Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch…

Wales beat England at rugby this afternoon, which (don’t tell my father) I quite enjoyed. I keenly support England when they’re playing South Africa, Australia, New Zealand or France, but against other teams I often find myself rooting for the opposition.

I guess it’s largely support for the underdog (today was Wales’s first win at Twickenham for 20 years, so I don’t think it’s too patronising to call them underdogs), but I never feel the same way when England play soccer. I don’t know why I don’t feel the same emotional connection to the rugby team, but there it is.

Of course if you’re English you have to have flexible sporting loyalties anyway: English during the World Cup but British during the Olympics. And it’s amazing how golf clubs suddenly become hotbeds of European solidarity during the Ryder Cup.

It always seems like it ought to be a healthy model of patriotism. Lots of overlapping loyalties which come to the fore at different times in different contexts, none of which insist that they have to be exclusive. And yet oddly enough British sports fans aren’t known for their flexible, easy-going tolerance and sensitivity to cultural nuance.

Island rugby

One of the minor pleasures of international sport is the way that sports change and adapt as they travel around the world. So professional soccer starts with one character and one meaning a century ago in grimy industrial British cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, and mutates into something different in Buenos Aires, Budapest, Milan, Dakar, and even Los Angeles. And no one place can claim that their version is somehow the real thing. A sport is just a set of rules, an abstract framework; there are as many ways to play a game of football as there are to write a sonnet.

For the English, there’s one vision of an archetypal game of cricket. It takes place somewhere lush and green; preferably a village green in the country, with an oak tree, a pub and some fluffy white clouds. But cricket is also a game of dusty back streets in Karachi and sun-baked pitches in Guyana.

The first games of cricket in India, perhaps played by members of the East India Company or the British Army, must have seemed impossibly out-of-place, a bloody-minded attempt to maintain a facade of Englishness; like Kim Philby sitting in his Moscow apartment eating Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade and watching Test cricket on videotape. But at some stage, to use the colonial jargon, cricket went native, and cricket is as authentically Indian as kedgeree is authentically English.

But I want to talk about the adoption of rugby union by the people of the South Pacific. The image of rugby has improved since the game turned professional in 1995, but not long ago, even at international level, it seemed to be a game of fat blokes grinding out low-scoring wins in about three feet of mud. And at club level, an opportunity for middle class men to go on the kind of tours that involved a lot of beer and songs with vulgar gestures. Grey skies, mud, and self-satisfied amateurism.

public school rugby kits

Against that kind of background, I remember the first time I saw a touring team from Samoa on TV; I thought at first that some of them were wearing some kind of tight black Lycra shorts under their kit. It was a shock to realise that their entire thighs were densely covered in traditional tattoos. The tattoos aren’t the most spectacular thing they brought with them from traditional Pacific culture, though; that would be the pre-match challenge. The most famous is the Haka, performed by the New Zealand rugby team before a match, but Samoa, Tonga and Fiji all have their own versions. There are lots of examples on YouTube, but the most atmospheric is this one, with the New Zealand Haka facing up to the Tongan Sipi Tau:

I don’t actually know how the sport came to be taken up so enthusiastically in the Pacific. Given rugby’s boarding school origins, it’s tempting to think it was purposefully introduced there by missionaries as part of the kind of muscular Christianity that believes in cold baths and lots of manly sport as the best way to prevent ‘filthiness’. But the Pacific islanders have made it so much their own that you could believe it happened the other way round: that missionaries took the bible to Polynesia and came back having discovered an exotic, warlike local sport called, as best as they could pronounce it, ‘rugby’. The way polo was brought back from the Himalayas by the British, and turned into a game for stockbrokers.

The reason I’m posting a paean to Pacific rugby now is that the Rugby World Cup is currently on, and the island teams have looked good. With professionalism, they can now make a living playing for clubs in Europe, and they’ve added greater fitness, discipline and experience to their game. Last week, Fiji beat Wales in a brilliant match to reach the quarterfinals for the first time. That might not seem much of an achievement, considering I’ve just been rhapsodising about their passion for the game, but sport generally favours countries which are large and rich, and Fiji, with a little under a million people, is neither.

And Fiji is a colossus compared to Tonga and Samoa, which have a combined population of about 300 000. There are 57 cities in the USA which have a population of over 300 000; despite that fact, the US rugby team has been beaten by both countries at this tournament. Yes, I know, rugby must be about the 15th most popular team sport in the US; but still, you have to enjoy this parallel world where the puny Americans are crushed by the mighty Tonga.

» Football Ghana was uploaded to Flickr by sarahebsgaard; Cricket at The Oval Maidan is by .Hessam. The rugby kits are from an illustration Football Colours of some of our Public Schools from the Boy’s Own Paper, used under a by-sa Creative Commons licence. The Flickr account of Frederic of www.rugby-pioneers.com is a mine of great vintage rugby material. Check out that link to his blog, as well. THE Beach, taken in Samoa, was uploaded to Flickr by Tagaloa.

Soccer in the US

All the coverage about the position of soccer in the US, and whether Beckham moving there will have any impact, had me thinking. If his new home ground is only half-full, he’ll still be playing in front of about 13,000 fans. It’s true, that’s not very many compared to the Bernabéu or Old Trafford, but it’s a good crowd for a match in the Rugby Union Premiership and a miraculous one for county cricket.

Average attendances for soccer in the US (the 5th most popular team sport) are significantly higher than those for rugby in the UK (the 2nd most popular team sport). In fact, according to this list of sports attendances on Wikipedia, the English rugby premiership draws the biggest audiences of any non-soccer league in Europe, and it still only has an average attendance of 10,271; not just less than Major League Soccer, but less than the National Lacrosse League in the US.

Perhaps ‘why don’t Americans like soccer?’ is the wrong question. More interestingly: why does Europe only manage to support one team sport as a megabusiness while North America supports three or four? Why is Europe a sporting monoculture?

grand slam for Wales?

I’m looking forward to the Wales/Ireland game today. I’ll be supporting Wales, and hadn’t even considered supporting Ireland, so I was quite intrigued to read Simon Barnes‘s assumption that the English would support Ireland.

He says “Partly, this is because the English have always loved the Irish when they are not actually shooting them. And partly it�s because it would be so good to see the Welsh fail.” It’s not that either of those things are untrue – we do tend to have a soft spot for the Irish and we are often rude about the Welsh – but I wouldn’t have thought people’s loyalties were as clear-cut as all that. For a start, there’s a sentimental English affection for the great Welsh rugby teams of JPR and JJ. Those were before my time, but I still think ‘Welsh rugby’ has a slightly different public image to ‘Wales’. Especially as they’ve been playing such attractive rugby during this championship.

Anyway, I was thinking how odd the English hostility to Wales is. The fact that the three Celtic nations are always so keen to get one over on the English is unsurprising; even if it wasn’t for all historical baggage, the simple power relationship (England being much bigger and richer, with London as the capital) would tend to encourage that. Rather like everyone disliking the Americans. And it wouldn’t be surprising if the English returned the hostility all round. But actually the English tend to quite like the Scots and Irish and are always slightly hurt when they are nasty about us. But we regularly make rude or disparaging comments about the Welsh. I don’t think they’re generally very seriously meant, but still. It puts them in an odd little club with the Americans, Australians, and French – all of whom the English are liable to make disparaging comments about for no particular reason. Not that the English aren’t rude about Italians, Belgians, Germans, Greeks, New Zealanders, Dutch, Japanese, Swiss or Swedish, but that’s different, I think.

And I don’t think all this general-purpose xenophobia is anything like racism, really. The French may be annoying, but that doesn’t mean we hate them or anything.

Anyway, time for the rugby. Go on, Wales.

well done Wales

It’s nice to see Wales playing really good rugby. They’re so central to the mythology of the game, but in the time I’ve been watching it – a decade and a bit – they’ve been almost invariably crap. I mean, obviously I don’t want them to keep beating England, but seeing them beat a good French side in Paris was great.

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