New Zealand’s 2011 Rugby World Cup showed over the summer another rich variety of fortunes and styles of play from the countries involved. We saw some countries play exciting open running rugby whilst others stuck to the power game producing some tedious, slow and uninspiring matches. Putting recent rugby history aside, i.e. the Rugby World Cup since its inception in 1987, concentrating instead on its older and more traditional social history we can see some reasons why different approaches to the game have been taken by separate nations. The prime examples are the England and Wales rugby teams, who are virtual polar opposites with regard to their styles of play. Rather than blaming Martin Johnson or Mike Tindall for England’s poor performances and Wales’ ‘monk-like’ behaviour, we might consider some historical reasons why this is the case as Welsh and English rugby have distinctive differences with regard to their development and history. Drawing on some facts from various academic studies of rugby I argue that class and cultural conflict helped develop rugby in England and Wales in completely different directions resulting in what we see in the rugby World Cup today, with Welsh rugby playing an open style of exciting running rugby and English rugby a boring forward dominated power game.
In Tony Collins’ (2006) fantastic book about the creation of rugby league, Rugby’s Great Split, he argues that class conflict was behind the division of English rugby into two separate northern and southern cultures resulting in the creation of rugby league and rugby union. Rugby was always a popular game in northern England especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, where early rugby clubs played a rough, open and popular type of rugby. Spectators from all across the north used to flock to these games ending with the northern rugby clubs becoming known as the gate-taking clubs. These clubs not only attracted working class fans but also players who were paid for their time playing rugby in what became known as ‘broken-time’ payments, but this clashed with the amateur gentlemen ethos of the Rugby Football Union in London. The northern clubs were interested in keeping the best players to entertain their growing crowds, whilst the southern English clubs were more interested in the amateur, character and empire building ethos that came from public school rugby (Beynon 2000)[For information on references see Steve Williams]. The conflict between the southern and northern clubs in England led to a northern professional union which eventually would become rugby league; however what it also did was divide the game in England into entertainers in the north and a boring forward power game in the south. In fact there is also an argument which states that the reduction of the northern style of rugby from 15 to 13 players was also made to speed up the game and give runners more room to show off their skills. The point here is that southern England developed in opposition to the working class northern clubs and instead what developed within the southern based Rugby Football Union was a forward orientated game which suited their physical size (Richards 2009) and also their restrained middle class public school roots, whilst the exciting working class northern game was forced into professionalism and eventually a creation of a totally different code of rugby.
Welsh rugby developed in a similar way to their working class brothers in the gate taking clubs of northern England, but the creation of a Welsh governing body helped protect the game in Wales from the destructive middle class attitude inherent in the southern English clubs dominated by the amateur public school ethos. Another hugely helpful element was that the Welsh middle class were more connected to the working classes and they allowed rugby in Wales to grow across the nation without claiming the game as solely their own. In other words they didn’t take a stand against the popularisation of the game in Wales, and in fact appears to have encouraged it in some areas. Therefore Welsh rugby has always been different from southern English rugby union in their approach to the game and this has become ingrained in the Welsh rugby fan’s psyche. Indeed one of the biggest historical facts that made Welsh rugby so different was the development of a different way to play, a ‘Welsh way’ if you like. In the early years of rugby in the latter part of the 19th century there had been many attempts to alter the composition of rugby on the playing field. This had included at times England playing 10 and 9 forwards respectively in various matches, with teams like Wales playing 9 and 8 forwards against them from 1882 onwards (Billot 1970). The English liked to play a game of power with the ball clearly held and controlled by their strong forwards, but Wales liked to run the ball and allowed talented backs to dictate matters. It was in this era that Wales developed their most lasting contribution to rugby, which would eventually be accepted universally by the rugby world. This was the famous ‘Cardiff game’ which consisted of the four three-quarters (two centres) and two half-backs, a fullback and 8 forwards. For years this system was resisted by others, especially England and even the famous Welsh back Arthur ‘Monkey’ Gould didn’t like that system, but it would eventually become the basic shape of all rugby union teams. It was developed by the Cardiff club because they wanted to include Frank Hancock in the team who was known for “his dodginess and proverbial ‘corkscrew runs’ which more than compensated for his relative deficiency of speed” and preferred scoring tries to drop goals (Smith & Williams 1980:61). Ironically Hancock was born in England but settled in Cardiff, and developed this way of playing which has become an archetypal Welsh style firstly to Cardiff team and then the Welsh team. Wales continued to develop a style of rugby that depended on exciting backs and combative forwards winning enough possession for them to use. This type of game continued to excite the Welsh public as they came out in their droves to see them perform and started what became known as the first Golden era. Since then Welsh rugby has had its second Golden era and its ups and downs but the thrust of its game has been exciting back play.
We should therefore not be surprised that well over a century has past and nothing appears to have changed. England still play a physical ten man power game and Wales play their natural running style. Indeed more interestingly Wales have a coaching team insisting that they play an open style of play they are now calling the ‘Welsh way’ with uncompromising tackling and fluent running, and prominent in this new set-up is a former northern Rugby league player Shaun Edwards. Therefore we must not condemn the likes of Mike Tindall and Martin Johnson too harshly or even praise George North, Jamie Roberts and Shane Williams too much for both their styles of play because there are historical reasons why Wales and England play in such different ways.