Scrum down

Paul Smith

  • Making Men: Rugby and Masculine Identity edited by John Nauright and Timothy Chandler
    Cass, 260 pp, £35.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 7146 4637 7

Though citing the suggestion that for South Africans ‘the rugby scrum was symbolic of the laager,’ John Nauright and Timothy Chandler enter the reservation that ‘such notions can be taken too far.’ Indeed they can. An inward-facing huddle of wagons, their occupants locked in some obscure struggle of their own, would have presented little problem to a marauding Zulu impi, unless that of throwing its assegais straight while doubled up with laughter. It is more plausible to take the scrum as the most explicit physical expression of the male bonding which Making Men sees at the heart of its subject. The opportunities which it gave for respectable touching (amplified by much mutual rubbing in of embrocation afterwards) may well have been – as Jock Phillips suggests writing of 19th-century New Zealand, but with a sidelong glance at the English public schools – a source of comforting closeness in a society where women were scarce or marginalised and the taboo against homosexuality was strong.

The binding and the bonding, however, were for butting against opponents. The scrum represented the primitive form of head-on collision with the problems of life and the enemies of the Empire, which was all that could be managed by the large, unruly, unselective schools in which the British middle classes, sighing with relief, dumped their sons. In the first contests between England and Scotland, noted Montague Shearman, one of the game’s early pundits, ‘a quarter of a hundred of heavyweights appeared to be leaning up against each other for periods of five minutes or thereabouts, while occasionally the ball became accidentally disentangled from the solid globe of scrummagers, and the remaining players then had some interesting bursts of play between themselves.’ Even if heeling, running and passing soon became more prevalent, the game remained an alarmingly apt metaphor for the kind of stolid frontal infantry assault (with the cavalry waiting vainly to be ordered forward in the event of a breakthrough) which would dispose of some of its votaries on the Somme.

That it was too crude a model of the struggle for survival to win any game of life should not have come as a surprise. Foreign observers had seen for some time that the British were addicted to sport to the extent of confusing it with life. Bringing his German countrymen up to the mark for the coming conflict, General von Bernhardi warned them by example: ‘hard, laborious work has made Germany great; in England, on the contrary, sport has succeeded in maintaining the physical health of the nation; but by becoming exaggerated and by usurping the place of serious work it has greatly injured the English nation.’

The thought had already occurred to some in Britain. The trouble with the rugby recipe for making men was that it was too simple by itself to produce anything other than simpletons. Well adapted to drain off the aggression, not to say the testosterone, and stimulate the circulation of boys in close confinement, it was incapable of doing what its advocates alleged it could do in the way of preparing a national élite for success in that struggle of nations for supremacy which they assumed to be the law of life. To the extent that Social Darwinists counselled the suppression of internecine struggle and the coordination of effort within the national community, in order the more powerfully to level its united force against external enemies, rugby’s subordination of the individual to the team might make it appear an ideal forcing-house for the virtues conducive to victory. But it was obvious to those who found the message of the Boer War not in the ultimate triumph but in the series of miserable fiascos which had scarred the early stages of the conflict, that the sporting spirit was not enough.

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