Why do the men’s world cup teams of 2018 look the way they do? Where do their nicknames come from?
I’ll start with England. England wear a red change kit because of a Haitian called Joe Gaetjens.
(Yes I know it’s from the cross of St George, go with me on this).
Until the 1950s England wore blue jerseys when faced with a lilywhite opposition. England traditionally wear white and blue as these were the colours of the FA. Aside from the occasional red sock for a bit of variety, white and blue were the order of the day until one famous afternoon in Belo Horizonte.
The 1950 world cup, England v the USA. The Americans wore white, so the Three Lions put on their familiar blue. The English, in their first world cup and one of the favourites, were widely expected to demolish the team of semi-pros and Sunday leaguers, who drafted in a Scot, a Belgian and the Haitian “Ti-Jo” Gaetjens to strengthen the team.
Gaetjens, from an elite Port-au-Prince family, came to the US in 1947 to study accounting at Columbia, and caught the attention of the US selectors playing for Brookhatten, who took him with them to Brazil. 37 minutes in, and Ti-Jo dived in to deflect a Walter Behr shot into the back of the net. That was enough to defeat England. Oh Spenser St John, Graham Greene, Hesketh-Hesketh Prichard – your boys took a hell of a beating!
After this embarrassment, the accursed blue kit was binned. The next time a change kit was needed, England appeared in their now-fabled lucky red outfit. Of course, England got worse afterwards, and things did not change until The Magical Magyars of Hungary disintegrated England’s defence twice in a row (6-3, 7-1). Fortunately, England were wearing white on those days, so the red shirt was spared the dustbin of history.
Gaetjens returned to Haiti soon afterwards. In 1964, he was arrested on (tenuous) suspicion of anti-Duvalierist activity, and sent to the infamous Fort Dimanche torture camp. It was there he died.
England aren’t the only ones who changed their look for superstitious reasons. Japan used to wear red and white in mimicry of their national flag, like most other countries do. Things went so wrong during the early 90s, that the Japanese went blue. Things got better, and now blue is here to stay, celebrated by their current nickname, the Blue Samurai.
Three Leopards on the Shirt…
England also got their nickname from the FA. The Three Lions adorn the traditional English crest first adopted by the association after its boozy founding in the Freemasons Tavern pub in 1863. The “leopard” as it was known was first used by Henry I, but trebled by Richard the Leopardticker a few decades later, because he had a thing for big cats.
England’s latest nemeses, the Belgians, themselves are the first lot to be known as the Red Devils. Before Salford, and before Man Utd. After a brief dabble with white uniforms, they stuck with red, and after Pierre Walckiers gifted them their luciferian moniker in 1906, the name and the kit were set in stone.
Not to be outdone, the Spanish are known as the “Red Fury” – La furia roja. This is as much a reflection on their traditional style of play as it is their jerseys – a lesson lost on their class of 2018 who suffocated themselves and half of their audience with their centre-passes-to-right-passes-to-centre play. Completing this furious tricolour are yellow and blue. Red and yellow are the Aragonian colours that comprise the flag. I’m not certain where the blue comes from, perhaps from the Castillian shield. But it has to be blue.
Definitely not purple.
Whereas in Britain that colour is associated with royalty, in Spain it has distinct republican connotations, and the Spanish performance was treasonous enough without accusations of wishing to abolish the monarchy.
In contrast to Spain’s rigid rules, their conquerers, the Russians, cannot quite decide what suits them best. They are currently on a red, flag-themed number, after dabbling with whites and blues as well as a recent flirtation with the traditional colours of maroon and gold. It’s probably why they keep the nickname simple – “Sbornaya” – or “team”. It’s similar in that way to Die Mannshaft of Germany, or the Melli of Iran. Go team.
Some go even simpler than that – Costa Rica are dubbed Los Ticos, or, “The Costa Ricans,” whereas Iceland go with the loving “our boys,” appropriate for a team that brought 10% of the country with them. Others nickname their teams after their colours. Sweden are known as Blågult or “blue-yellows,” Peru and Poland? They’re both known as the “white and reds.” Argentina? La albiceleste, the blue and whites.
Many nicknames and kits reflect or extend the team’s role in nation-building and patriotic excitement. Portugal are the “team of the five” (Seleção das Quinas) reflecting the five shields on the national crest. Serbia’s “White Eagles” follow the lead of the double-headed eagle that came to Serbia from the Byzantine days.
Some teams are less traditional, and are instead monikered as if run by the Tourist Board. Egypt are the Pharaohs – no brains strained on that one. Morocco are the Atlas Lions, adopting that now-regionally extinct creature. Tunisia hark back to Hannibal as the finely-named Eagles of Carthage, and the Koreans represent as the Warriors of Taegeuk, the harmonious symbol that adorns the South Korean flag. Best/Worst in Show would belong to Australia’s Socceroos, were it not for the Canal Men of Panama.
The most obvious way in which football teams are conscripted to fly the flag is by dressing as a flag, further undermining the ridiculous notion that international football has nothing to do with politics. Brazil, The Canaries, they used to wear white too. Once again, their change of outfit was forged in defeat. After the soul withering defeat in the 1950 world cup final to Uruguay at the Maracanã, the plain white-T was deemed insufficiently patriotic, and so a competition was held to design a new kit based on the colours of the flag. The winning entry debuted four years later.
Brazil’s iconic blue change strip came as an accident. In 1958, against Sweden in the final, yellow met yellow, and Brazil had no alternative. The Canaries rushed to the shops and bought a set of blue jerseys, in which they won the cup. In the 1950s, as the world cup and international football rose up within a post-war era of redefining nationalisms, many teams moved towards a more patriotic model. For example, at this time Mexico abandoned their old maroon and blue combo to be dressed as a tricolour.
The Green and Gold of the Association Football Kangaroos, to use their full name, was first adopted in 1924 but later ascribed meaning – gold for the beaches, green for the land. In fact, the tradition comes from the decision by Aussie cricketers to wear baggy green caps on tour to England one year.
Some kits are not only an outward expression of nation, but a memory of a moment in time. Uruguay where sky blue in celebration of River Plate FC’s famous victory over the legendary Argentinian side Alumni. In Uruguay, that was a seriously big deal, as the first time a Uruguayan side had conquered the pride of Argentina. In tribute, the national team wore sky blue shirts that mimicked River Plate’s change kit that day.
Colombia, the “coffee growers,” before finally turning patriotic, have often flattered the great teams of their age with mimicry. In 1938 they donned sky blue in honour of Uruguay and Argentina. In the 70s, the went Dutch Orange.
Peru’s adored red sash is a piece of cultural history. It is said to be inspired by Peruvian schoolboy football, where so many teams once wore white that the away team would wear sashes over their kits to identify each other.
Despite the unimaginative nature of a great many team nicknames, some bring joy. Denmark became known as the Danish Dynamite in honour of their spine-tingling ’80s vintage, whilst Switzerland exude cool arrogance with their moniker, the A-Team. Nigeria, once the Green Eagles, renamed themselves the Super Eagles after a painful defeat to Cameroon in the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations Final, to give the team that extra edge.
By far my favourite nickname belongs to Senegal, the Lions of Teranga. It’s a title that stretches beyond simple nationalism into culture and the collective spirit that marks the best of international football. Teranga, a Wolof word, reflects hospitality, giving, caring and looking out for one another. Cisse’s lions accordingly look after one another, and reflect grace in victory and in defeat.
I’ll end, then, with the two finalists. France’s blue kit originates from the old days when they were another walking flag, and their name, Les Blues, naturally comes from that. Adorning their crest is the Coq Gallois, that roosting symbol of French sport. It is an ancient French symbol, restored during the revolution, to mark the daily triumph of light over dark. This was, of course, absolutely, 1000% the inspiration behind Griezmann’s celebration as he put France 2-1 up.
The Croatian Blazers also come tricoloured, but with a twist. I’ve no idea why they are called the Blazers, but their infamous chequerboard design originates from the crest on the flag. Upon its advent as an independent nation, the new Croatian football team eskewed traditional kit design and brought the šahovnica, the chessboard, to the fore, so they could stand out as different. And although the Croatians fell short in their first world cup final today, they have certainly stood out.
Big C, The Guyanan leader, who in 1976 took his team of Caribbean cricketers to a scorching England. Tony Greig wanted to “make them grovel,” put them in their place, expecting to be met with the flamboyant, futile “Calypso cricket” caricature of the Windies team. Instead came Lloyd, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Gordon Greenidge, a drilled athleticism and an anti-colonial fire. They dominated the world.
Let’s now talk about Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. The reggae stars who strummed and wailed the soundtrack of ’76. Marley and Richards ran into each other in London that year, and were in awe of one another, united by their mission to show the planet the fire and the passion and the brilliance of the Caribbean.
There are countless others, in music, sport and elsewhere, who have taken Caribbean culture across the globe and forced people to stop, take note – take it seriously – and be moved. Grace Jones, Arthur Lewis, Usain Bolt, Merlene Ottey, Brian Lara, Stafanie Taylor.
Let’s now talk about the Jamaican Bobsled team. Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Chris Stokes, Michael White. They are part of this. This is their story. It is not “the real Cool Runnings,” because the story is so much bigger than that, and because the film itself plays a big role in this tale.
This is Fire on Ice.
We all know this story. At least we think we do – of the Winter Olympians who’d never even been on ice before. The bobsled team had more to avoid the embarrassment and subsequent misery risked by the Olympic underdog – the fate suffered by that other Calgary hero, Eddie the Eagle, who was banned from competing again after the Games. The Jamaicans, however, had also to fight the aged, libellous “Calypso” portrayal of Caribbean people as fun-loving and casual, incapable of brilliance and with a culture borrowed from elsewhere.
This attitude was centuries old. It was rooted in the white masters who saw their slaves as docile, in the blackfaced Uncle Toms of the American theatres past, in Songs of the South, and in the academic dismissal of Caribbean culture as inauthentic, impure. Marley and Lloyd fought constantly against the tame (unthreatening) Caribbean marketed to white tourists and consumers, reminding the world that the islands were full of rebels, innovators and freedom fighters – no sideshow. So too did this task fall to the bobsledders, vulnerable to ridicule just for daring to slide.
The stakes were high. It was not the taking part that mattered, it was the competing.
The Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation was founded by two US businessmen in Jamaica, George Fitch and William Maloney. They saw the talent of the Jamaican sprinters and the skill of the drivers in the pushcart derby, and envisaged the whole thing on ice. They got a team together. Helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes was to drive the sled, with Michael White as brakeman. Devon Harris and Chris Stokes made up the four-man, with electrician Frederick Powell in reserve.
Unlike in Cool Runnings, the team were able to practice on ice before the Games, training at Lake Placid. However, they arrived in Canada with dreadful equipment, no money, and no confidence – three very important things in bobsleigh.
The team got fundraising quickly, selling t-shirts, merch, and even an official song. Hobbin’ and a Bobbin’, sung by Powell, and hit Canada hard. The track skidded hard into the herby stereotypes of Jamaica, subversive as hell, selling the lie to fund the fire. But it was a risky ploy, as it gave their onlookers too much credit.
The team started in the two-man, with Stokes and White taking to the track under the strict gaze of media mockery. The (more-sympathetic) LA Times aptly summed up the attitude.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Jamaicans do not belong on bobsleds, they belong on the beach. At least that’s the common perception.”
The attention, the reggae and the flamboyant PR overlooked the achievements of reaching Calgary and competing. Fastforward to day 1 of the four-man, 27th February 1988, and Stokes, White, Harris and Chris Stokes slid down the track without a hitch, remaining focused amidst the media storm.
And it seemed that the FITB would get their wish, after Dudley Stokes lost control and crashed the sled on day 2. Forget the Hollywood finale for a second – the applause was sporadic, the sled was carried off by some anonymous maintenance staff, and the media consumed their perfect Calypso Conclusion to their side show.
That was that, then, it seemed. The team, broke, were not done yet. Nor was Fitch, who continued working with them for four more years.
They continued to work hard, and proved to fundraisers and the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation that they were worth supporting to Albertville 1992 and beyond. As Lillehammer 1994 approached, they were a force to be reckoned with.
The year before, Cool Runnings came out – the film that shaped how most of us remember Calgary. Sure, it’s full of Calypso imagery – sprinters running on a dirt track in the National Championships (remember this is Jamaica, world leaders in track and field), and all the fish-out-of-water antics.
That, however, is not the point of the film, and nor is it why it is significant. Cool Runnings is a story of four highly-trained sprinters who learn how to slide the bobsleigh, and slide it well, by “feelin’ the rhythm” of Jamaica, by being true to themselves. And they proved everybody wrong.
Nor does it matter that the four-man crashed due to pilot error (and not mechanical failure as in the film), and it doesn’t matter that they were not on world record pace when it happened. What mattered is that it changed completely how Calgary was remembered – the team was no longer seen as a freak show, an anomaly, like Eddie the Eagle (who had to wait another 20 years for his film), but they were that team from the tropics that could conquer the ice with the fire in their bellies and the skill in their bones.
Oh, and in Lillehammer they were the equal of anyone. As Bob Marley sits on nearly every playlist in the West, and as modern cricket mourns the loss of the uncompromising brilliance of Lloyd and Richards’ dominators, so too is Jamaican bobsleigh known for pioneering, and overachievement.
In Lillehammer they came 14th – the 14th best sled in the world, and they beat the USA.
“If we were the jokers, and we had beaten America, what was America?”
21st Century Pioneers
The Jamaican bobsleigh team, had persevered, survived, and flourished. In Salt Lake City, 2002, Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown broke the start record for the two-man bob.
Sadly, it took twelve years for the Jamaican team to return to the ice – now crowdfunded by everybody who feels the Winter Games needs the Jamaican bobsleigh team. Yes, the media once again went wild with Calypso imagery, and were not without disparaging voices. A BBC commentator at Sochi spectacularly missed the point, moodily noting that “they weren’t even the highest placed Caribbean team in Calgary” (that was in the two man, beaten by the Netherlands Antilles. In the four they crashed).
Who cares, they qualified by right to Sochi, slid, and competed in the two man, piloted once more by Winston Watt. His old partner in crime, Lascelles Brown, is now a two-time medallist, having taken Canadian citizenship in 2005.
Antonette Gorman and Captain Judith Blackwood then took the baton and started a women’s team. Portia Morgan and Jennifer Cole went further and took a sled to the World Cup Series, and in 2018, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian arrived to Pyeongchang to drive the sled in the two-woman bob, backed by brakewoman Carrie Russell.
The first Jamaican women’s sled at the Games was dogged by familiar problems of funding and equipment. Their coach, Sandra Kiriasis, quit a week before the competition started, and took her sled with her! The women were now in Korea without equipment, before beer company Red Stipe stepped in and bought it off Kiriasis for the team to use. “Cool Runnings II” everybody shouted. But Red Stripe know something (and aim to profit heavily off it) – the world needs the Jamaican bobsleigh team.
It’s about representation. The Jamaican bobsleigh team is about, in the words of Fenlator-Victorian, “breaking barriers.”
“It’s important to me that little girls and boys see someone that looks like them – talks like them, has the same culture as them, has crazy curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin – included in different things in this world.”
They finished 19th. Sliding alongside them were the Nigerian team – the first African bobsled team. On the top of the roster stood American Vonetta Flowers, the first black gold medallist at the Winter Olympics, sliding down the hill with Jill Bakken.
This is the legacy of the Calgary sliders, and all those who have followed them over the last thirty years. The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team are audacious representatives of black ability in unfamiliar territory, and undoubtedly part of the lineage of Marley and Lloyd, and beyond to Toussaint and Dessalines. People who get the world to stop, look up, and take the Caribbean very seriously. They are trailblazers – they are fire on ice – and in 2018, that fire is spreading.
Skeleton – that gentle pastime, wherein you throw yourself down a claustrophobic strip of ice, head first (of course), steering yourself past 80mph with intricate wiggles and taps of your feet.
At some point it became a British pastime. The ice mountain has become a modern-day medal mine, starting with Alex Coomber’s bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002, in the first ever Olympic women’s skeleton.
Coomber had started something. Shelley Rudman claimed silver four years later in Turin, before Amy Williams took the big prize, dominating the ice at Vancouver 2010. Then Lizzy Yarnold turned up, matching Williams’ achievement with gold in Sochi. Fast forward to Pyeongchang, she’s at it again, now with Laura Deas for company. Yarnold defended her title with a mighty final slide, joined on the podium by Deas who took bronze. Britain’s skeleton women are world beaters.
Not bad for a nation that is seemingly allergic to winter, where a patch of snow shuts everything down. Yet the British sliding tradition goes back way beyond Coomber, to the very origins of the sport.
It all started with a wager, in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz. In 1864, St. Moritz was a spa town, popular with wealthy Victorians who headed to the alps to replenish themselves in summer. Then September came, and the British packed up and headed to London with their riches in tow, much to the chagrin of the hotelier Johannes Badrutt. So that year, he convinced his guests to return for winter. If you are bored, cold, or unhappy, he said, I will pay for everything. It is said that the British frolicked in glee at the newfound Alpine winter, gasping in amazement of the sunshine (of all things) and the frosted scenery. Badrutt won his bet, of course, but unleashed a can of worms upon the Swiss hills. The British came back every winter and, like the British tourists of today, decided to take over the town and unleash mayhem.
The legend goes that one group of tourists got hold of a delivery sled, and got on it, sliding through the icy, precarious, and dangerously downhill narrow streets of St. Moritz, terrifying all who crossed their path. Their (slightly) more sophisticated successors decided that a lowly delivery sled would just not do – they would not travel in anything less than a carriage – and so the first bobsleds were built.
The Swiss hoteliers had to face the monster they had created – the townspeople had grown weary of the troublesome tourists and so the hoteliers built purpose-built toboggan tracks to get the British off their streets. One of these became the Cresta Run, built by Major John Bulpett in 1884/5, and soon became the spiritual home of the sport and the base of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC). In 1885, they held their first “Grand National” race and, five years later, an “erratic” member called Mr Cornish decided to slide the Cresta head first. Skeleton was born.
Sadly, like many sports, sledding grew very exclusive very quickly, once codified. It’s always been a sport for the wealthy, but in those early days there were no rules or limits as to who could grab a sled atop an icy hill and throw themselves down it. In the 1920s, the SMTC saw it fit to ban women from their course.
“Mrs J.M. Bagueley was the last lady to ride the Cresta in a race on 13th January 1925. Ladies rode in practice after that date, but were banned from riding on 6th January 1929.”
The ban remains. The Cresta’s terms and conditions simply state “women are not permitted to ride the Cresta run.” I wonder what changed their minds. In the early 20th century, there was a global backlash against women in sports, based on some preposterous notion of physical inferiority. In the Olympics, women were not allowed to run further than 200m until 1960. In the USA, women were banned from running the marathon for fifty years. In England, a similar ban existed for women in football, deemed “too much for a woman’s physical frame.”
Women have campaigned for decades to turn things around, and in recent years the situation has improved. The marathon ban was lifted in 1972, in part thanks to Kathrine Switzer, who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 – entering as K.V. Switzer – and finished in good time despite attempts to remove her from the course. Each Olympics sees an increased number of women participants, and gets ever closer to event parity – the last male-only event in the Winter Games remains the Nordic Combined.
Yet the birthplace of skeleton remains closed to Shelley Rudman, Amy Williams, and Lizzy Yarnold. Perhaps the embargo endures because of the Old Boy tradition that surrounds the Cresta. Visitors, like Matt Dawson and Ian Cowie, note the mess hall atmosphere of the place and even spot a few descendants of the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, but largely seem untroubled by the complete absence of women. Are they afraid of a little competition? Four years ago I thought this was a shame, but now I think it pitiful. Britain’s skeleton women are unstoppable – they are the headline acts of every Winter Games. Inspired by the “marginal gains” of British cycling, with less of the institutional misogyny, the skeleton set-up in Bath is the very model of a modern sporting powerhouse – professional, competitive and smooth as ice. If the SMTC doesn’t want to share their ice with such athletes, then that is their loss.
This is a dynasty whose queens are great symbols and great advocates of women in sport. Upon winning in Sochi, Yarnold came home determined to go into “as many schools as possible” and encourage girls to take up sport, and “not [to worry] about what the media image is of the perfect woman, it’s about being you and being proud of what you are.”
They are even inspiring the men (how could they not?). Dom Parsons followed in their footsteps on Friday, taking skeleton bronze. The Times connected his success to the Cresta Run “crazy aristocrat” pioneers, but he follows in different footsteps. This tradition, crowned by Lizzy Yarnold, started in 2002 with RAF officer Alex Coomber. She who slid the course at Salt Lake City with a broken wrist, which she’d injured just ten days earlier in training, and took the bronze.
Te Rauparaha was on the run. The Chieftain of the Ngati Toa iwi (Maori society) was retreating from a meeting that had gone spectacularly wrong. The Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto groups rejected his request for aid, and instead demanded his life. A taua was formed, guided by a Tohunga (“scholar/priest”) who cast tracking spells to help home in upon their target.
These were the musket wars of New Zealand in the early 19th Century. Te Rauparaha arrived in Motu O Puhi, the village of the iwi Te Wharerangi, his famously hairy neighbour, who granted him asylum. He hid the fugitive within a kumara (sweet potato) pit, and on top sat his wife Te Rangikoaea, for it was said a woman could ward off the malevolent spells cast by the Tohunga.
Hidden from view, Te Rauparaha could hear everything as his enemies arrived in the village. They were suspicious. Te Wharerangi attempted to mislead them; Yes, Te Rauparaha was here, he told them, but you are too late, for he had long since left for the Rangipo desert. The confidence of the hidden chief was failing. He whispered to himself, over and over;
Ka mate, Ka mate
(I die, I die)
Eternities passed under the feet of Te Rangikoaea; Te Rauparaha could do nothing but wait.
Ka mate, Ka mate
Finally, the voices grew distant, and with them, the iwi in the kumara pit grew optimistic in turn.
Ka ora, Ka ora!
(I live, I live!)
His trust put in Te Wharerangi and Te Rangikoeaea was rewarded. As he climbed from his cage, he was reborn.
Tenei te tangata puhuru huru Nana nei I tiki mai Whakawhiti t era A upa….ne! Ka upa…ne! A upane kaupane whiti t era! Hi!
(This is the hairy man* who fetched the sun and made it shine again! One upward step! Another upward step! Another, another…the sun shines!)
These were the words said to be composed by Te Rauparaha as he emerged from the pit, and to honour his saviours, he put these lines into a ceremonial Haka; the enduring dance of Maori folklore, the “symphony of the body,” and he performed it for his hosts that afternoon.
The Natives Dominate
New Zealand Natives, 1888. Source: rugbyfootballhistory.com/allblacks
Nowadays, “Ka Mate” is known and performed the world over. As the oldest “cultural challenge” laid down by the New Zealand All Blacks, this Haka has become one of the most famous symbols of Maori culture across the globe. The Haka, alongside the pre-match challenges of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, have become an emblem of the vibrancy and endurance of Polynesian and Melanesian culture over the past century. Rugby (not just Union but League and Sevens also) has been the vehicle for this, and the coordinated challenge is but one of its expressions.
But the movement of modern sport across the planet is a story inseparable to the imperial spread of Europe; rugby union, the sport of the “gentleman” and the pride of Apartheid, has perhaps been affected by this more than any other. Its relationship with the Islanders of the South Pacific is one of tension, marginalisation, resistance and renewal.
From its English roots, rugby union travelled the world, but it did not move at random. It followed cricket to the settler colonies of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada**, travelling with imperial officials who had picked up the game during their gentlemanly training at Oxford, Cambridge and the public schools of the Southeast.
It even followed cricket to the Southern Cone, outlasting the bat-and-ball sport in Argentina and Uruguay, albeit enduring here too mostly as an elite, white endeavour. Exported for the ‘gentleman’ of colonial high society, this sport more than any other was ostensibly for white men only, but in all realms the hand-egg was picked up by the colonised with varying degrees of popularity. Even in South Africa, rugby has always been played by black Africans (most famously Steve Biko), but apartheid ensured that this participation remained invisible.
Joe Warbrick. Source: Wikipedia
The Maori of Aotearoa took up the game soon after its arrival; brought to the colony by Charles Munro, who brought it home from Christ’s College London in 1870. Eighteen years later, the New Zealand Natives were formed by Maori Joseph Warbrick, who wished to create an all-Maori team to tour Great Britain. However, five Pakeha*** were selected due to problems with player availability and prior commitments (work and study) from first-string Maori. In Britain the Natives wore black and performed the first Haka in rugby (said to be Ka Mate, on occasion), met with “great curiosity” by British crowds and the confoundment of those who had turned up to watch a team they expected to be comprised of “savages.” Said one Scottish reporter in 1888,
“They are not unlike Europeans…that is their resemblance is great when one remembers that they were a savage tribe no further back than their generation.”
It is typical imperial logic deployed to credit the Maori’s *lack* of savagery with the influence of Europe. And so it was thought in New Zealand that bringing the team under ‘official’ administration would help improve the team, especially after reading frequent criticisms of ‘foul play’ from English officials who turned a blind eye to infringements from their own. But after a tour that lasted over a year, after 78 wins, 6 draws, and 23 losses, the Natives returned home as the best team in Aotearoa. They formed the backbone of the first New Zealand international teams, including the preposterously (but tellingly) named “Originals” who toured the UK in 1905.**** The All Blacks, the greatest team to play rugby union, were founded by Maori: the Haka, the black jersey, and the innovative, creative style of play were the legacies of those pioneers.
But it was not to last. As rugby arrived in New Zealand, the Maori were defending the last vestiges of their land from British squatters and soldiers. The land of Te Rauaparaha had long been extorted from him; he himself had tried to resist the rising tide of squatters and spent his final years in jail. As the Natives were formed, the use of Te Reo Maori was being marginalised and removed from schools. Polynesian culture was being slowly deleted from New Zealand life. The All Black Haka endured, but was far from unaffected. Perhaps that was why Ka Mate became the standard Haka of the All Blacks; Te Rauaparaha’s celebratory dance of cheating death and rebirth symbolising the persistence of the Maori in trying times, although there is much in its story of mortality and uprising that could happily find its home on the rugby field.
Maori became sparse in the All Black ranks. They were purged completely, in fact, whenever the All Blacks went to South Africa, for the Apartheid state would not allow any non-white players to grace a Springboks game. Those of Maori heritage maintained a nationwide team (The New Zealand Maori) who would play at home whilst the Pakeha were in South Africa.
The Famished Sea Eagle
In the early 20th Century rugby continued its journey east. Missionaries, settlers and traders from Australia and New Zealand landed in Fiji, bringing rugby with them. It swept across the archipelago, and leagues were swiftly set up. However, they were to be segregated by race until the 1930s. In 1939, the Fijian national team (now integrated and largely Melanesian) embarked on a tour to New Zealand. The captain, Ratu Cakobau (later the first indigenous Governor General of Fiji) went to the local spiritual chief to ask for a dance to match the haka. He was given a Cibi (pronounced Shimbi); like Ka Mate, not strictly a battle cry, but instead a Fijian celebratory dance to laud warriors as they returned home victorious from battle.
Fiji’s style of rugby (especially in Sevens) replicated the ethos of these dances; aggressive, skilful, quick and creative. It is true of all Islander rugby; the spirit of the challenge laid down is carried through the match. In Tonga, as with the haka, performants of the Sipi Tau are encouraged to lay down their challenge with passion and innovation, as they cry out the words;
Teu lea pea tala ki mamani katoa Ko e ‘Ikale Tahi kuo halofia Ke ‘ilo ‘e he sola mo e taka Ko e ‘aho nit e u tamate tangata
(I shall speak to the whole world
The Sea Eagle is famished unfurl
Let the foreigner and sojourner beware
Today, destroyer of souls, I am everywhere)
For Siale Piutau, to perform the Sipi Tau is to replicate the pledge of the first Tongan King to God, as such combining the warrior tradition of the dance, the Christian missionary origins of Tongan rugby, and the call to the ancestors (familial ancestry, and the ghosts of Tongan rugby past) for their strength and experience. It is the transfer of warrior culture to the rugby field, for it is said the war cry of the Islander is to call forth the “honour and pride of Polynesia” and withstand all that threatens that enduring tradition, altered through the years, but never diminished.
Let me become one with the land
It is this adaptive, creative element of the dance that many self-titled rugby union “purists” ignore when they deride the cultural challenge. The haka bears the brunt of their repeated criticism, despite its overwhelming global popularity. Scroll down any comments section (I dare you) under an article on New Zealand rugby and you will find voices calling the challenge anything from “unfair,” to “outdated,” from “uncouth” to “savage.” Trolling or serious, these purists indulge in descriptions of savagery and cannibalism; they do not want Pacific culture in rugby.
It would not be tolerated were it to come from another culture, they tell us.
It is only because these cultures are “primitive” that the “PC” World Rugby permits them, they tell us.
It’s ridiculous, in a way, to call it outdated and old-fashioned. The Haka is constantly updated. Ka Mate is younger than Jerusalem (sung by England cricket), and the Haka has only recently been truly resurrected by the All Blacks. For decades the predominantly Pakeha team performed it with less fervour than a rotund goldfish. Check out this infamous 1973 attempt.
In the ‘90s, led by Maori like Carlos Spencer, the Haka became more than a routine. It was more than an evocation of tradition, but like the Sipi Tau, a celebration of the proud past of the All Blacks, one the most successful teams in the history of sport. It’s true of all codes. When the NZRL Kiwis took on Leeds Rhinos this autumn, Kylie Leuluai and Ali Lauitiiti, playing for Leeds, joined their countrymen in a special Haka, in a shared celebration of heritage.
The challenge continues to evolve with the times. Samoa and Fiji have both recently updated their challenges to the Tiva Sau and the Bole respectively. The former aimed to inject more aggression into the cry of the Manu Samoa, the latter ensured that the Fijian challenge is now a bona fide Melanesian call-to-arms, rather than the pre-emptive victory celebration of the Cibi. The Haka in rugby is no longer limited to male teams (there have always been mixed and female Haka in Maori culture); the dominant New Zealand Kiwi Ferns (League) and Black Ferns (Union) perform a Haka before every match. In 2005, the All Blacks debuted “Kapa o Pango” (All Blacks), written especially for the team, to reflect its modern multi-cultural makeup.
Kapa o pango kia whakawhenua au I ahau!
(Let me become one with the land)
Hi aue, hi! Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei!
(This is our land Aotearoa that rumbles)
Ponga ra! Kapa o Pango, aue hi!
(Silver fern! All Blacks!)
This new dance was not without its controversy; Tana Umaga, All Black of Samoan descent, leading the haka, drew his arm from the sky and moved his thumb across his throat, beckoning in vital energies to fuel the oncoming effort. It was, instead, misinterpreted by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “violent throat-slitting gesture,” and the Telegraph in all its glory compared it to a “back-street alley” intimidation. The western world could not remove interpretations of savagery from its gaze. Following repeated calls for its removal, the gesture was dropped from Kapa o Pango in 2007.
The purists returned, now arguing that such changes made the challenge ‘inauthentic.’ If it is not traditional, they said, what is even the point? If the dance is not from time immemorial, why can’t anyone perform the Haka? Why can’t England perform a Morris dance before a game? (They always go on about Morris dancing).
Short answer is, there’s nothing stopping them. England started singing the old slave song “Swing Low” in 1988, when a group of public school boys from Douai School, Woolhampton belted it out one afternoon in Twickenham. Nowadays, they all sing it, and nobody really knows why (I’d rather they busted out a Morris dance, to be honest).
Long answer: shouts of ‘inauthenticity’ are a symptom of a wider, continuing, lack of understanding of the significance of the Pacific war dance in rugby. The appropriation of the Haka, these days, knows no bounds. If you can stomach it, check out the “Hakarena” by Matt Dawson. Maori and Pakeha alike were unimpressed.
It all ignores what the history and the folklore whispers, and needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Maori and Pacific rugby matters so much, to the sport and to the Oceania region. On contested terrain, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Maori have adopted the game and made it their own, and it is all transmitted through the challenge of the Cibi, Sipi Tau, Siva Tau and Haka; defiantly traditional, ferociously modern. As Dawson and others continue to misappropriate these dances, Pacific cultures have adapted the war dance once again to honour rugby players whose lives were cut short. In 2013, Samoan legend Brian Lima took to the field, barefoot and shirtless, to lead the Siva Tau in honour of Peter Fatialofa, who died suddenly aged 44.
When talented All-Black Jerry Collins passed in 2015 following a road accident in Southern France, a tribute match was held in his honour. Those who knew the Samon-born All Black in Perpignon paid their respects to Collins with an honourary Siva Tau.
These dances, that call forth the spirit of Polynesia have been adopted, movingly, as a guard of honour for those who embodied everything they meant. Nowhere has this been more appropriate when the greatest of them all, Jonah Lomu, suddenly died on the 18th November 2015. He was 40. The great winger, the gentle giant, a rugby league player in his youth who went on to transform the game of rugby union with his ferocity and his grace. The legendary All Black of Tongan descent who demolished England and tormented all who dared oppose him on another inevitable run towards the try-line. The great ambassador of Pacific rugby, who went from a difficult childhood to worldwide fame, playing through the pain of nephrotic syndrome, from Auckland to Cardiff. Said Mana ‘Otai, coach of Tonga.
“He gave a lot of hope to young Tongans, both male and female alike…He was one who could inspire others, myself included.”
“Although he played for the All Blacks, he was known worldwide as a Tongan. For Tonga, as a small island nation, that’s something Jonah has provided for us.”
The Haka was performed in his honour; his old school led the cry, and at his funeral, his team-mates followed. How else could you honour Lomu, the very embodiment of the struggle, endurance and triumph of Polynesia, than with the words of Te Rauparaha?
This was the man who fetched the sun and made it shine again!
* The accepted translation of tangata puhuru huru is the “hairy man,” understood to be a tribute to Te Wharerangi, but allblacks.com suggests instead that it in fact alludes to the spiritual qualities of Te Rangikoaea, which Te Rauparaha believed saved his life.
** Rugby arrived in Canada incredibly early, even as it was still being codified in England. However competition from American (Gridiron) and Canadian rules Football meant that rugby never took on the predominance it did elsewhere in the Dominion. Nowadays North American rugby focuses on 7s.
***”Pakeha” is a translation of the Maori word for “of European descent.” Some have claimed that it is a perjorative word, but its use is accepted in most New Zealand publications, and there is no evidence that it has ever been used in a derogatory sense by Maori. I am therefore using it to describe New Zealanders of European descent, for both brevity and to emphasise the focus of this article is on the Maori. For more info, read this
****In 1905 the “Originals” performed the Haka in Swansea, to be met by a chorus of “Hen Wlad Y Nhadau.” It is said that this was the moment when the song, penned in the 19th century, became the national anthem of Wales.
That means the English press are in the midst of their usual dilemma of getting behind a sport so heavily associated with posh boys, but enjoyed by millions of people. The right-wing mag The Spectator acrobatically found its way around this, arguing that since the game went professional in ’95 these old stereotypes have eroded away into dust. Gavin Mortimer claims, in classic Spectator fashion, that playing the “posh” card is now just the preserve of the “left” (by which he seems to mean Guardian writers and (*ahem*) Tony Blair).
The article makes sense but, like many others, completely misses the point of rugby’s class tensions. For one thing, rugby union has never been solely the preserve of posh boys, which is why it has a much larger following than, say, polo. More importantly, the argument given isn’t true; a BBC Sport report, also released at the start of the tournament, found that 61% of male rugby union players in England are privately-educated, and that professionalism has actually concentrated this divide. English schools that play union are, for the most part, the same old schools, predominantly private or grammar.
The Spectator, as well as those it criticises, are both playing the same game – using rugby union’s enduring association with elitism to spin their own yarns about Britain’s class tensions. Think carefully about the way rugby (both codes, but especially union) defines itself against football, as the “gentleman’s game” where everybody gets along, the referees are all-powerful, where values and sportsmanship trump the diving, the “softness,” and alleged thuggishness of football.
So where does this tension come from? We have to go back to the start, to the legend of William Webb Ellis, to circumvent the loaded arguments that symbolise rugby one way or another. And why does it even matter? It’s just a game, right? Maybe, but sport is often more than just a reflection of social and cultural tensions within a society, it can provide an outlet for their expression. Conflicts in British society have often spilled over into the sport, and rugby’s internal tensions, built on class, race and masculinity, have helped to mould larger stories of the past.
The Legend of William Webb Ellis, Praeposter
Back before the Victorian Era, sport was for the rich. The poor toiled for six days, and on the Sabbath sport was banned. The exception was public holidays, when massive games of ‘football’ were held on common ground, often with hundreds of participants, a pig’s bladder (hence the shape of the “hand-egg” rugby ball) and very few rules. Industrialisation saw the decline of these matches, but the wealthy, under the influence of “muscular Christianity,” adopted the game and began to codify it (so beginning rugby’s longstanding association with manliness).
One such rulebook, described by the author of rugby’s legend Matthew Bloxam, told that the best players would position themselves at the front, “hacking” the opposition and advancing the ball with feet, whilst anybody who caught the ball was able to “call the mark” (as it is now known) whereupon he was free to retreat, as the opposition could not advance past that mark. One day, it is said, in a match between Rugby School and Bigside, a boy, William Webb Ellis, caught a high ball, and in contradiction to the accepted way of doing things, ran forward with bladder-in-hand. A new game was born.
This legend, first told by Bloxam in 1876, is now widely held to be false. The truth of it doesn’t matter however, its importance as a founding myth in rugby’s history is undiminished, and the Rugby Union World Cup’s big shiny trophy carries Webb Ellis’ name. Webb Ellis, the creator, was from a family of modest means. Salford-born, his widowed mother moved the family down to Rugby to take advantage of Rugby School’s fee exemption for all “town boys” who lived within 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower. It was not a “posh boy” who invented the game, by this telling of the story.
But Bloxam pointed out that the creation of the game was dependent on the hierarchies of public school, that reflected patterns of domestic labour and class domination. Ellis, an older boy, was a “Praeposter” or prefect. Were he a “fag” (a younger boy who served the every whim of the upper school), Bloxam argues, “he probably would have received more kicks than commendations. How oft is it that such small matters lead to great results.”
For Gentlemen Only
Perhaps, or was it symbolic of the fact that, throughout the 19th Century as rugby separated from football and spread, the upper echelons of rugby’s participants held the keys to the running of the game. Rugby was now very popular in the industrial North, but the richer participants dominated its administration and were now obsessed with the concept of “amateurism.” This belief, that players should take no payment, was ostensibly designed to protect the game from bad sportsmanship, but underneath aimed to keep the sport for “gentlemen” only. Rugby’s hits were harder than football, injuries were more severe, and an uncompensated working-class participant risked losing vital wages and even a job if injured during a match.
If sport was to be for gentlemen only, it was the latter syllable that was especially enforced. Women’s football of all forms was met with fierce protests; matches were often abandoned due to violent protests. Women’s rugby was therefore largely played behind closed doors, but women have played some form of rugby since at least 1881. In Ireland, Emily Valentine is recognised as the first women’s rugby player, after she played for Portera Royal School’s team in Enskillen. But it was not until the 1960s that women’s rugby was tolerated in the public sphere.
Amateurism became strictly enforced, as infringements were many. Rugby’s ruling class (including those in Lancashire and Yorkshire) feared losing control of what they saw as their game, after exactly that happened following the messy professionalization of association football in 1885 after similar tensions. Players caught taking any payment were often banned for life.
In 1895, the tension reached critical mass, over the issue of “broken time.” Northern clubs largely recruited their players from local factories, mills, and mines; physical labour that could not be done with a serious rugby injury. Broken Time would install a system of compensation for time missed from work and medical treatment. But the Southeastern self-appointed guardians of rugby were firmly against it; they saw it as a nail in the coffin of amateurism and the guarantee of a move to professionalism and all of its (largely-imagined) demons.
There was no explicit intention to go professional at this time, but the schism still came. The Northern players found an unusual ally at this juncture; their bosses. These industrial kingpins, often heavily involved in the local club, had a stake in Broken Time too – local rivalries had sprung up, and success for their club gave them regional prestige as well as bragging rights. At the George Hotel in Huddersfield, 20 clubs from Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire announced their departure from the RFU to form the Northern Union, later becoming the Rugby Football League. The heartland of popular rugby had seceded; what appeared to remain of rugby union was a sport of the public schools and universities.
Salford v Batley, 2nd November 1901, showing the early popularity of Northern Union Rugby and its importance life to in Salford. Source: Salford Reds Heritage
Don’t Mention Wales
Rugby league, it’s been said, was the sport of the “new (trade) unionism,” getting its participants a fairer deal. It quickly developed in this manner, embracing professionalism, removing the lineout and the ruck for a faster, fan-friendlier version of the game. A “people’s game,” maybe, but union never completely purged the poor from its ranks, even as it clung dogmatically to the Gentlemanly code of Amateurism. “Don’t mention Wales, it gets complicated,” writes Stuart Maconie, endorsing the Masses vs the Classes tale of league and union. Well, in this story,…you HAVE to mention Wales. Rugby Union is the national game there, especially in the (traditionally working-class) Valleys, and I can tell you from personal experience that it is ingrained into the psyche of every person born west of Offah’s Dyke. But that’s not just why Wales must be part of the story, instead, it’s because even here class politics have shaped the game, once again highlighting the complex and essential relationship between rugby union and British society.
Rugby came to Wales in the same way; via Oxford and Cambridge. Wealthy Welsh students brought it back to Cardiff and Swansea, and the game slowly migrated up the Usk and the Taff. The Welsh People’s Game, in these early days, was not immune from privileging the Gentlemen; the earliest national sides were [controversially] comprised of the Oxbridge boys. Things changed, however, after the dragons got demolished by England 82-0 (on modern scoring) in 1881. A collective embarrassment, in a way, helped narrow the class divide. In the future they picked more miners at the front (known as the “Rhondda forwards,” they began a trend of increasingly-bulky characters in the front-row).
This alone wasn’t enough to ensure league didn’t take off in Wales. It helped that the WRU turned many a blind eye to broken time payments. Distance was probably the biggest roadblock. It was simply too difficult for Welsh clubs to find enough opponents nearby; a Welsh league club didn’t have the money to travel up to the North week after week. Pofessionalism costs money, and despite the efforts of the Northern Union, investment never materialised. Although clubs in Ebbw Vale and Mythyr Tydfilformed, they were not to last. Wales was, however, far from hostile towards league; the first every international league match was held there between Wales and New Zealand, who themselves were causing controversy back home receiving payment to play, slandered as the “All Golds” by a fiercely pro-union press.
Over the following decades, many Welsh players would go on to “take the Northern pound” and join the professional league, particularly when hard times hit the mining towns. In the tough 1980s, when many industries left never to return, the Welsh union team suffered. Players such as Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs went North so they could afford to live. The success of the Welsh team has been linked to the physicality of mining; when the pits closed, they took the work and with it the primary source of conditioning. Professionalism rescued Welsh union, to an extent, but the Welsh clubs have struggled to hold on to their players, many of whom now play in the lucrative (and balmy) south of France.
The West Country, another region of widespread participation, similarly remained loyal to the old form of the game. Not coincidentally, Wales and the Southwest both had very popular forms of folk-football (Cnapan and Cornish Hurling, respectively)before all this codification began. Gloucester, a working-class club, was one of the strictest adherents to amateurism, ironically after its reputation was heavily damaged for frequent violations regarding payments prior to the schism. Union remains popular in that part of the world, increasingly so, if you look at the Chiefs and the Pirates. World Cup winner Phil Vickery is a proud Cornishman, former dairy farmer (and qualified cow inseminator, for what it’s worth).
The Wrong SIde of History, Vichy and Apartheid
The two codes went their separate ways, but both went on to cross the channel. Rugby played a part in the establishment of the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. The decade prior, league was growing in popularity in southern France, but as the Vichy regime was established, the situation changed. Philippe Pétain was suspicious of the “socialist” rugby league and moved to ban the game, encouraged in his actions by French rugby union, who informed him that league was “un-French” and a “corrupter” of young Frenchmen. The Fédération Rugby Française became Vichy collaborators, and French rugby league was stripped of its assets, worth millions of Francs, to help fund the Nazi-sympathetic regime. In contrast, prominent league players such as Paul Barrière would join the Resistance.
Back in Britain, rugby union again largely found itself on the wrong side of history as the Home Nations and the British Lions frequently played the Springboks, the pride of Apartheid South Africa, during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1968, the Welsh flanker and school teacher John Taylor, otherwise known as “Basil Brush,” made himself an exception. What happened next speaks volumes.
“I wanted to be a Lion. I put all the misgivings to the back of my mind, believed all the twaddle about building bridges and that we weren’t supporting apartheid and as soon as I got there I realised very much that we were.”
He was instructed by the authorities to ignore the “politics” of it, told instead that “our rugby and our girls are great so go and enjoy them” (another example of how the “manliness” of rugby was evoked). After ’68, he refused to wear the red of Wales, or of the Lions, when facing the ‘Boks. The WRU didn’t ban him, but inexplicably left him out of the team for four games.
“I had been told very clearly that had I been English I would have never played international rugby again.”
The episode is indicative of the enduring elite dominance of union administration into the ‘70s, how it reinforced itself on racism and global politics. The case of Taylor shows that their attitude was not shared by all of its players, but the significant pressure from above to unquestioningly prop up Apartheid ensured that dissenters remained the exception. At the time of the 1974 Lions Tour to South Africa, Taylor recalled,
“’74 was the big deal. I was absolutely convinced that the rest of the sporting world was right and that there was this sort of massive arrogance in rugby that the brotherhood of rugby, the fraternity of rugby, meant more than the brotherhood of man – that they couldn’t be bad chaps because they played rugby. It was very much that sort of arrogance that I absolutely deplored in rugby. I had no doubts at all.”
(11min) Highlights of Lions ’74 tour of South Africa. Notice how it focuses on the sport and nothing but the sport. The only “controversy” mentioned was over a legitimate try not given. Also note how good JJ Williams was.
Rugby (both codes, but especially union) has correspondingly been a historically unwelcoming place for players of colour. The first black player to play for England was in union; another pioneering Salfordian, James Peters, made his debut on 17th March 1906 against Scotland. “His selection was by no means popular on racial grounds,” reported the Yorkshire Post, and he became known in the rugby world as “Darkie Peters.” In 1907 the RFU refused to select him against the Springboks, who did not want a black player on the pitch. A working man, Peters played and worked in Plymouth but was kicked out of the union for playing a single league match in the West Country. He saw out his career in the northern league.
The first black league international was George Bennettwho played for England in the 1930s. Bennett, by birth, was a Welshman, but was forced up north after ostracism within Welsh rugby by a governing body hostile to black players. The WRU, as the Taylor episode shows, did not cover themselves in roses when it came to racial equality. Until Glenn Webbe made his debut against Tonga in 1986, the Welsh team was all white. Colin Charvis would become Wales’ first captain of colour, leading his side at the 2003 World Cup. Although English league and union have become increasingly diverse in recent years, both codes have failed to make inroads amongst Britain’s significant South Asian population.
Women’s rugby union has expanded rapidly in the last twenty years, despite hostility from the IRB, who attempted to undermine the second women’s world cup tournament in 1994. Participation is increasing in both codes. 11 000 womenplay union in England, and up north, the women’s RFL is the largest in the world. But rugby’s association with masculinity endures, and women’s rugby receives little mainstream coverage. BBC Sport, for example, since 2012 has extended its coverage of women’s sport; football is regularly on TV (with the BBC showing all of the recent World Cup in Canada), and the Ashes was broadcast on Test Match Special. But women’s rugby has not been as much a part of this. England women won the Rugby Union World Cup last year. Few people noticed. Progress is slow, but hopefully the inclusion of women’s rugby sevens in the 2016 Olympics can provide a catalyst for change.
Local elites, global elites
“Bagehot” in The Economist said it well. “Britain’s main team sports, football, cricket and rugby, have always reflected the big tensions in society: conflicts over wealth and class, of north against south. Only rugby has been rent by them.” But this, and many of the sources here, are inward-facing. As the Lions tours to Apartheid South Africa suggest, rugby union’s history and politics have also reflected the relationship between its participant countries.
Professionalism has exacerbated the one aspect of rugby union that intrinsically favours the wealthy – increased strength and conditioning (and with it, increased injury). And to the richest, go the spoils. During the group stages Tonga’s Epi Taione slammed World Rugby for its continued concentration of resources in the hands of the “elite” of world union: the Home Nations, and the former settler colonies of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. So spoke Taione.
“Rugby is so out of touch. It’s run by colonialists who still think they run the world like it was 100 years ago.”
The poorer unions in the Pacific Islands have to share World Rugby bursaries, and their national teams are increasingly forced to raise funds for tours, training and world cup campaigns. Before Japan’s heroics this autumn, it is worth remembering that it has been Samoa, who ran the formidable 2003 England team close, Tonga, who beat finalists France in 2011, and Fiji, twice quarter-finalists, who have brought what might be called the “spirit of rugby” to the RU World Cup, saving it from dull predictability. Yet these nations, poorer, distant, and so important to the history and character of rugby, are being increasingly pushed from a game that is ostensibly committed to increasing global participation.
Villiame Vaki scores for Tonga against South Africa, RUWC 2007
I’ll talk about them more in another blog post next week. For now though it is worth saying that, although never solely the domain of the wealthy, the class and imperial divisions of rugby, both in Britain and worldwide, have always and continue to affect and damage the game. As the world of rugby union pats itself on the back for Japan’s recent success, the increasing struggle of the Pacific Islands should be remembered.
(Title picture is of current England players dressed as “Gentlemen” (source Daily Mail), and a soggy mountain pitch in Wales)