“It’s becoming more and more like football.”
In the eyes of some rugby folk, this is about as low as their sport can stoop. We had quite the flurry of such complaints over the festive period, an alleged spit by one player followed by a director of rugby asking a journalist “outside” for the sort of unseemly squabble more common outside nightclubs.
All very football, apparently. Not rugger at all. Except that rugby’s charge sheet of unseemly behaviour is much longer and more twisted than the champions of its “core values” would have us believe. The difference is that for most of its existence rugby was an amateur sport in the Pre-Social-Median Era, so no one cared about what went on. Indeed, they celebrated misdemeanours as high jinks or “the dark arts”.
More damaging to rugby’s reputation was the charge of Ellis Genge that the sport remains classist. This is the opposite of being “like football” and, if true, is far more of an obstruction to progress than any shouting match or ill-directed saliva. His description of the reaction he felt he provoked when he ate sausage and chips in the clubhouse did not set rugby in a flattering light.
But did he really provoke it, or was he just being self-conscious? There is no doubt rugby has a disproportionate number of privately educated people (although still very much a minority), because so many private schools have adopted it as their sport. But that doesn’t make it classist.
I confess I went to one. Then I played my adult rugby at two places: one a town club, Dorking; the other an old-boys club, Old Blues. Both happened to be in the same league for that decade, the 1990s.
At Dorking, the players were predominantly working class. Because I didn’t want to be seen as a posh thespian, I used to affect a slight twang and lied about the fact I was at acting school in Guildford. (I lied to the acting school too. Rugby wasn’t allowed. Apparently, it messes with your tap-dancing.) So, I had the opposite concern to Genge’s. Probably needn’t have worried, but we’re all driven by insecurities.
When Dorking played the Old Blues we used to scream at each other before the match that these posh bastards thought we were scum. Whatever worked. Then when I moved to London and the Old Blues we played with a variety of accents up and down the classes, round and about the world, all of them, as at Dorking, united in rugby and beer.
Rugby is going to become more “like football”, because it is a sport that was amateur and is now professional. That means the pressure and scrutiny are continually intensifying. Rugby has never been without unpleasant behaviour, but the world is more sensitive to it now, as it has been to football’s for much longer.
And rugby is not classist. It is more egalitarian and cared about than ever before. More like football, in other words.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ivon-Michael-Aylwin/dp/1910453463