A game for gentlemen, played by thugs?

A friend and I recently had a bit of a spat over rugby and football. Our petty argument was as old as the hills but you can bet we weren’t the only people debating about which is the better sport, as the rivalry always seems to raise its ugly head in some shape or form every time the Six Nations around. My friend (who shall not be named, let’s call him Mr X) commented on how rugby was a sport for the Eton-educated upper class twits of the year, and how his potential enjoyment of watching a match at Murrayfield in Edinburgh had been ruined by a Oxbridge reject chanting “oh do come on Scotland!”.

Mr X conceded, however, that he had been dragged to the game in the first place so perhaps his mind was always going to be made up before the first whistle had even been blown. The fact that he was Scottish meant him finding an Englishman irksome somewhat unsurprising. In the end we agreed to disagree and the old adage ‘Rugby is a thugs. . .’ came to the fore amongst much laughter. A disclaimer to quickly excuse myself before you read any further should be that if you haven’t guessed already, I am slightly biased towards rugby.

But if we look at this old adage with a keen eye we can analyse the football/rivalry further. Since rugby is known to be a rough and brutal game you could be forgiven for thinking the rival teams and players would readily kill and maim each other after the match. Instead usually it’s a plethora of pints and handshakes in the bar afterwards. I have seen it first-hand and a similar aphorism is not an exaggeration- ‘after a rugby match there are no winners or losers, just drunks’.

That is not to say that that case doesn’t happen in football. Perhaps the former axiom is talking more about the sportsmanship presented at the matches, with a stereotypical view that rugby players play with honour and always respect the referee’s decision whilst footballers play dirty or tactfully and always contest the ref’s decision.

Unfortunately, these stereotypes are just that: stereotypes. There are many rugby players out there who would willingly punch an opposing team member or feign an injury to give his team an advantage. Likewise, many footballers are respectful of the beautiful game played as ‘a gentlemen’. To put it simply, possibly football supporters think their opposite rugby equivalents look down their haughty nose at them with a superior sneer, while rugby fans think that because of this very ignorant view, footballers see rugby as pretentious and privileged whilst they know differently.

It’s whenever we see the fans of both games respectively at club level, international games or even World Cup matches that we see a clear difference. Football fans of two opposing sides are often segregated before and after a match so as to avoid conflict since their seems to be an almost tribal quality as to how much they would sacrifice of themselves for their beloved teams. On the other hand how many times have you seen the headline on TV: ‘rugby fans run riot abroad’, with in depth stories of rival rugby fans injured by hurling street patio furniture at each other? Or indeed why is it that we have films such as ‘The Football factory‘ and not ‘the rugby factory’?

It seems to be all rooted in class. I once noticed an article when I was an undergrad entitled something along the lines of ‘The correlation between football and working class society’. Perhaps this is the foremost reason why football and rugby are polarised into two separate camps. Working class football in one corner, middle or upper class rugby in the other’.

There is a spectacularly funny scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, 1983) which depicts young teenage schoolboys getting pummelled by fully grown men in a rugby match held at what looks like a very posh English boarding school. For many, this crystallizes everything rugby is – the upper classes using the excuse of sport to savagely prove their dominance over the layman.

That last sentence could well have been said by a biased football fan. The hilarious irony of football being such a ‘working class’ sport is the fact that football supporters think their idol players are cut from the same cloth as themselves, while the said players arrive to training in their polished Lamborghini or Ferrari sports car. Sport of the people indeed. Apart from a few exceptions, the celebrity aspect is unarguably more so in the footballer camp rather than rugby. Perhaps the whole class argument is now outdated since nowadays celebrity and accompanying riches have nothing to do with ‘one’s breeding’ or other such bile.

As I mentioned before, I am biased towards rugby as I have been raised that way. I have grown to be a football ‘tourist’ fan though every time the World Cup comes about and I play football every week (the first time I went I thought I would be stabbed by the local ‘Ned’ population, who gathered gradually by the pitch like that scene from The Birds, before I realised they were a local youth club waiting to get on the pitch after us).

Perhaps the truth is that either we grow too accustomed to one sport when we are at an impressionable age to see it’s flaws against the other and that prejudice always gets the better of more rational thoughts. Or perhaps the whole argument will continue to be futile as it could be likened to ‘apples or oranges?’, ‘Beatles or Stones’? What is clear is that the rugby versus football argument has never really been kicked into touch and that it will always have referees trying to hear both sides of the story equally to no avail.

Adam Smyth

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One response to “A game for gentlemen, played by thugs?

  1. ” (the first time I went I thought I would be stabbed by the local ‘Ned’ population, who gathered gradually by the pitch like that scene from The Birds, before I realised they were a local youth club waiting to get on the pitch after us).” seriously, I was expecting torrents of abuse every time I took a throw-in. great article lad.

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