Many Rugby League (R.L.) fans will probably be at least vaguely familiar with the story of the game's origins: in 1895 at a meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, 22 clubs broke away from the Rugby Football Union (R.F.U.) over arguments about 'broken-time' payments and formed the Northern Rugby Football Union (N.U.); similar arguments in Australia led to the formation of the New South Wales Rugby League (N.S.W.R.L.) in 1907; over the subsequent decades, changes to the laws of the game, enacted by the N.U. and the N.S.W.R.L. evolved a distinctive form of rugby football, known throughout the world from 1922 by its Australian title: Rugby League. However, possibly fewer fans will be aware of precisely why the broken-time debate could not be resolved, or why the breakaway bodies felt compelled to change the laws of the game to such an extent. In Rugby's Great Split, Tony Collins (currently, the official R.L. archivist) provides answers to these questions which should be of interest to R.L. supporters throughout the world.
Drawing on contemporary newspaper accounts and the frustratingly few surviving official records, Collins has painstakingly pieced together the most detailed historical account still in print of the origins of R.L.. Chapter One recounts how organised rugby developed in mid-19th century English public (i.e. private) schools, as part of a character-building strategy intended to produce gentlemen fit to rule an empire. During the 1870s, as the game began to be played by the middle classes throughout England, rugby became a source of intense civic rivalry between many cities and towns.
As a successful rugby team became a symbol of civic pride, the local notables running the clubs sought to recruit the best players available, many of whom were working class. In chapter two Collins examines the consequent development of tensions throughout the 1880s between some of R.F.U.'s middle clases administrators' resolutely amateur ideology and the working class players, who not only expected to be compensated for wages lost through time taken off work to play rugby (the so-called 'broken-time' payments), but also to be paid a wage commensurate wiith their skills. The chapter climaxes in 1886 with the R.F.U.'s first anti-professionalism regulations.
As chapter three demonstrates, whatever the R.F.U. might decree, by the late 1880s amateurism was being overwhelmed by commercialism. Especially in Yorkshire and Lancashire, rugby's dominance was being challenged by the increasing popularity of professional soccer. The regional authorities successfully countered with leagues and knock-out cups, generating huge crowds and a significant income used by many clubs to recruit what were in effect 'professional' players. Yet some of the R.F.U.'s national administrators clung to the old amateur ethos and launched a witch-hunt against the nascent professionalism.
Chapter four describes the climax of the witch-hunt at the 1893 R.F.U. Annual General Meeting and the subsequent establishment of the N.U. in 1895. Collins argues convincingly that a feasible compromise over broken-time payments was frustrated by an influential faction within the R.F.U. whose motives were worries that the working classes would eventually wrest control of the game from the middle-classes. Indeed, to Collins the R.F.U.'s anti-professionalism was a hypocritical example of classism rather than a point of high principle because, whereas working class players were denied payments even for lost wages, the 'gentlemen' amateur players were allowed extremely generous 'expenses'.
Finally, Chapters five and six deal with the first fifteen years of the N.U., including: the constant struggle against victimisation by the R.F.U.; the many rule changes designed to attract more spectators; the early development of R.L. in Australia and New Zealand; and the importance of the early international matches to the game's survival.
This review has highlighted only the main narrative lines of Collins' complex, yet highly readable book, which contains also a mass of interesting material about particular clubs and about 19th century attitudes to society in general and to sport in particular. There is scope for further research to deepen our understanding of R.L.'s origins, for example: investigations of the roles of key actors in the debates over professionalism and establishment of the N.U.; and studies locating R.L. within in the wider context of late 19th century British and Australian society. However, it is a tribute to Dr Collins that all future such work will be surely built on the foundations laid in his definitive book Rugby's Great Split.
Book Review: Rugby's Great Split; Class, Culture And The Origins Of Rugby League Football. By Tony Collins; London: Cass, 1998 (reprinted 1999, 2003). $48.54 (pbk).
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