Forget stereotypes about flat caps and boring play—rugby league has been smashing our preconceptions about sport since the 1960s. Perhaps it's time we all convertedby James Oddy / January 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Say you like rugby league to people and you’ll typically get one of two replies. The first is an admission that the person has no idea why it’s different to Rugby union. That’s understandable. Similar shaped ball, similar shaped goal posts; similar tackling styles, similar running, similar kicking.
The second is derision that you follow the “inferior” code of rugby. Ask why the code is inferior, and it’s usually related to the fact that Rugby union is the thinking man’s game, whilst league lacks any kind of tactical subtly.
To suggest that, actually, rugby league is one of the most revolutionary sports in the UK only adds to further looks of bewilderment or howls of laughter.
Yet rugby league’s birth was in itself an act of protest.
At a meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895, 22 clubs predominantly from Yorkshire and Lancashire met to vote on splitting from the English Rugby Union. The reason for the vote was money—or a lack of it. Clubs in the industrial North believed that their players, drawn from factories and mills and coalmines, deserved to be paid to play, especially when players also often forfeited wages to do so.
To the staunchly amateur clubs found in the south, professionalism was intolerable. Nor was it needed; many of the players being independently wealthy individuals who could play for pleasure. Thus, the rebel Northern Rugby football union was born.
The northern teams, playing in “the league,” quickly began tampering with the numbers of players and rules in order to make it as an appealing a spectator sport as possible. Paying punters were, after all, integral to not only paying players, but also paying them well enough to stop them leaving for a rival. These rule changes continued, resulting in the two very different games we see today.
Rugby league has always therefore prioritized results above a person’s background. It’s created a culture with a remarkable ability to break down racial, religious and sexual boundaries both locally and nationally.
Clive Sullivan, for example, first captained the Great Britain rugby league team in 1972. He was the first black Briton to captain any British sports team— decades before any other sport did so—and won a world cup in the process. Sullivan was a phenomenal character: he overcame countless serious childhood and adult injuries and a near fatal car crash to play for two decades at the elite level in a brutal sport. But his spell as a captain undoubtedly set a precedent that the colour of a person’s skin needn’t mean they couldn’t inspire and lead on a sports field.
Clive wasn’t the only rugby league practitioner to smash preconceptions. Roy Francis was an extremely successful black British coach in the 60s and 70s, whilst Ellerly Hanley captained and coached the Great Britain team in the early 90s.
Leeds born winger Ikram Butt became the first Muslim to play for England in any sport when he appeared in a game against Wales in 1995. Gareth Thomas, and Keegan Hirst, both openly gay men, have played the sport—although it must be pointed out that Thomas first did so whilst playing rugby union. It’s a real contrast to football, with ex-Leeds United and USA international Robbie Rogers describing being gay in the sport as “impossible” after coming out in 2013.
The sport has been slightly slower to embrace female players, but a world cup was inaugurated in 2000 and a new “super league” has recently been formed for the best players to perform in.
This idea of a revolutionary, radical and open-minded sport is at odds with the perception that rugby league is only played solely by dour white British Northerners. Rugby league is not a world of flat-cap-wearing whippet owners who can’t grasp a “thinking man’s game.” It is a vibrant, inclusive code, requiring plenty of intelligence and skill to play and watch.
So why is it so often marginalised and ignored? Why doesn’t the likes of Sullivan, Francis and Butt more widely know as sporting pioneers?
It’s no surprise that following the rugby schism, both codes quickly began to view one another as the enemy.
Of course, rugby union, a public school favourite, has had an old boys network willing and able to sing its praises. Its fans sit atop major firms, available for sponsorship and media outlets willing to provide favourable coverage. Rugby league players, who until relatively recently were still working part time in mines and factories, were rooted in working class communities away from major spheres of influence.
This may seem paranoid, but with a large quantity of sports journalists coming from a privately educated background—and culture wars increasingly dominating political reporting—it’s easy to see how class bias can impact public perception of a sport and the people who watch and enjoy it.
Rugby league has always been a working-class sport, and those working class communities in the north have seen a steady shift in the demographics that make them up. Perhaps if more people were willing to examine rugby league’s history, they would recognise its legacy of inclusivity and innovation when it comes to those communities. They might even learn a thing or two from it.