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Reviewed by:
  • A Social History of English Rugby Union
  • Jean Williams
Collins, Tony. A Social History of English Rugby Union. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2009. Pp. 288. Notes, illustrations, appendices, and index. £19.99 hb.

The blurb on the book-jacket of A Social History of English Rugby Union suggests that "the story of rugby over the last 150 years has been a mirror to English society." While Tony Collins therefore sets out to critique many of the invented myths, particularly rugby union as synonymous with middle-class English values, he also makes many challenging points for sports historians who have no interest in the game itself. I nevertheless found much to take from the argument about the arrogant and insular attitude at the heart of the organization of much of rugby union, especially its attempts to dissociate itself from the lower classes, professionalism and league-based variants of the game. This amateur-shamateur tension is mainly revealed by use of source material taken from Rugby Football Union (RFU) archives, club minutes and personal memoirs. The class hypocrisy in what might rightly be claimed in "expenses" by those supposedly acting unselfishly on behalf of the wider community has a contemporary resonance quite beyond sport, for example.

More important though, Collins says a great deal more about the significance of contemporary literature in creating and representing the "rush to rugby," particularly of Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857). He also uses magazines and comic books, feature films and commercials to good effect. This varied method and approach means that the author can make comments such as, "aside from the occasional references to boxing being part of the British character by early nineteenth century writers such as Pierce Egan, no one before Hughes had ascribed a set of moral values to a sport…. Rugby football now had an explicit social purpose" (p. 11). This not only sets an agenda for subsequent work on amateurism, various codes of football in general and for rugby in particular, but also raises valuable questions for the wider debate regarding the sport and [End Page 160] literature nexus. This has captured an academic and popular imagination since the publication of Collins' work in February 2009, as reflected in Radio 4 coverage in March, The Independent nominating A Social History of English Rugby Union as its sports book of the week in April and the Times Higher Education Supplement review in June.

Scholarly literature critiquing the supercilious self-regulation of sports governing bodies is, of course, extensive: puncturing the blazeratti's conceit the effortless academic equivalent of shooting fish, perhaps. Collins is nevertheless scrupulous, polite even, in resisting the easy target. There are no opening acknowledgements to individuals or groups, possibly to make clear that such criticisms as there are belong to the author alone. Tony Collins has previously published Rugby's Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football (1998; new and expanded ed., 2006) and Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain (2006). I am bound to wish that the author had not been quite so carefully objective, even while I can applaud the impulse to respect readers' right to make up their own minds. The working title for the project was The Amateur Body: Middle-Class Masculinity and English Rugby Union, 1871-2003 and more could have been said about links with other individuals and governing bodies, such as De Coubertin and the Olympic games. The inclusion of Moseley F.C. in the 1900 Paris games and the RFU role in organizing the rugby tournament in the 1908 London event, with Great Britain controversially represented by Cornwall, would have therefore set the 1920 withdrawal of the RFU and the subsequent 1924 de-selection of the sport by the International Olympic Committee from further games in context.

The role of women is also treated quite briefly compared to, say, Michael Oriard's work on American college football as a fashionable social activity at which to be seen. Whether a particular kind of sturdy middle-class outdoor "gel" drew some kind of social prestige from accompanying male players to games and to the "ladies' nights" even the most reactionary clubs held, remains to be...


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