Rugby union spectators may not necessarily find their match-day experience perfect in every way (when, for example, will some of the Twickenham ignoramuses learn to wait for a break in play before they stumble down the row en route to yet another trip to the bar/khazi?), but they can be reasonably sure they won’t be verbally or physically abused by opposition supporters. Unlike football.
I am no expert on social behaviour and the tribalism that pervades football, although I suspect many of us hold a few opinions. But it’s axiomatic that two opposing supporters can sit bang next to each other at a rugby match and enjoy an afternoon of banter and mutual respect… yet if you try to put (maybe even the same) two opposing supporters next to each other at a football match, it would potentially be incendiary. Hence the need for “home” and “away” stands at football stadiums.
I’ve attended more than a couple of rugby matches down the years. And there has only ever been one fleeting moment when I was physically or verbally threatened. It was at the National Stadium in Cardiff in 1983, when Wales and England drew 13-13. A mate and I, both sporting England colours, were standing in a packed Taff End. And we cheered when England kicked a penalty goal, whereupon a not entirely sober Welsh chap attempted to throw a punch at me. I say “punch” – it was more like a flailing arm that would have left a fly laughing in his face. Whichever way, seemingly every other Welsh person in the immediate vicinity (and trust me, they were all Welsh – my mate and I were in splendid English isolation) told him to grow up or get lost. Good on them.
Rugby fans, for the most part, want to enjoy themselves. Yes, many of them don’t mind a libation or two, but their emphasis is on having fun – and that may include having fun with opposition fans, too. Take the packed Cardiff pubs on Wales/England day, when fans from either side of Offa’s Dyke happily trade songs without offence being taken. (Exhibit A, from the Welsh to the English – sung with much love, I’m sure: “You can stick your fucking chariot up your arse….”)
Just as violence and tribalism in football are cross-cultural, so rugby supporters seem to adhere to an unwritten global code of conduct that includes respect for opposing teams and supporters – and therefore the sport itself. Okay, French supporters may whistle an opposition kicker when they frankly shouldn’t. But I also remember being at the Parc des Princes in 1982, when England beat France against the odds. Well, I just about remember being there – because all that some French folk, who had hitherto been complete strangers to me, insisted upon doing was to buy any nearby Rosbifs beer after beer (after beer) to help us celebrate.
The root causes of football violence and tribalism are unquestionably complicated, but self-policing by sports spectators doesn’t half go a long way.