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  • A Social History of English Rugby Union
  • Adrian Smith
Collins, Tony. A Social History of English Rugby Union. London: Routledge, 2009. Pp. vii+277. Notes, illustrations, bibliography, and appendices. £19.99 cb.

Surprisingly perhaps, there is no dedication at the commencement of this exemplary work of scholarship. In the absence of a dedicatee can I suggest Ron Tilbury, whose shameful treatment at the hands of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) aptly illustrates why Twickenham was for so long a bastion of malice and myopia? Needless to say, Ron Tilbury’s CV is firmly lodged in Tony Collins’ memory banks: a journeyman prop who left postwar Coventry to play for Barrow in the then Northern Rugby League. Ron soon found himself back home, and by the late 1960s was an ever-present parent at school or county fixtures. I can see him now patrolling the touchline, working his way through twenty Benson and Hedges and grimacing at every dropped pass and missed tackle. Here was someone who clearly knew what he was talking about and had packed down against the best in the country, north and south of the Trent. Yet on match days Jon Tilbury’s dad never uttered a word of advice to his son, let alone the rest of us. Ron dutifully adhered to an RFU ruling over forty years old, in the same way that he respected Twickenham’s 1962 directive refusing him entry to his old clubhouse. When Coventry finally did seek permission [End Page 294] to welcome back its ex-league players the RFU was unequivocal in saying no— long memories dictated that a club that before the Great War had flirted with league must be especially firm in the face of professionalism. One unintended consequence was David Duckham’s decade in the wilderness following publication of his autobiography. Kiwiconquering Lions don’t need coaching sinecures to secure their place in history, but unsung heroes like Ron Tilbury are easily forgotten, and Tony Collins vividly reminds us how draconian, disproportionate, and long-lasting was the RFU’s treatment of those bearing the mark of Cain – anyone tainted by association, however slight, with the “other” rugby.

Given the author’s roots in rugby league—over a decade ago Rugby’s Great Split established Collins’ credibility as the authority in his field—his restraint is remarkable. Here is a writer who never rushes to judge; and commendably he avoids blanket condemnation, acknowledging for example that English rugby’s tacit support for apartheid was by no means universal. Instead, Collins quietly exposes the rugby establishment’s reactionary credentials, relying upon analysis and explanation—as well as a wry sense of humor— rather than unqualified indictment. A singularly judicious use of eyebrow-raising quotations allows the unreconstructed committee member to speak for himself (always himself ), with suitably disastrous consequences. The voice of “Twickers” is reliably irony-free, rooted firmly in that ubiquitous notion of “common sense” at the heart of middle-class conservatism—a bastardized Burkean view of the world unique to what Angus Calder once labeled “deep England.” This of course is familiar territory for Ross McKibbin, and Collins draws heavily upon a historian sensitive to the centrality of sport in exploring the complexities of English society, past and present. Classes and Cultures is clearly a pivotal influence, and rightly so.

A Social History examines and contextualizes rugby union’s unqualified embrace of masculinity, physicality, male sociability, and above all the notion of a clear moral purpose. For successive generations of English gentlemen that clear moral purpose was embodied in a totemic adherence to the purity of an amateur ideal (even if that belief could prove surprisingly flexible in the face of realpolitick). In tracing amateurism’s troubled path, from the establishment of the Northern Union in 1895 to the RFU’s reluctant embrace of professionalism exactly one hundred years later, Collins regularly reminds his reader that both codes play Rugby football, even if league has traveled a long, long way from its public school roots. The same may be true of union, and yet tradition and popular mythology can prove remarkably resilient, even in an age of central contracts and corporate sponsorship: scarcely known...


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pp. 294-296
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