Conversion to another code

November 21, 2003

With the help of the world cup, rugby union is muscling in on Aussie academe, says Huw Richards

This weekend, Australia will come under the world spotlight as it hosts the final of the Rugby Union World Cup, in which its national side will face England. As it counts the tourist dollars and enjoys the climax of an event that has allowed it to recapture some of the atmosphere of the 2000 Olympics, it should direct thanks towards Sydney University. Because, argues Tom Hickie - generally acknowledged as the nation's leading rugby historian - without the university, the game might have died in Australia.

Hickie says: "In the 1860s, it had the first club in Australasia, the eighth oldest in the world. Over the next 30 or so years, its graduates took the game into the country, where often, as the local solicitor or doctor, they'd become the president or secretary of a town club." But its most vital contribution came after Australian rugby split in 1908, with most of the game shifting to rugby league. "The university kept the game going," Hickie says. "If it had gone over to league, union would have struggled to survive."

The key moment came in 1920 when H. V. "Doc" Evatt, a supreme court justice at 36, leader of the Labor Party and one of the founders of the United Nations, lost a vote to get the club to go over to league.

The university club has continued to provide a distinctive element to the Australian game. It went on the first tour of Japan in the 1950s; it had six players who not only declined selection against South Africa's Springboks in 1971 but toured Australia to address anti-apartheid rallies; and it produced stars such as scrum-half Nick Farr-Jones, who as captain in 1991 led the Wallabies to their first World Cup championship. The club survives and prospers in the Sydney premiership, a competition it has won more than any other club, most recently in 2001.

Given this close historic linkage, one might expect rugby union to have made a big impact on the academic side of universities, particularly as sports science and sports history are more firmly established in Australia than they are in Britain. The Australian Society for Sports History dates back to the late 1970s, has a membership of more than 400 and its last biennial conference stretched over five days. Both sports science and history have used the World Cup as an opportunity for significant conferences. The Sydney chapter of the ASSH staged "Rugby, History and the Remaking of the Class Game", at the University of New South Wales, while Queensland University of Technology's Centre for Rugby Studies hosted a three-day "International Conference on the Science and Practice of Rugby".

Even so, the game is a relatively marginal presence among historians - that a part-time academic such as Hickie, a barrister and a lecturer at UNSW, however gifted, should be regarded as the major authority is perhaps symptomatic. Tony Hughes, history lecturer and one of the UNSW conference organisers, says: "Rugby has been seen as the pursuit of a comparatively narrow group of people: those who went to private school." Sports with most to say about national identity tend to be those most studied, hence the prominence of Welsh and New Zealand academics in studying rugby. In Australia, and particularly in Melbourne, this means that the football code most studied is Australian football. Its cultural significance is shown both by the fact that a major-league mainstream historian such as Geoffrey Blainey wrote a history of the game's early years, and his choice of title, A Game of our Own .

Rob Pascoe, professor of history at Victoria University, says: "There is a tradition of Melbourne intellectuals being enthusiastic supporters of football teams. It provides a way of identifying with the masses, a badge of authenticity." In the 1920s, the Victorian (now Australian) Football League was run by Baldwin Spencer, professor of botany at Melbourne University and an expert on aboriginal tribal life. "I wonder if he noticed parallels between the tribal life he studied and the tribalism of football fans," Pascoe says.

Until recently, though, football was more a matter of relaxation than publication. The ice was broken in 1981 by the late Ian Turner, known as "the footy prof" for the remarkable newspaper articles in which he developed a Marxist analysis of Melbourne's football clubs, followed by Pascoe's The Winter Game in 1995. ASSH conferences have run parallel sessions on the different codes. Rob Hess, lecturer in the sports history unit at Victoria, wants this change at future meetings. "We want to get people out of their ghettos and see their games in a wider context," he says. "My PhD on Australian football was supervised by Bill Murray, a soccer specialist, and benefited enormously from it." The UNSW conference brought together rugby experts such as Hickie and De Montfort University's Tony Collins with those studying other codes.

Besides the class analysis, sports historians are also showing the significance of gender. Hess says: "Football always had male and female audiences. Meetings would start with references to 'ladies and gentlemen'. With rugby it was always just 'gentlemen'."

Such evidence from a century ago has contemporary resonance - football crowds are reckoned to be 45 per cent female, while the sports desk of The Age in Melbourne is a notable nursery for talented women writers.

Several hundred miles north in Brisbane, David Keating, director of QUT's Centre for Rugby Studies, also faces contemporary demands: "We have both to convince the academic community that rugby is a legitimate subject for study, and persuade coaches - whose interest is mainly in what will help them win next week - that we have something to offer."

The QUT conference, running parallel strands on medicine, science, coaching and contemporary rugby issues, reflected the content of the university's postgraduate certificate in rugby studies, a qualification in its second year (now offered internationally as a distance programme) that is aimed at coaches and administrators. Staff include Steve Nance, conditioning adviser to Australia's World Cup winning team in 1999, and physical science lecturer Markus Deutsch, deviser of the new Smartspeed electronic system for measuring performance during training sessions.

Keating hopes to see his centre become a national and international focus for rugby expertise. Sport still tends to be wary of academic input, but the fact that the conference attracted speakers such as Australian Rugby Union boss John O'Neill, International Rugby Board director of refereeing Steve Griffiths and Australia's World Cup winning coach Rod McQueen suggests that they're going in the right direction.

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