Rugby as European Heritage

It is fair to notice that sport became a well-integrated part of the academic debates related to ideologies, political power, social stratification and culture. The reason is simple and obvious: sport is a daily presence in our lifestyle. Since the end of the 19th century, it rose to public prominence up to reaching the highest […]

It is fair to notice that sport became a well-integrated part of the academic debates related to ideologies, political power, social stratification and culture. The reason is simple and obvious: sport is a daily presence in our lifestyle. Since the end of the 19th century, it rose to public prominence up to reaching the highest degree of internationalization and media coverage in our times. Such is its power, politically, culturally, economically, intellectually and aesthetically that it became the public manifestation par excellence[1]. As historian Peter Gay put it, sport “blends memory and desire”[2] for it is a source of thrill and sadness, of pride and torment, and ultimately, of strong public emotions. Epitome of energy and conquest, rugby is a sport fitting such a profile.

Evolution of the game. The Rugby Spirit

Histories of rugby have many times been written in countries where the game is not only traditional, but deeply rooted[3]. The present article will focus less on the chronological evolution of the game itself, and more the on aspects revealing the connection between rugby and cultural patrimony. From this perspective, two features need underlining: the first would concern the unusual beginnings, in a day of November 1823 in the English public school of Rugby, when the young William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it during a school football match, instead of hitting it with his feet; the second, the conspicuous physicality, echoing mediaeval tournaments and directly impacting on the rules of the game.

England versus Scotland, 1892 Home Nations Championship

William Webb Ellis’ choice to pick up the ball is not unusual; the practice of the football game (originating in the once introduced at the Royal Court in 1565[4]) was autonomously interpreted in the English public schools of the early 19th century. This is the reason why the creation of common regulations or setting a national championship proved difficult and took time. An institutionalized approach was less important for the public schools than the idea of a necessary flexibility that helped keeping sport as part of the education. Football (and later rugby football) was understood as contributing to character building, as teaming implied a certain spirit of coordination, decision-making, respecting the rules collegially, and therefore induced the need for fair play[5].

It was the same autonomy of clubs, mixed with the social and economic profile of the region they were located in, that led to the division of the rugby football, in 1895, between a rugby league (willing to preserve the recreational profile of the game) and a rugby union (in the northern and western areas of England, willing to professionalize it)[6]. In addition, variations of the rugby football were generated, with different numbers of players (7, 13 and 15).

In both cases, rugby rules try to reconcile two aspects: forcefulness and agility. Physical confrontation is an ingredient, a mandatory part of the game, unlike in soccer, tennis or basket where rough contact is proscribed, and collateral damage rare. Grabbing and lifting are permitted, as rugby allows one to play both the rules and the man. In these circumstances, forcefulness needs to be structured and organized; mass and speed need to coexist in order to give the game dynamics[7].What mattered was to place the player “in full game and full movement”, having to confront a number of personal and collective choices, strategically included as part of a team, involved in high risk activities, responsible for the decisions taken.

Rugby asks for what the majority of sports tries to avoid: preparedness to feel pain and discomfort; this is why physical preparation and technique are overwhelmingly present and of crucial importance[8]. Despite the amount of legitimate violence on the field, rugby resents and forbids the violence that supporters might use against each other; mutual respect is a revered virtue. Even more, in recent days, this sport builds its image on a contrast set between the temperate, thoughtful rugby aficionados and the soccer supporters whose excesses illustrate the opposite.

Initially British, rugby football was brought to France by British students and workers in the early 1870s[9]. France embraced the game with a vigorous cultural panache[10] and created two clubs – the Racing Club de France and the Stade Français – before setting up a national championship through the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (1892). The French followed rules that permitted a higher degree of toughness and they were later concerned with the professionalization of rugby; as a consequence, following a few French victories that underlined the differences in the rugby played on the two sides of the Channel, the admission of France into the international tournament dominated by the United Kingdom and the British Empire was difficult and postponed until the 1920s. France in the meanwhile contributed to the expansion of the rugby world by introducing it into the Paris Olympics games of 1900, following the joint proposal of baron Pierre de Coubertin and prince George (II) Bibesco[11], Romanian member of the International Olympic Committee (1899-1901).

Heritigization of Rugby

The difficult relationship between sport and heritage was rightfully underlined in recent studies[12]; yet, it is necessary to emphasize that heritage in sport should not be limited to the amount of existing “halls of fame, museums, fantasy camps, stadia tours or masters events”[13], nor to their economic value. If we consider the five major characterizations of heritage by Turnbridge and Ashworth[14], and we remember that branding an object, a place or tradition as “heritage” implies it must have a form of cultural significance, individually or collectively, we admit that the definition of heritage includes what is relevant in terms of values and attitudes for a community, a family or (exceptionally) an individual.

In this perspective, the most subtle facet of the practice of rugby – and probably one of the most appreciated – is related to the manner it interacts with the local, regional and national ambient.

From a strictly social point of view, rugby is a sport with aristocratic origins, emerging in the top colleges of Great Britain, yet one that conquered from the very beginning other social strata: Scottish and Welsh workers, French workers and farmers. In time, the social span of rugby became very large, comparable to the one of tennis in terms of style and popularity[15]; in addition, statistically, rugby is a family sport par excellence, the object of a passion transmitted from generation to generation[16]. It therefore embodies an inherited cultural patrimony, a set of values that contributes to the cultural profile and continuity of a family.

On a level immediately related, rugby proves to be a major sport in the areas where it is rooted. This explains the strong regionalization rugby displays on a global level as one of its main features. Regional concentration signifies a pool of human resources and the necessary infrastructure to maintain performance; it also means the perpetuation of an atmosphere, of a forma mentis favourable to the game. This offers an almost privilege of exclusivity to the Six Nations most dedicated to rugby – England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales –, and explains the spectacular chain of victories of the New Zealand or Australian teams.

It is consequently safe to deduce that rugby is related to a particular idea of heritage, as well as to regional patrimony and local identity. This assertion is reinforced by the pattern of spreading: as its history demonstrates, rugby circulated based on cultural affinities. There were two major directions: one across the English-speaking world, led by Great Britain, with powerful extensions in Australia, New Zealand, South-Africa and, distinctively, in the United States where rugby was transformed into American football[17]; a second one in the Romance-speaking world, led by France, encompassing the largest Latin nations of Europe (chronologically: Romania, first game in 1900, Spain in 1901 and Italy in 1911), as well as from Latin America (Argentina, 1910)[18]. On a different scale, in Europe, rugby is partitioned into three spheres: the countries where it is rooted as a traditional sport (the Four Nations of the British Isles plus France), followed by countries like Italy and Romania, where rugby is still vivacious despite moments of diminished performance (such as Italy in the 1970s and Romania in the 1990s[19]). The third circle is represented by nations of more recent rugby tradition in Eastern Europe, with Georgia and Russia on visible rise[20].

Rugby’s insertion into the world of heritage is further amplified by a certain ethnographic influence. There is local specificity in the way clubs organize the reception of the guests and relates to other clubs. These are an actual part of the rugby match: the welcoming at the club house, one day before, constitutes the opening, while the post-match black-tie banquet corresponds to the end of the encounter. It is a ritual of hospitality that precedes and completes physical competition: a good reminder of the Greek rites during the Olympics.

Being a major sport, widely broadcasted, rugby can act as an important legacy for individuals, regions and nations, with links to the past that can be fervidly expressed. Supporters identify with the past of their team, even if they did not live it; others can see in rugby a continuity of a national, regional or personal legacy, and it can be instrumental in fostering a shared cultural heritage[21]. This comes with the fact that sport reflects both heritage that occurred and the one that occurs, while also articulating the achievements of athletes and clubs, contributing to a grander narrative that draws on history, memory, tradition, even myth, in order to meet the demands of the present.

Radu Albu-Comănescu

Bibliography

Chronology of Canadian football, the Official Site of the Canadian Football League, Canadian Football League, accessed 05/13/2018, online: https://web.archive.org/web/20100501160230/http://www.cfl.ca/page/his_timeline_1860

“Sportul în România” [Sport in Romania], Magazine of the Romanian Olympic Committee, Bucharest, 1st issue/1990, p. 15.

Beale, Catherine, Born out of Wenlock – William Penny Brookes and the British Origins of the Modern Olympics, Derby, DB Publishing, 2011, 191 p.

Collins, Tony, A Social History of English Rugby Union, London, Routledge, 2009, 280 p.

Collins, Tony, Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football, London, Routledge, 2013, 288 p.

Collins, Tony, The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby, London (New York, Sydney), Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, 560 p.

Dine, Philip, French Rugby Football: A Cultural History, London (New York, Sydney), Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001, 229 p.

Duboisser, François and Viard, Frédéric, Le Rugby pour les nuls, Paris, First-Gruend, 2011, 384 p.

Gammon, Sean and Ramshaw, Gregory, Heritage, Sport and Tourism: Sporting Pasts – Tourist Futures, London, Routledge, 2013, 156 p.

Garcia, Henri, Fabuleuse histoire du rugby, Paris, La Martinière, 2013, 1218 p.

Gay, Peter, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Oxford, OUP, 1984, vol. 1 (« Education of the Senses”), 576 p.

Heffer, Simon, High minds: the Victorians and the birth of modern Britain, London, Random House, 2013, 896 p.

Labetoulle, Daniel, « Les règles du rugby », Pouvoirs, n°121 (Le rugby), Paris, Presses universitaires de France, April 2007, pp. 25-33.

Mangan, James Anthony (dir.), Sport in Europe: Politics, Class, Gender, London, Routledge, 1999 (2013), 273 p.

Tépé, Patrick, “Sport violent ou non violent ? Point de vue d’un acteur”, Pouvoirs, n°121 (Le rugby), Paris, Presses universitaires de France, April 2007, pp. 91-99.

Tunbridge, John E. and Ashworth, G.J., London (New York), Dissonant Heritage: The Management of the Past as a Resource in Conflict, John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 299 p.

Villepreux, Olivier, Les miscellanées du rugby, Paris, Fetjaine Editions, 2011, 342 p.

 

[1] E.g. Mangan, James Anthony (dir.), Sport in Europe: Politics, Class, Gender, London, Routledge, 1999 (2013), 273 p.

[2] Gay, Peter, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Oxford, OUP, 1984, vol. 1 (« Education of the Senses”), p. 12.

[3] See, for instance, Collins, Tony, The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby, London (New York, Sydney), Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, 560 p.; idem, A Social History of English Rugby Union, London, Routledge, 2009, 280 p.; or Garcia, Henri, Fabuleuse histoire du rugby, Paris, La Martinière, 2013, 1218 p., Duboisser, François and Viard, Frédéric, Le Rugby pour les nuls, Paris, First-Gruend, 2011, 384 p.; Villepreux, Olivier, Les miscellanées du rugby, Paris, Fetjaine Editions, 2011, 342 p.

[4] Duboisser, F. and Viard, F., op cit., p. 13.

[5] This educational approach of sport and especially of rugby was consecrated by Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), professor and historian, headmaster of Rugby School between 1828 and 1841. His legacy consists in reforms – rapidly adopted by other prestigious public schools – trying to define standards of manliness, achievement and prominence, dedicated to “those who shall be in charge with the destinies of England” (Heffer, Simon, High minds: the Victorians and the birth of modern Britain, London, Random House, 2013, pp. 1-30. Pierre de Coubertin considered him the father of the organized sport (Beale, Catherine, Born out of Wenlock – William Penny Brookes and the British Origins of the Modern Olympics, Derby, DB Publishing, 2011, pp. 118-119).

[6] In extenso: Collins, Tony, Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football, London, Routledge, 2013, 288 p.

[7] Labetoulle, Daniel, « Les règles du rugby » in Pouvoirs, n°121 (Le rugby), Paris, Presses universitaires de France, April 2007, pp. 25-33.

[8] Tépé, Patrick, “Sport violent ou non violent ? Point de vue d’un acteur”, in Pouvoirs…, p. 91-99.

[9] Collins, T., op. cit., chapter “Coubertin and the Battle for Rugby”.

[10] Dine, Philip, French Rugby Football: A Cultural History, London (New York, Sydney), Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001, pp. 17-58.

[11] “Sportul în România” [Sport in Romania], Magazine of the Romanian Olympic Committee, Bucharest, 1st issue/1990, p. 15.

[12] Gammon, Sean and Ramshaw, Gregory, Heritage, Sport and Tourism: Sporting Pasts – Tourist Futures, London, Routledge, 2013, p. 2.

[13] Ibidem, loc. cit.

[14] Heritage is a synonym for any relict physical survival from the past (objects, archaeological sites, monumental buildings, etc.); memories (collective and individual); accumulated cultural and artistic productivity; landscapes (both natural and cultural); goods and services with heritage component. Heritage is tangible (buildings, artifacts, landscape) and non-tangible (memory, rituals, language, music), the latter adding texture to the former. See Tunbridge, John E. and Ashworth, G.J., London (New York, Hoboken), Dissonant Heritage: The Management of the Past as a Resource in Conflict, John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 299 p.

[15] Though unique as a case, probably the assertion is symbolically illustrated by the marriage of player Michael J. Tindall to Zara Phillips, eldest granddaughter of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

[16] Duboisser, F. and Viard, F., op cit., pp. 31-34.

[17] Additionally, there is Canadian football (see timeline and evolution of the Official Site of the Canadian Football League, Canadian Football League, available online via WebArchive at https://web.archive.org/web/20100501160230/http://www.cfl.ca/page/his_timeline_1860 [05/13/2018]); Australian footy (Duboisser, F. and Viard, F., op cit., pp. 55-57); Welsh football (ibidem, pp. 57-59), etc.

[18] Chronological data is extracted from T. Collins, op. cit., passim.

[19] Duboisser, F. and Viard, F., op cit., pp. 169-172.

[20] Georgia is leading the European Nations’ Cup since 2006, with Romania on a constant secondary position and Russia mostly the 3rd.

[21] For the case of Ireland, whose rugby team represents both the Republic and Northern Ireland, see Bairner, Alan, Sport and the Irish: Histories, Identities, Issues, Dublin, University College Dublin Press, 2005, 288 p.

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