Rugby Union: How the imperial settlers carried an oval ball from the Pampas to Pacific

Railway engineers, policemen and farmers redefined the map of the rugby-playing world.
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The Independent Online
THE CAST list of countries for the fourth Rugby World Cup reads like the answers to a fiendishly difficult geography test in which third formers have to name the countries shaded in on a map of the world.

France, Australia, South Africa would be no problem, but Fiji, Tonga, Western Samoa, Uruguay and Romania would tax the brain of the school swot. They reveal the eccentric nature of the spread of rugby union throughout the world and though, on the one hand, they are minnows providing early- round practice for the big teams, they represent the chance rugby has always given to small, globally insignificant countries to achieve national identity and pride.

But the familiar power axis in rugby between the northern hemisphere of Britain and France and the southern giants of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia hides the fact that the rugby map of the world has been pretty static for more than a century.

Even in Japan, students in the British colonies in Yokohama and Kobe were playing rugby as early as 1874, just four years after the first recorded game in New Zealand. The ease of modern travel has meant international tours involving the lesser rugby playing nations are a relatively new phenomenon. Japan first came to Britain in 1973, prompting a belief that they had just taken up the game even though there are more than 2,000 clubs throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Most of the credit for the spread of rugby throughout the world goes to the imperial settlers from England who took the game abroad with them as a popular leisure pursuit of the Victorian middle class. The Empire game grew roots in South Africa and New Zealand through the pioneers who settled in these far-flung lands as farmers, engineers, businessmen and, more pertinently, schoolmasters. The father of South African rugby is generally acknowledged to be Canon George Ogilvy, a whiskery old boy of Winchester and Wadham College, Oxford, who introduced a version of the game to the Diocesan College in Cape Town when he became head- master in 1861. As boys left to return home to their farms they took the game into the rugged rural areas. It was a symbol of class and education.

A group of old boys of Marlborough School brought the game to Canada when they attended university there. Canada in turn took the game over the border into the United States - McGill University of Montreal played Harvard in 1874 (a 0-0 draw). It was a neighbourly thing to do and followed the principle of New Zealand immigrants taking the game back home to Western Samoa and England kicking the oval ball over the Channel to France.

In Canada the sheer size of the country limited its expansion while clearly in the United States rugby suffers from competition with other home- grown sports although, incredibly, the US won the gold medal the last time rugby featured in the Olympics in 1924.

Settlers took the game to South America in the 1880s. In Argentina it was spread by British engineers building railways across the pampas. Soon the native population decided they could play as well as the ex-pats. Brazil, who have yet to feature in the Rugby World Cup took an early interest. It reputedly reached their shores at the turn of the century when a troupe of visiting actors had a game on Copacobana Beach. In 1936 the legendary English winger Prince Alexander Obolenski, touring with a Rugby Football Union XV, scored a record 17 tries against Brazil so it is no surprise they prefer the round ball over there.

Perhaps the most incongruous rugby playing nation of all those at the 1999 event is Romania. How on earth did a team from the Eastern bloc get involved? The answer is not at all recently. Back in the 1930s the sport was greatly encouraged by France, desperate to try to establish links with countries that might afford opposition. For years the home unions had looked on in horror as several players lost their lives playing French rugby. In 1927, in the most notorious match of all time, involving the southern towns of Quillan, the strongest team in the country at the time, and Perpignan, the Quillan hooker Gaston Riviere received such a kicking that he died from his injuries.

Hatred between the two teams had sprung up because a Quillan industrialist called Jean Bourrel had poached key players from their Catalan rivals, Perpignan and Toulouse, with the offer of money and jobs at his factory. The strategy worked because his team won the French national championship three times in a row from 1927, but it was success achieved at a grave price for the game. That price was hatred towards Quillan, who were perceived as a team of mercenaries.

By 1930 the middle-class amateur forces that controlled rugby on the English side of the Channel had seen enough and decided France was not for them and they remained isolated until the Second World War. Instead France joined forces with Germany to form an organisation dedicated to rugby. Romania, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium were involved. Of these, Romania embraced the game most enthusiastically and skilfully. Many of the intelligentsia of Romania studied in Paris in the 1930s and took the game home to the Bucharest bourgeoisie. In 1957 Romania were a drop kick away from beating France in one of the most famous of international games, which finished 15-18 in Bucharest. It was an enormous shock to the French. One of the unspoken rules of introducing a game to different parts of the world is that they should not return the compliment by beating you.

The spread of the game on the European continent, reflecting the changing political map of the 1930s, lacked the special imperial ingredient that took it to countries like Fiji a century ago. That island owed much to the Royal Navy and colonial policemen who brought the game with them. Rather like France, the Fijians took the sport and stamped their own personality on it. In France it became le rugby champagne, a description that would still fit the exuberant attacking style of the Pacific islanders.

Now, more than 10,000 Fijians play the game, whose popularity in the Pacific owed much to "local" island rivalries. Fiji first played Tonga in 1924, 40 years before they brought their talents to Britain and France. The taste of home which rugby traditionally gave colonials throughout the world was soon overtaken by the desire to show the mother country how well they could play. That was certainly true of New Zealand, who used their rugby prowess so famously demonstrated on the 1905 tour to British shores as an advertisement to attract immigrants. The message from the then Prime Minster Richard Seddon was that these sons of the Empire were fitter, stronger and had a better quality of life than their British male counterparts.

The ability of rugby to project a communal identity has enabled the game to be the national sport in many diverse countries, a position no other sport can aspire to. No country better represents this than Wales, where rugby has given a tiny country a world stage.

Back in 1905 the history of Wales was changed when they beat the All Blacks 3-0 in Cardiff in arguably the most famous international match of all time. After the visitors had performed the haka, a reverential hush was broken by the Welsh team as they launched into Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of my Fathers). From that moment this would be the anthem of Welsh rugby.

Sean Smith is author of "The Union Game" (BBC Books, pounds 16.99)