Book of the Week: The day League became a different class

Rugby's Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football By Tony Collins (Frank Cass, pounds 35 hardback, pounds 16.50 paperback).
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Rugby's Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football

By Tony Collins (Frank Cass, pounds 35 hardback, pounds 16.50 paperback).

IT HAS been the fashion over the past few years, as the old distinctions between amateur and professional have collapsed, to assume that the schism that divided rugby in 1895 was an aberration that split like from like.

Tony Collins' book is not only the most exhaustive and scholarly account of the background to events 103 years ago, it is also a timely counter- blast against that revisionist tendency.

His conclusion is that rugby league and union are not twins separated by accident. There was and is a fundamental difference and it is not one of line-out and play-the-ball; it is cultural, economic and political.

"Part of its appeal was the fact that it was almost entirely separate from the middle and upper classes and, because of its marginalised position in wider society, not wholly part of national public life," he writes of the new game.

It is this sense of separateness, of self-containment within a different set of rules, on and off the field, that leads to what outsiders have often perceived as a "chip on the shoulder" attitude. Collins' work should not be read as a text in support of a permanent mood of resentment, but it does establish a philosophy that underpins the game.

What this book shows is that rugby union, before and after the split, was as riddled with snobbery and class bias as the most doctrinaire league propagandist could wish.

At times, the effect is unavoidably comic. Take the instruction that the Yorkshire Rugby Union issued to Goole in 1898, banning them from playing a charity match against the touring cast of "Little Red Riding Hood" because the theatricals had already played a similar game against Batley of the Northern Union, as the Rugby Football League was originally known. Making a pantomime of themselves, quite literally.

Of course, not all the idiocy was on one side. In its early years, the Northern Union fell over itself to be as zealous as its old master in resisting full professionalism.

Players could be suspended for not having a "proper" job - with occupations like billiard marker and glass collector specifically excluded - and one club was fined because their players did not work on the morning of a Cup final.

For all that, it was a more honest, less hypocritical code of rugby that was born in 1895. Tony Collins shows in this major work that there are reasons behind it developing the way that it did and that they are reasons as honourable as those behind the rise of any other form of working class self-expression.

It should be compulsory reading for anyone who believes that the game more than a hundred years later is merely about competing for the same shiny suits and corporate contracts.

Dave Hadfield