A Thugs' Game

Rugby: a game for thugs played by gentlemen; football: a game for gentlemen played by thugs - or so the old saying goes. But whom would you least like to bump into on a dark night, a rugby player or a footballer?

Rugby Union (some call it Rugby football just to confuse people), like football, was first played on the playing fields of England's public (that means private!) schools in the first half of the 19th century. The story has it that one day in 1823, 16-year-old William Webb Ellis, while playing football at Rugby School (located in the English midlands), picked up the ball and ran with it. It just seemed, he said, more natural. And that day, rugby was born. "Natural"? Is running around holding an oval bag of leather filled with air any more natural than kicking around a round bag of leather filled with air? Ah, but that's sport...

In Britain's imperial heyday, when the "sun never set on the empire," young men from "good families" like William Webb Ellis would be sent away to the likes of Eton, Harrow, Winchester, and, of course, Rugby, to be trained as gentlemen and empire builders. These rather austere institutions churned out generations of young men who ruled or administered almost half of the world.

These schools instilled in them impeccable manners, discipline, physical prowess and, perhaps above all, the notion of fair play. Although whether the countries ruled by Britain agreed with this "fair play" idea is debatable. Rugby, like cricket (the summer sport for gentlemen which the English also invented and which seems totally incomprehensible to anyone in Europe or the USA), provided a way not only for channelling the energy of young men (it was difficult living in those all-male institutions!). It also taught them lessons that would, it was believed, stand them in good stead for governing the gigantic British Empire.

Rugby versus Football

Football, on the other hand, though originally a sport for gentlemen, later in the 19th century caught on among Britain's working classes as well. Football was easier to organize, the rules were simpler and it could be played anywhere: in the street, in the schoolyard, in the backyard, even in the living room at home (crash! there goes another of mum's vases). Football thus became the more popular game.

Around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, in most of the places the British either governed or lived, rugby rather than football took hold. In Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, for example, the game was taken by emigrants leaving the shores of Britain. Perhaps the round footballs got squashed into rugby balls by the weight of luggage; we shall never know. Whatever the case, these three countries today dominate the sport of rugby.

As for the Americans, well, it was already a little late for them, having decided to jump ship in 1776 with their Revolution. Still, their game of American Football is - despite riot police-style helmets and players so padded they look like armchairs - pretty similar.

Meanwhile, rugby developed a different spirit in the colonies from that prevailing in England, as it also did in the non-English parts of Britain: Wales, Scotland and Ireland (which was not yet independent). For example, the Welsh mining communities very early on took the game to their hearts and produced some of the best teams ever seen. It became their national sport and they began to play it with a religious zeal.

Other countries soon caught on to the game. In France it developed rapidly in the early part of last century. In Argentina it caught on slightly later, again helped along by English merchants and the significant Welsh community there. No Maradonnas yet, though. Now the Italians play, too, but they tend to be the whipping boys of rugby championships. How long, however, before Italy produces its Baggios, del Pierros and Maldinis of the rugby world?

Order out of chaos

Rugby remains something of a mystery, however. Anyone watching the recent World Cup, for example, could have been excused for thinking they were watching a big brawl, and certainly not a game for gentlemen. Fifteen burly and aggressive-looking men jumping on each other, grabbing each others' shirts and tussling over the ball. The game appears to have few rules at all. But even in the deepest rucks - when all the players appear to jump on each other in a large mass while trying to get the ball that is lying on the ground - there is order. Each of the participants knows (more or less) exactly where they can be and what they can and cannot do. And the referee is always right! And when the players are running and passing the ball with so much speed, skill and fluency, it can be a beautiful game to watch.

It is often said that the room for foul play in rugby is much greater than in football, but that rugby players play fair because they believe in the spirit of the game, unlike their less civilized cousins in football. Footballers and supporters would probably say the opposite, of course, and may be upset at the notion they are less civilized than their flat-nosed, hard-headed cousins. It depends which sport you like best. The truth is, rugby and football both have their hard men and soft men. And women, too, of course, in increasing numbers.

Rugby is famous for its social side. All-male groups of post-match players of both sides will traditionally drink themselves to oblivion (in a civilized way, of course) while singing "dirty" rugby songs in the bar after the match. Is this what it is all about, then? Rugby aficionados say that in rugby they fight and then drink and sing together, while in football they fight and mean it. And drive off in their Ferraris.