Wales), the white dominions of the British Empire (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), the Pacific Islands and France. 

But as rugby expanded and became an adult game, it saw the introduction of local cup competitions as a focus for growing local and civic rivalries and rugby rapidly became a mass spectator sport that was played and watched by all social classes. In the British Isles we can see this process in the north, south west and the east midlands of England, in South Wales (superbly described in Gwyn Prescott’s This Rugby Spellbound People), in the Borders region of Scotland, and in southern Ireland around Cork and Limerick, where the game becomes the dominant popular sport..

In Australia, the expansion of the game to the inner city districts of Sydney and Brisbane consolidated rugby, rather than Australian Rules football, as the game of masses of New South Wales and Queensland, and after inter-provincial competition began in New Zealand in the 1880s rugby quickly became the dominant popular code there too. In France, the introduction of the Championship competition in 1892 was the catalyst that cemented rugby as the game of the South West. Only in South Africa was the development of the game more restricted, because of the deep racial divisions in English- and Afrikaans-speaking regions.

So rugby around the world started to develop as a mass spectator sport in largely the same way as soccer in England and Scotland, and as baseball in the United States. Indeed, in England, Wales, France, Australia and New Zealand the game shared exactly the same social and commercial characteristics as soccer. So naturally the game in these countries began to move towards commercialism and professionalism.

But RFU truncated this development with its adoption of amateurism in 1886 and its zealous imposition of the amateur regulations wherever the game was played. In fact, amateurism was an explicit attempt to control the popularity of rugby. ’The loss of followers to the grand old game is regrettable,’ wrote an RFU supporter in the 1889 Football Annual, ‘yet looking at the present state of all professional sports we cannot but think that this possible loss is far preferable to legalising professionalism’. 

These artificial restrictions on the popularity of rugby caused significant conflict in those areas where it was the dominant winter sport. In England it was driven by the RFU’s fear that its authority would be destroyed by the growing dominance of predominantly working-class teams in the industrial north, and led to the 1895 split that resulted in the creation of rugby league.

Although the 1895 split took place entirely within England, the broader debate about payments to players quickly spilled over into Wales. A split with Wales was only avoided 1897 when the RFU decided to compromise with the Welsh rugby union over the payment of an illegal testimonial to the great Welsh three-quarter Arthur Gould - a decision that led to Welsh rugby union pretended to be amateur for the next century and the RFU pretending to believe them.

This deep fracture over the way that rugby should be organised spread across the global stage. Newspapers in Australia and New Zealand carried significant coverage of the split in English rugby, and the growing divergence between the huge commercial popularity of the sport Down Under and the sacrifices made by players to play the game in those countries became an increasingly controversial issue. The fact that 1905 All Blacks’ tour made over £10,000 profit yet left many players personally in debt brought matters to a head and became the catalyst for the establishment of rugby league in New Zealand and Australia in 1907.

But even by this time, it was clear that a compromise could have been reached over payments in rugby, has had happened in soccer when the Football Association legalised professionalism in 1885. What prevented a solution being found was the RFU’s utter intransigence - and the fear of rugby’s other national governing bodies that to disagree with the RFU would lead to their expulsion from international rugby union. The driving out of the northern clubs in 1895 served as a warning about what would happen to those who challenged the RFU’s authority.

But why were Australian and New Zealand rugby union officials so deferential to the RFU, often to the detriment of the game in their own countries? Their mild attempts to relax the rules on amateurism or suggest amendments to the rules of the sport in the 1920s were turned down flat by the RFU. Their requests to be represented on the International Rugby Board were repeatedly refused. Even the arbitrary outlawing of the distinctive New Zealand 2-3-2 scrum formation in 1931 was meekly accepted by the NZRU.

The answer lies in the fact that all rugby union governing bodies (with the exception of the French, who also strongly valued the British link but for somewhat different reasons) shared the same imperial ideological framework as the RFU. Their wish to be represented on rugby union’s International Board came from a desire to develop the sport’s imperial character, not to challenge the British. 

The fear of offending the British, and particularly the RFU, ran very deep within the psyche of Australasian rugby union officials, especially given the difficulties of the All Blacks and Wallabies’ pre-1914 tours and the disaster of the 1908 rugby league split. This attitude was summed up by Sydney’s Rugby News in May 1928 when it wrote: 

In all and to the furthermost ends of the British Empire the great rugby game is played and all owe allegiance to the great controller of the game, the English Rugby Union. It is the tradition of the rugby union game that makes us stand behind that great body to which the game owes its origin. 
They gave us the game and we believe that its destinies can safely be left in their hands… At all times then the rugby union stands behind its Alma Mater, not only because it believes and trusts in it, but also because it feels that by so doing the bonds of Empire are through the brotherhood of sport more closely knit.

Thanks to such deference, the RFU was able to impose its own singular view of amateurism and the way that rugby should be be played globally. This blocked the way that rugby had been developing in the late nineteenth century as a mass spectator sport in most of the rugby-playing regions of the world - and ended the possibility of rugby developing along the same commercial and professional lines as soccer. 

The RFU's conception of rugby as a strictly amateur and largely non-commercial sport was initially a minority view within the game. But the RFU's institutional power over the sport and its position as the embodiment of the British Imperial 'motherland' meant that it could impose its vision on the rest of the sport - and ultimately that meant that it was soccer that would fully embrace the commercial and professional appeal of spectator sport and become the global game.