Tony Collins, a leading authority on rugby league in England, turns his attention to the 15-man game in an account of the social history of English rugby union. This text offers an illuminating insight into the history of the sport, from the myth of William Webb Ellis, who according to the plaque at Rugby School "with a fine disregard of the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it", to England's World Cup victory in 2003.
The work is based on a variety of sources, including the archives of the Rugby Football Union (RFU). Collins also draws on biographies and autobiographies of players, newspaper accounts and scholarly works to provide comprehensive insights into the game at a number of different levels. As a social historian, he is able to place the sport in its wider social context. Here, the importance of social class and notions of hegemonic masculinity are explored to explain the positioning of the game in England.
The book is much more than a history of rugby union; it also offers perceptive insights into the changing social conditions that shaped England and notions of English identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. It includes interesting commentary on the interplay of English and British identities and the concept of Britishness as "a subordinate sub-set of Englishness" for English rugby and English society in general.
Each of the book's nine chapters focuses on a particular aspect of the game, with Collins detailing the development of the sport from the public schools of Tom Brown's Schooldays to today's international arena of quadrennial World Cup competitions. The great split of 1895, which resulted in two different versions of rugby (union and league), was essentially about social class. The union game, in England at least, saw itself as representative of middle-class principles, and Collins details the ways in which rugby league was ostracised and demonised by those in power. A century on and the open professionalisation of rugby union may have once again threatened the established order, but the author notes that, unlike in the late 19th century, this time "the essential nature of the sport was not under threat".
As the self-appointed guardians of the game, and in particular the ethos of amateurism, the RFU's strained relationships with its counterparts in other parts of the rugby union world are examined. Debates concerning the controversies surrounding amateurism and "shamateurism" form a common theme throughout the sport's history.
The first World Cup in 1987 was important for increasing awareness of the differing interpretations of amateurism across the world and was, without doubt, a catalyst for open professionalism in 1995. Given its larger playing base and greater financial resources than any of the other rugby-playing countries, England found itself well placed to capitalise on the increased commercialisation and commodification of the sport.
The final chapter reflects on England's victory in the 2003 World Cup final. This was the first time a team from the northern hemisphere had lifted the Webb Ellis trophy. In England's match-winning hero, "England had its own modern incarnation of Tom Brown", yet Jonny Wilkinson has only ever been a professional rugby player, having signed a professional contract after leaving school. From Brown to Wilkinson, this book is as much a tale of a changing England as it is the history of English rugby union, and it deserves an audience beyond the sports history community.
A Social History of English Rugby Union
By Tony Collins
Published 13 January 2009