How I enraged xenophobes, Christians and devotees of both rugby codes

It is not an easy trick to write a newspaper column and simultaneously open a can of worms, but I appear to have pulled it off with my reflections a week ago on Peter Howard, captain of the England rugby union team in 1931, who was engaged by Oswald Mosley to crack heads, when it was deemed necessary, as leader of a bunch known as Mosley's Biff Boys.

It is not an easy trick to write a newspaper column and simultaneously open a can of worms, but I appear to have pulled it off with my reflections a week ago on Peter Howard, captain of the England rugby union team in 1931, who was engaged by Oswald Mosley to crack heads, when it was deemed necessary, as leader of a bunch known as Mosley's Biff Boys.

A barrage of e-mails compels me to return to the subject; after all, I can't think of any previous occasion when in fewer than 800 words I have provoked raging xenophobes (how odd that they read The Independent), committed Christians (who took issue with my description of Howard's beloved Oxford Group, which became Moral Rearmament), fans of rugby union and devotees of rugby league, into writing letters to me ranging from the calmly informative to the offensively irate.

A Mr Bond went at me hammer and tongs for criticising Howard without setting his support for Mosley in some historical context. When he'd stopped condemning me as "disgraceful" and "contemptible", and wondering why I hadn't similarly exposed some Irish rugby star who perchance supported the IRA, he more temperately explained that "right-wing ideas were very popular among many members of the Establishment as a way to defend the country against Socialist revolution." Which is true, but still it seemed worthy of comment, I replied, that an England rugby union captain led Mosley's Biff Boys. And presumably it was possible to swing to the right without swinging with the right.

Most interesting of all were those letters from rugby league fundamentalists who said it did not surprise them in the least that an England rugby union captain should have joined Mosley. Several of them quoted George Orwell, although it is also said to have been Philip Toynbee, who wryly observed that a bomb placed under the West Stand at Twickenham would set back the cause of British fascism by 50 years. A larger number cited South African rugby union in the age of apartheid, and French rugby union during the Vichy regime, as further examples of the sport's tainted record in what might rather provocatively be termed human rights.

I was told that, to further acquaint myself with the history of rugby in Vichy France, I should read a book called The Forbidden Game, by Mike Rylance. I contacted Rylance himself. He told me about the campaign known as Refaire l'Unité du Rugby Français, which in 1940 resulted in the Vichy minister for sport, the former Wimbledon singles champion Jean Borotra, effectively signing rugby league's death warrant for the duration of the Second World War. To this day it has not recovered its pre-war popularity, which eclipsed that of rugby union.

The professionalism of rugby à treize was considered ethically unsound by the Vichy French, although of more significance, Rylance explained, was simply that many collaborationists in positions of power were union men, not least Colonel Pascot, Borotra's deputy and later his successor, who had been an international in the 15-man game and resented the fact that it was on its uppers while rugby league was thriving. So rugby à treize was declared illegal, and its assets, including its Paris headquarters, were seized. It recovered sufficiently to win a Test series against the mighty Australians, in Australia, in 1951. But the revival was short-lived, and efforts continue to force the French rugby union to make reparations.

To return to the late Peter Howard, I was mildly troubled, having rather questioned his character and implied that he fought for Franco (which he did not), to discover that his son is the eminent Times columnist Philip Howard, himself the father of a guy I was friendly with at university. I duly talked to Philip, who was the soul of kindness and clearly feels deep ambivalence about Peter and his convictions. He did tell me, however, his father had been born with a disability, a withered left leg, which in his international rugby career he used to conceal with copious bandaging. But once, when he was running in an English try at Cardiff Arms Park, the bandaging came undone and, according to Philip, "was flying behind him like a Jack Russell chasing him", much to the crowd's delight.

It was good to get a more rounded portrait of a somewhat flawed hero of English rugby union. I hope the worms can now be considered back in the can.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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