Gavin Mortimer

The left hate to admit it, but rugby is no longer a pastime for the privileged

The left hate to admit it, but rugby is no longer a pastime for the privileged
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Why do lefties hate rugby union so much? Not all of them, of course. There are one or two who enjoy the sport, but the majority loathe it. Tomorrow marks the start of the rugby World Cup, which is being hosted by England. You can be sure there will be plenty of moaning about the supposedly 'elite' sport.

In 2013, Ian Stewart, a Labour party member and blogger, wrote in an article that he was partial to rugby, an admission he conceded many of his comrades would find 'as outrageous as professing a liking for bullfighting'. People, perhaps, like David Bowden, associate director of the Institute of Ideas, who has described rugby union as 'the sport of posh boys and coppers…the way that the English ruling classes have lorded it over those uncouth, working-class games'. Matthew Syed, the Times sports writer and former Labour party candidate, is another who finds it hard to conceal his disdain for the game. In 2009 Syed thundered that rugby was suffering from a 'moral malaise' and was no longer fit to portray itself as the sport 'with the right kind of ideals and — the ever-present implication — the right class of person'.

Even the Guardian, a paper whose rugby coverage is generally thoughtful and comprehensive, occasionally blows a class gasket, as it did in 2005 when it carried a piece describing rugby fans as 'boorish, deck shoe-wearing City boys…all floppy-fringed imbeciles'.

Posh boys, city boys, coppers; they all love their rugby union. Oh, and so do fascists. It was the writer Philip Toynbee (father of Polly Toynbee) who first linked rugby with the rabid right wing, when he asserted more than half a century ago that 'a bomb under the West car park at Twickenham on an international day would end fascism in England for a generation'.

As soundbites go (and in some quarters the quote’s still incorrectly attributed to George Orwell) it was brilliant, striking an immediate resonance with lefties who regard Twickenham, the home of English rugby union, as a temple for upper-class twits. Just look at some of the right wingers who ran out onto the famous old turf in the first half of the century! Army captains, naval officers, wing commanders, and Wavell Wakefield, who captained England in the early 1920s and later became a Tory MP. Then there was Peter Howard, who played eight times for England in the 1930s, and subsequently became the secretary of Oswald Mosley’s New Party youth movement. Now he was a fascist, but it seems a little unfair of lefties to label all rugby players right-wingers as a result - particularly as 14 English rugby internationals were killed fighting Nazi Germany in the second world war.

Though rugby retains close ties to the military – last season Fijian-born Semesa Rokoduguni, a lance-corporal in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, played for England – it’s a sport that stopped being the preserve of Tories, toffs and tank commanders when it turned professional in 1995.

Admittedly, the current captain of the England team, Chris Robshaw, went to a public school, as did one or two of his teammates, but the majority of the World Cup squad are products of comprehensives and grammar schools. Throw in Rokoduguni and a couple of other well-integrated immigrants in the Vunipola brothers, and one might have expected the left to celebrate the England squad as a shining example of cultural diversity.

But no, lefties just can’t bring themselves to admit that rugby is anything other than a pastime for the privileged. The Independent hammered home the message last year, declaring that the World Cup was 'shaping up as an extravaganza for posh people rather than the populist showpiece that was London 2012'. Something to do with ticket prices, apparently, although last time I looked one needed a small fortune to buy a season ticket to watch Chelsea or Arsenal.

Ah, yes, football, that most egalitarian of sports, where the top players earn £300,000 a week (what a top rugby player would earn in two years). You’ll notice that while politicians never miss an opportunity to flaunt their football credentials, there are few occasions when you hear an MP declaring his love for rugby. Too middle-class, in their eyes, too many players called Hugo, Henry and George, too many players who display characteristics such as courage, discipline, team-work and self-control. Under New Labour, we were encouraged to ridicule such old-fashioned virtues. Tony Blair taught Britain to emote, and no sport emotes quite like football.

Not all politicians sidestep rugby. Mark Pawsey, the MP for Rugby, genuinely enjoys the game and is doing a good job as the parliamentary ambassador for the Rugby World Cup, while Tania Mathias, who in May ousted Vince Cable from the Twickenham seat he’d held for 18 years, is proud of the fact her grandfather was not only a war hero but played rugby and cricket for Glamorgan. But they are both Tories. Labour MPs don’t do rugby, at least not since Derek Wyatt stepped down as MP for Sittingbourne & Sheppey in 2010. Wyatt was a brilliant rugby player in his youth, representing Oxford university, Bath and Bedford. He is also the only Labour MP to have played for England. In contrast, six Conservatives have been accorded that particular honour.

Blair played a large part in popularising football in Westminster and England. He became PM in 1997, when the sport was undergoing an unprecedented surge in popularity among the middle-classes thanks to a combination of events including Nick Hornby’s bestselling book ‘Fever Pitch’, the introduction of all-seater stadiums and the launch of the Premier League. After the hooligan years of the 1980s, football was suddenly sexy and Blair saw it as a means to establish his credentials as the king of ‘Cool Britannia’. He counted among his friends Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager and lifelong Labour supporter, who revealed in his autobiography that the Prime Minister had asked his advice on how to handle Gordon Brown.

Alas, Blair never got the chance to exploit English footballing success for political gain. The national team failed to progress beyond the quarter-final stage in any of the three World Cups that fell within his ten years in power. But there was one sporting triumph during Blair’s reign. In fact it was the first major team trophy won by a British team since England lifted the 1966 football World Cup. But was Blair present to cheer on England when they reached the final of the 2003 rugby World Cup in Australia? Astonishingly, for a man with his reputation for enjoying the warm rays of reflected glory, Blair sent Tessa Jowell to represent Her Majesty’s government.

After the game, won thrillingly by England in extra-time, Jowell slipped into the dressing room in search of a photo opportunity. Attempting to squeeze into one team shot, she was met by one of the England players: 'Look, sweetheart,' he told her. 'I don't know who you are but can you ---- off. Can't you see we're having our picture taken?'

Right-wing, and rude to boot… another reason for lefties to loathe rugby.