Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain: A Social and Cultural History

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  3. Sport, Leisure and Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain | Reviews in History

The result was a stitch-up, which meant that for a century after the split with slight relaxations during the two world wars just about any contact on the part of members of the Rugby Football Union with anyone associated with rugby league meant an automatic ban from rugby union.

It was this pariah status that helped give rugby league its sense of identity—not just northern and manly, but also resolutely working class.


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And the story he tells is a fascinating one. Both were ideologies, rooted in working class life, that were critical of existing social hierarchies, but which essentially naturalised the status quo. So while rugby league proved its patriotism in both world wars, its sense of democratic egalitarianism meant that on many issues it was much more progressive than other British institutions. He had left Wales because the racism of the Welsh Rugby Union acted as a bar to his selection to their national team—no black person played for that team before the s.

In Clive Sullivan became the first black man to captain a national British sporting team. Nevertheless, if racism was kicked out of the front door, Collins is unafraid of pointing to how it returned through the back.

Coaches thought in stereotypes, and blacks almost universally played centre or wing. Moreover, the parochialism of those who ran the sport meant that, while there was always a smattering of Jewish players—particularly in Leeds—they never reached out to the Asian communities which grew up across the north in the post-war period.

This reflected broader contradictions. Rugby league was egalitarian, but it was also manly and hard; it was democratic, but it was also parochial and inward looking. Just like social democracy, therefore, it reflected the fact that working class life exists both in and against capitalism. This is nowhere truer than in the dialectic at the core of the game between those who ran the sport—largely small businessmen in general, and publicans in particular—and those who played and watched the game—largely members of the manual working class.

Collins is right to point out that rugby league reflected a sense of northern working class identity, but he mistakenly suggests that this was a working class culture. This point is easily countered with evidence deployed by Collins himself. The strength of rugby league teams when compared to their rugby union alternatives is best understood, he argues, as a reflection of their work situation. One has only to think about this statement for a moment to realise how misleading is the concept of working class culture. The fact that the discipline of the team reflected the capitalist discipline of the workplace suggests that we are talking about bourgeois culture, understood not as something that the bourgeoisie does, but rather as the culture of a capitalist society.

The result is a wonderfully readable account of a century of our history. After sharing a cup of tea with an old bloke during his first break he was pulled to one side by one of his workmates.

Unpredictability in competitive environments. Paper presented at the Complex systems in sport Barcelona, Spain.

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Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain: A Social and Cultural History

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Sport, Leisure and Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain | Reviews in History

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