The lost world of Rugby League
A new book celebrates 125 years of rugby league but shines a light on a world that the sport has left behind
It is May 1934 and early morning rain puts King George V and Queen Mary off attending the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. In their place, Lord Derby is the guest of honour as Hunslet defeat Widnes in front of 40,000 spectators.
While the prospect of a rain-sodden afternoon at the rugby proved unappealing for King George, the events of that afternoon would have a profound impact on one fifteen-year-old boy from Hunslet. Richard Hoggart was part of the “crowds of lads” who took to the streets the following day to watch the players return with the cup on “top of a charabanc”, following them from pub to pub “staying out hours after their bedtime for the excitement of seeing their local champions”. When the scene was recounted some decades later in his hugely influential book on working-class life, The Uses of Literacy, rugby league was identified as a most “important element in the group life” of the town.
Just a few months after Hunslet’s triumph, in early 1935, George Orwell set out on his own task to understand the state of the English working class. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he encountered a group with very little to live for but “cheap luxuries”, such as fish and chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon and gambling on the football pools. All of which, he concluded, had helped avert a political revolution. But had Orwell taken a fifteen-minute walk across town on his first weekend in Wigan, he would have encountered a very different scene. At Central Park, 15,000 people – a curious mix of miners, professional workers, factory girls and the unemployed – were escaping from the grind of daily life to see “their boys”, the town’s rugby league team, in full flow.
Orwell is not alone in his blindpsot to the importance of rugby league on a town like Wigan. Indeed, entire histories of sport and politics, of Britain and the North of England, have been undertaken without a serious engagement in the pastime that has sustained its people. Rugby League: A People’s History by Tony Collins can be seen as the antidote to this, with the sport elevated to its rightful place at the centre of the social history of the life and times of northern England.
Collins – an academic historian by trade and a leading authority on the social history of both rugby codes – has brought together a lifetime of research, in a bid to show that sport cannot be separated from history, politics and economics, as well as wider social issues of gender, race and identity. The result is a remarkable tale which, for all its factual density, will appeal to the very people that Collins writes about: ordinary rugby league folk. The timing of the book – to celebrate league’s 125th anniversary – could hardly be more prescient, for there is no better story to encapsulate the changes in working-class life over the past century – and the crisis of identity it now faces – than that of rugby league.
The thread running throughout the book is Collins’ observation that much of rugby league’s “traditional community has been lost due to de-industrialisation or impoverished by the economic system”. Its origins, like that of the early Labour Party, came out of the heavy industries of the post-Victorian economy. The coalfields were essential to its growth as were the cotton, shipbuilding and wool districts of Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire.
This industrial landscape fostered a unique culture – what some scholars would argue was an “imagined community” – that, alongside the workplace, underpinned class identities. It was Colin Welland – the Oscar winner who brought Chariots of Fire to the big screen in the 1980s – who once remarked that the sport provided the North with a “cultural adrenalin”.
Collins adds historical weight to this idea, mapping out how a natural rebelliousness within the game broke down sexual and racial barriers that existed in wider society. A culture that placed performance over social status meant that black players rose to the top on merit which, Collins argues, was due to a “basic belief in equality” which was common in rugby league communities.
So, as Oswald Mosley was organising marches to “Keep Britain White” in the 1950s, Roy Francis was appointed as the first professional black coach of a club at Hull. In the 1960s as Enoch Powell spoke of the “Rivers of Blood”, Billy Boston was adding thousands to the gates of every club he visited with his all-conquering Wigan side. In the 1970s, with Britain still struggling to elect its first black MP, Great Britain won a World Cup with Clive Sullivan as the captain. The ultimate tragedy is that these names are not etched into our wider national sporting consciousness.
Collins cannot be accused of romanticising the sport to suit a particular narrative: he often paints a complex picture of the game, perhaps as a reflection of the working class itself. As well as recounting some of the difficulties black players faced, he is honest in his assessment that the sport has failed to reach beyond its overwhelmingly white audience, despite the ever-changing demographics of northern England and the arrival of immigrant workers who still remain largely absent from the terraces.
It is this shift to a post-industrial landscape – and the identity crisis which it has caused on large swathes of Labour’s heartlands – which is worth further examination. Deindustrialisation in the 70s and the 80s left a permanent scar on the world of rugby league, on its people, on its industries, and perhaps most of all on its identity. As its natural fan base shrunk in terms of size and economic power, so too did the game’s ability to compete in a globalised marketplace for sponsorship, revenue and media attention.
Twenty-five years ago – when the sport came together to celebrate its centenary – it appeared to be heading in a very different direction. Politically, this was the dawn of the New Labour era, where Tony Blair had persuaded his party to accept the rewriting of Clause IV of its constitution, to move on from class conflict: “Forget the past, no more bosses versus workers – we are on the same side”.
Running parallel to this was a sense that rugby league’s time had finally come. In 1995 it was the Daily Mail who declared that the sport was in the box seat to become “the world game for the 21st century” where, in contrast to football, it offered up “good, clean, family fun” with players attractive to sponsors: “tough but intelligent, hard but presentable”. The kind of game perfect for the buzzword of the age: Middle England.
Super League was intended to be rugby league’s Clause IV moment: a symbolic but important shift to create a year zero for the game, to put an end to conflict, to remove its “cloth cap” image and to take the game into new markets.
In language that chimed with New Labour’s spirit, the chief architect of Super League, Maurice Lindsay, argued that it would “represent a dramatic sea change in approach, a quantum leap in thinking”. He urged the sport to rebrand itself for the 21st century: “Life is changing. We have to change with it. You can’t stop history developing”.
At the turn of the century, both New Labour and the Super League appeared to have established a new hegemony, with old debates about class seemingly settled. But if we are to draw a single lesson from Collins’ story of the past 125 years, it is that the sport cannot operate in a vacuum from wider society. Since the 2008 financial crash, old arguments about identity have returned to the centre of internal debate. There is a growing sense that the game has both failed in its mission to attract new markets, whilst, simultaneously, alienating its foundation clubs. The result is a permanent position of managed decline and a slide into national irrelevance.
Rugby league, like the Labour Party, has struggled to carve out a new identity for itself
One avenue that Collins does not fully explore – and where I hope the debate can continue – is how the sport can again become a vehicle for hope and aspiration in places that have been greatly impacted by the changes of industry. Those scenes of joy which Richard Hoggart articulated in Uses no longer underpin league culture. Since 1990, only the supporters of Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Bradford have been able to call their teams Champions of England and to reap the social benefits this brings. The same aspiration gap is killing the Challenge Cup, where few teams now hold out any hope of winning it or even causing an early round upset, leading to a general disinterest in what was once rugby league’s “jewel in the Crown”.
The changing world of rugby league has only added to a wider sense of loss and alienation that asserted itself in the 2016 Brexit referendum and in the recent conversion of once rock-solid Labour seats into Tory strongholds. Rugby league, like the Labour Party, has struggled to carve out a new identity for itself that both pays homage to its past but, at the same time, integrates it in a positive vision for the future.
How both the “people’s game” and the “people’s party” come to terms with the disconnect in its traditional stronghold will be crucial to their survival as twin pillars of working-class life, as they were for much of the 20th century. All of which brings a pressing urgency to Rugby League: A People’s History as a stimulating addition into the debate. As such, Collins’ book is worthy of readership well beyond custodians of the sport; to be used as a tool to better understand who we are and where we now go from here.
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