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.

Lord Rosebery, presenting the FA Cup in 1897, might assert that football helped bring out those ‘splendid characteristics of the British race – stamina and indomitable pluck’ (I take the quotation from one of the first works to bring the history of sport in Britain into the realm of social history proper, Tony Mason’s Association Football and English Society). Other exponents of ‘national efficiency’ recognised the limitations of stamina and pluck when unsupported by trained intelligence and skill. Asking, in the Fortnightly Review in 1901, ‘Will England Last the Century?’, J.L. Garvin complained that, in comparison to the American, who both worked and played hard, and the German, who ‘lives to work’,

we work to live ... the average Briton thinks far more of sport than of his job, and thinks far too much of sport while at his job ... Our real weakness is in the education of our middle classes who ought to have a better knowledge of modern languages and modern science than any other class in the world, and who have to be taught that the future of the Empire depends above all upon their giving up a good deal of their passion for sport ... in order to keep up to date.

In Industrial Efficiency a few years later, Arthur Shadwell found that ‘we are a nation at play. Work is a nuisance, an evil necessity to be shirked and hurried over as quickly and easily as possible in order that we may get away to the real business of life – the golf course, the bridge table, the cricket and football field or some other of the thousand amusements which occupy our minds, and for which no trouble is too great.’

Possibly the allegation that the British regarded work as the curse of the sporting classes contained as much exaggeration as the assertion that sport constituted the best training for life. What was dangerous was less the passion for sport in itself than its reinforcement of an amateurism which seemed whimsically complacent once Britain had lost its industrial lead and the security of its island position had been eroded by the steamship and the beginnings of aerial warfare. It was not that sport was taken too seriously, but that it followed other things in not being pursued seriously enough; not that sport was substituted for work, but that a certain type of Englishman would not work even at sport. The contributors to Making Men provide some ground for arguing that this was an English, or southern English, rather than a British disease, and that sport in itself was not necessarily inimical to the spirit of efficiency. James Martens sees a divergence between a North of England rugby infused with the competitiveness and emphasis on success of the entrepreneurial class which ran it, and a Southern game played for comradeship, fun and character-building by clubs based on occupational or educational affiliation or middle-class suburban enclaves. For the industrial North, the game was one more agency for the expression of the corporate consciousness and civic pride that derived from the sense of creating the wealth around which the South wound its tentacles of financial and commercial control. It mattered because of the felt need to assert identity, self-worth and independence. It was not surprising that professionalism rapidly took hold, and that in 1895 a large body of Northern clubs seceded from the Rugby Football Union to establish what became the separate code of rugby league.

The Southern clubs could not accommodate professionalism, either literally or figuratively, because they existed to consolidate a class identity which depended on its rejection. Making Men gives little attention to the clubs and the precise role they played in the network of male institutions, but their wider social function in the cultivation of coterie and the exclusion of outsiders is clear enough. Rugby union became the athletic arm of the social apparatus embodying and prolonging the domination of much of English life by southern-based finance capital, lucrative professions which shunned professionalism, and the hard-faced men characterised by J.A. Hobson who had done well out of the Empire.

It was the Empire that exposed them in the end, not the parti-coloured Empire of contemptuous exploitation, but the white settler Empire to which they looked for support. Like the Northerners, the pioneers of New Zealand and South Africa had too much use for rugby in the formation of identity and the bonding of community to take it casually and they quickly developed it to the point at which they could thrash its originators. In the rugby reading of modern British history, it was not the Boer War which sounded the alarm about the inadequacy of the British to their imperial role, but the All Blacks’ almost all-conquering tour of 1905, followed by the Springbok foray of 1906-7. True, the All Blacks lost 0-3 to Wales, their only failure to win in 32 matches, but Wales was another land where rugby was played seriously as an expression of emerging identity (‘Immersed into a solidifying national discourse the game acted as a pivotal hardening agent,’ according to one passage which provides a graphic illustration of the problem with much of the prose in this volume). In any case, after Brian Dobbs’s Edwardians at Play, one of the few works to combine an interest in the sociology of sport with a lively appreciation of the sports themselves, it seems almost certain that Bob Deans scored an equalising New Zealand try, though the referee decided otherwise. And the Springboks beat the Welsh 11-0.

The symbolic trouncing of the male leadership élite by the wild colonials caused some piquant heart-searching. In the aftermath of Boer War reverses, it had been possible to attribute the peril of the imperial master-race as much to the physical deficiencies of its slumbred masses as to the mental rigidities of its public-school trained leaders. But the masses did not play rugby union, and defeat on that field was an indictment of their officers only. Confronted with the power, speed and tactical innovation of colonial play, the English had to face the fact that, if their rugby made men, it did not make them either tough or inventive enough. British sportsmen, the Times lamented, were too often shackled by tradition, and their effort against the touring sides revealed ‘that marked tendency to all-round “slackness” which was so often remarked in the work of the average English club-fifteen two or three years ago’. Quoting this passage, John Nauright remarks: ‘It is interesting that supposedly rural places like New Zealand should have taught English sides an industrial concept like specialisation in the scrum and more efficient organisation of players on the field.’ Interesting, but not surprising, for industrial concepts had never formed a staple of conversation in Richmond or Blackheath.

Of course colonial prowess could be and was incorporated into the complacent self-image of the imperial breed. The virility of the kith and kin would compensate for any flagging power in the parent stock, the great colonial outdoors and the virtues it bred for the contracting rural base of English hardiness. Such assumptions did not work very well. Even in new countries, where rugby had at first been seen as an antidote to urban decadence, it was the towns that became the incubators of progress: most of the 1905 All Blacks came from urban areas. Nor did colonials always show a readiness to have their blood drained to replenish the reserves of the Old Country. The vision of a united imperial world force was already looking shadowy, with the failure of imperial federation and Joseph Chamberlain’s concept of imperial Zollverein to grip colonial sentiment. Rugby was in part, for South Africans especially, a means of adapting British cultural implantations for the creation of a distinctive and differentiating identity. The alienness of the 1906-7 Springboks was signalled by the fact that, on the field, for tactical reasons, they communicated in Afrikaans. It hardly needed Canada, with its Francophone contingent, economic orientation to the US and adoption of ice-hockey and baseball, to wreck the notion of imperial solidarity through sport.

Perhaps even the remarkable contribution of dominions and colonies to the imperial effort in the First World War has to be seen as a bid for self-identification and self-assertion on an international stage more than as a response to a motherland’s need. That it was not always willingly offered is clear from Murray Phillips’s study of the two rugby codes in New South Wales. While the mainly middle-class administrators of the union game shut down all competition at once so as not to impede concentration on the war effort, the league, appealing largely to working men and strongly associated with the Catholic school system and the Australian Labour Party, was less eagerly patriotic. Industrial unrest, the defeat of conscription proposals in two referenda, and Catholic allegiances, especially after the Easter Rising, caused the imperial loyalties of the working classes to be impugned and the game they played to be denounced as a bar to recruiting.

That sport had failed to operate not only as an imperial but also as a class consolidator, was confirmed by what happened in Britain. While rugby union ceased on the outbreak of the war, association football continued league fixtures into 1915, despite a flurry of criticism. The opportunities its authorities offered for recruiting speeches at matches produced hardly any result – not a single man at Stamford Bridge in November 1914 when Colonel Burn MP perhaps misjudged the inspirational effect of his reference to the death of his recently enlisted son. The ‘soccerites’ so often despised by rugby men did not always see the point of offering to be killed or maimed.

The volunteering of the pals’ battalions probably derived, as Michael Childs has argued in Labour’s Apprentices: Working-Class Lads in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, less from the instilling of patriotic and militaristic values than from ‘a sense of shared community and fellowship that they themselves had largely created’. Their approach to sport was quite different from that of the middle-class clubman. Quoting a complaint of 1896 about the desire of rugby-playing Yorkshire artisans to win at all costs, with ‘dodges and trickery which public school men consider dishonourable’, Martens rightly points out that honour was being defined in different ways and that dodges and trickery ‘could also be seen as cunning, wit, initiative and imagination ... valued qualities in Northern male working-class culture, especially when they produced success’. Losing gracefully was a luxury of the middle-class lifestyle. A few dodges and a little trickery might have helped on the Somme.

If rugby made a poor fist of promoting national efficiency or imperial solidarity, there was one thing, according to the authors of this collection, which it did supremely well. Whether or not it made men, they are certain that it kept women down. Rugby union, Chandler and Nauright declare, ‘is a sport that denigrates females, is underpinned by female domestic service and child-minding and promotes violence against “others”, particularly against females’. Despite the modish parade of references to gender studies and Gramscian hegemony, not a lot is done to amplify or test these propositions. That rugby has fitted into a complex of institutions and attitudes embodying male domination is obvious, but to explain how it has done so would require an exploration of the whole network of social relations and activities surrounding it, which is scarcely attempted here. Some play is made with isolated instances of overt female hostility to the game as an instrument of male supremacy. The authors could have gone back to the suffragettes’ rage against the manicured turf of bowling greens, golf courses, and cricket and football pitches before the First World War. The focus falls, however, on the opportunity which anti-apartheid opposition to the 1981 Springbok tour afforded New Zealand women to march not only against racist sport but ‘sexist sport as an important prop of the sexist state of New Zealand’, as one of them put it. ‘Women Against Rugby,’ we are told, ‘withdrew all domestic servicing of rugby for the duration of the tour.’ Tantalisingly, we are not told what these Lysistratan activities amounted to. What did New Zealand women do, or refuse to do, and in what numbers, and how did the men react? The assertion that, between 1981 and 1986, ‘it appeared that the hegemonic masculinity of New Zealand society as promoted and nurtured through rugby might collapse’ sounds silly without detailed substantiation. It is not at all clear what women in general have felt about rugby. The authors (all men) might have asked them, not only feminists and football widows, but the long line of wives and girlfriends who have stood admiringly on the touchline and made the teas for the Extra Bs, or, on the other hand, relished the freedom conferred by the absorption of their menfolk in play. Men are sometimes more easily handled as boys. The concept of masculinity embodied in rugby is not one that has been constructed or found convenient by men only.

It was not rugby alone that made the men who played the game, and without a closer integration of the history of sport with the history of adolescence, work and family in particular, we easily exaggerate or misconceive its shaping role, whether for better or for worse. Like most institutionalised forms of preparation for life, it tended to train its pupils for the wrong battles. David Newsome pointed out long ago that the very success of the games cult risked failing to transform boys into men at all. Rugby’s capacity to equip its charges for the challenges of industrialised warfare, emergent democracy and technological revolution was slender. It is hard to know how it survived, except as a monument to male complacency and intellectual inertia, and – an aspect too readily kicked out of play in earnest discussions of functionalism – a source of enjoyment. Even in the present age of frantic work and frenetic efficiency, men, and some women, still head-butt on a thousand muddy fields.