The 12 days of HPNXmas is our way of giving back over the holiday period, and providing a place for some of our thoughts that didn’t get run for whatever reason during the year.
It’s well known in Australia (well, at least north of the Murray) that Rugby Union tends to be a sport enjoyed by the wealthy and privileged, a class divide emphasised in its contrast with the more working class Rugby League.
In its birthplace of England too, Rugby Union is also regarded as a posh game (although in the very west of England this is less the case). Indeed, the very name derives from the elite school of the game’s origin. But the same isn’t true everywhere in the Rugby-playing world. HPN has been endeavouring to work out where Rugby is stereotypically the game of the elite, and where it has other roots. Below is the taxonomy we’ve pieced together about where the sport fits into different countries in each currently rated as a “high performance” band country:
(We should note that for some countries this is inference based mostly on limited external research – such as on Wikipedia, reddit and message board discussions)
Along with Australia and England mentioned above, Rugby Union is also very much the domain of the elite and well-to-do in Scotland and Argentina. Using the descriptions of those caught up in the Uruguayan Rugby plane crash, we can reasonably assume that, like in most things, Uruguay is a tiny version of Argentina in this respect. We note that the game has working class pockets in parts of England such as Cornwall, but this doesn’t seem significant enough to alter its overall character and its contrast with English Rugby League.
In Ireland the game has more significant differences in its bases – in Northern Ireland it’s mostly Protestant and middle to upper class, and around Dublin it’s also the domain of private schools. However, in the west of Ireland in Connacht and Munster (especially Limerick and Cork) it has a more mixed base. This can all be well observed in the mix of “fee-paying” versus public schools at the top of school rugby in each of the four provinces of Ireland.
There is a strong university and corporate character to the game in Japan, where university leagues are traditionally the most popular and now the game has strong corporate backing.
On the other side of the stereotype coin, Wales is the archetypal working class rugby country, the game most strongly associated with southern Welsh towns, coal miners, farmers, and the like.
In New Zealand, Rugby Union is popular across all class lines as the clear number one sport in the country, though League remains stereotyped as a specifically working class game. In Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa, too, the game has wide appeal as a true national sport.
As for Russia, we’re actually really not sure. The game was banned as bourgeois in the Soviet Union by Stalin, and later, the USSR team was strongly Georgian in composition. So the sport is pretty niche, but they claim to have more registered players than Scotland. One would assume interest in such a niche sport was the domain of elite cosmopolitan types, but we just don’t know.
Romania is a special case, deserving a bit of attention, as although we labelled it too niche to know, the country used to have a very strong team.
Rugby in Romania became closely identified with the Ceausescu regime which used sport in its propaganda a lot. The sport was heavily funded, the best local teams were those of the army and the police. The international team were quite successful in the 1980s, being strongly considered for top level competition and beating sides like Scotland and Wales.
Then Romania experienced the fall of European communism’s only violent overthrow. Six members of the national team were killed in the violence (some at their day jobs, one star was mistakenly shot at a roadblock). Romanian rugby was then gutted by professionalisation as everyone moved to France or Italy to play – absent state resources and with a professional standard abroad, Romania lost its previous edge. We actually don’t know about the social class associations of Romanian rugby these days, but the place of the game seems to be mostly that people are indifferent and participation is at a small fraction of its former strength.
Canada and the USA seem to be a bit of a mixed bag in where the niche sits. Canada has a bit of a fee-paying school rugby circuit, but it’s unclear how dominant this is relative to other influences such as French and British migrants. In the US there’s college and club rugby, but also a strong recruitment of former mediocre American footballers due to the relative lack of amateur organised sport for adults in the US. We are curious but ignorant about the role of American Samoa in American Rugby.
In South Africa and Namibia the game is strongly associated with white South Africans and particularly Afrikaners (most of the Namibian international side is also South African-based), and the history of violent segregation means there’s only recently been much effort to bridge that racial divide. However, despite the relative wealth of the white population of these countries we are not sure to what extent we can call the Afrikaner population posh or “elite” so we have given them their own category.
In France, Rugby Union is a strongly regionalised game, most popular in the south and especially the west of the country, with strongholds in Toulouse and the Basque Country, while the game also has a (possibly more marginal and educated) presence in Paris.
France used to have a League/Union divide which went along the same class and political lines as elsewhere. However, this was basically ended by the fascists, and we do not exaggerate. Rugby League never truly recovered from being banned under the Nazis and Vichy France for its left wing character. It lost most of its assets in favour of the collaborating Union organising body. Whilst Rugby League is slowly building in France again due to the establishment of the Catalans Dragons in the Super League, it is starting from a long way back. This means the game doesn’t have a strong class element to it in southern France these days, as Union is so dominant.
In Italy, too, Rugby Union is regional – mostly centred on the northern Po Valley, an industrial heartland of Italy. This is by a large margin the wealthier end of the country, but we can’t really describe the whole region as posh or elite.
Finally, Georgia is sort of a mirror image of Romania’s experience. In both cases the game was introduced by French communists but whereas in Romania the game became associated with regime propaganda, in Georgia it struck an accidental chord by being very similar to a folk game called Lelo which seems to be Rugby with heavy ball and forward passes:
Which is in turn derived from this where hundreds of people murder each other trying to move a 16kg ball through a village:
Rugby as a whole could learn something from Georgia, we feel.