Global growth of an old colonial hobby

RUGBY WORLD CUP 1995: There are now 105 countries playing rugby around the world. David Llewellyn examines the spread of the sport
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A schoolboy started it. Convicts continued it. The police pushed it. The Services ordered it. When the British Empire was in the pink, rugby travelled the world. Colonialism was the initial key to spreading the game.

Emigrants and those unfortunates transported from Britain for crimes in the 18th and 19th centuries took it with them to Australasia and New Zealand. The game reached outposts of the globe such as Fiji, where Britain was asked to police the islands, and for recreation the force introduced rugby. The Army in particular introduced it on various frontiers.

These days there is rather more financial pull than imperial push behind the game's rapid growth. Commercial interest and television money have rendered many of the old values of the sport redundant, and in the past 10 years or so there has been a danger of being trampled in the rush to grab a piece of the financial action.

The Pacific has become a hotbed, with countries such as Western Samoa, Tonga and Fiji breaking through. China entered their first international tournament, the Hong Kong 10s, in March, and strains of Eskimo Nell can be heard as far afield as Alaska, Thailand, the Cook Islands, Chile, Tunisia, Trinidad, Botswana, Austria, Belgium, Israel and Norway.

At the latest count some 105 countries have taken up rugby and of those, 67 are now affiliated to the game's world governing body, the International Rugby Football Board.

The spread and the distribution of the game around the world appears slightly haphazard. There is no clear demographic or geographic reason for the way it has touched some parts of the world and by-passed others.

Take this World Cup. The top eight generally have a well- charted history, although Australia's is interesting. The game is played only in two states in the home of the world champions - New South Wales and Queensland.

Italy are emerging as the strongest European nation outside the Five Nations' tournament. They have an obvious geographical connection with France, which explains the initial adoption of the game, but it is their link with Australia which has proved so beneficial. A number of top players, including David Campese and Michael Lynagh, have played for the leading Italian clubs, who are concentrated mainly in the north. There are claims that the Roman Legions played an early form of the game - they would have picked that up from their skirmishes with the Welsh.

In the past, Romania were recognised as the leading challengers to the European establishment. They owe their beginnings to students returning from London and Paris around the turn of the century.

France are also responsible for introducing the Ivory Coast to rugby and 22 years after forming their union, they make their debut in this year's tournament. They have done well to qualify, beating both Namibia and Zimbabwe to do so.

Tonga benefit from so many of their leading players turning out for top Australian and New Zealand sides. The ties with those two countries, in particular Australia, are understandable since they learned the game from them.

Both Canada and Japan have Britain to thank for their rugby heritage. The British Columbia RU was founded in 1889 when sides from the British Armed Forces played local clubs. The Canadians, who were one of the great successes of the last tournament, in which they reached the quarter-finals.

This will be their third World Cup, as it will be for Japan. The country was introduced to the game in 1899 by a former Cambridge professor , who used to stage an annual fixture at Keio University against Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, formed by ex-pat Brits. Now it is the country's second most popular team sport, behind baseball.

The game is continuing to grow around the globe. Professionalism will no doubt accelerate the process. But once the growing has stopped, where then? Will it really catch on in Katmandu? Will Tibet and the Faroe Islands be competing in the 21st century? The chances are, no. What is certain is that those countries with a foot already in the door are going to want a bigger share of the goodies on offer, the rest may find the door getting harder to force open.


AFRICA: Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Reunion, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

CENTRAL AMERICA AND CARIBBEAN: Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Virgin Islands (UK), Virgin Islands (US).

EASTERN EUROPE: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia.

WESTERN EUROPE: Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Wales.

FAR EAST: Brunei, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Sarawak, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand.

MIDDLE EAST: Arabian Gulf States, Israel.

NORTH AMERICA: Canada, United States.

SOUTH AMERICA: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela.

THE PACIFIC: Cook Islands, Fiji, Hawaii, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga, Wallis and Futuna Islands, Western Samoa.

AUSTRALASIA Australia, New Zealand.