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Are things changing in world rugby?

Updated Thursday, 22nd October 2015
The Rugby World Cup 2015 - plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose? Kath Woodward discusses the social side of sport.

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The 2015 Men’s Rugby World Cup has been an exciting competition so far, although emotions range from unexpected jubilation to deep despair, depending which team you support, or even more significantly where your financial investments lie. This was billed as the biggest World Cup ever with massive global investments and, in particular huge returns predicted for the UK economy. The competition has been marked by the unexpected from the outset. Firstly,  Japan beating South Africa suggested a shift in the power structure of the global sport.  The gap may indeed be closing between different parts of the world and the world cup includes nations not formerly known for any competence in rugby; not only the evidently skillful Japan, but also Namibia and Romania presenting something of a challenge to the more familiar narrative of the traditionally dominant rugby playing nations. Maybe things are changing in world rugby?

rugby world cup, Thames, Tower bridge The biggest surprise however, was England, the host nation, being knocked out in the first round, something which hasn’t happened for a long time and England has never failed to progress to the knockout stages. Group A seemed to be a group with an unfair weighting of good teams and Wales being unseeded is one of the anomalies of the competition in 2015. The initial hyperbole about England in the media lead-up to the competition made England’s early departure even more distressing, although the greatest misery has most likely been generated by the massive loss of revenue.

England’s status as the host nation occupied an uneasy relationship to the other nations of the UK where competitions are also being held in a configuration, which highlights tensions in the union as well as the elision between British and English and the legacy of England’s dominance. Concerns with investment an revenue, or more specifically lack of revenue, seems more in line with the unremitting advance of sport as big business, although England’s early departure does upset the geographical axes of power of world rugby. The southern hemisphere, and especially the Commonwealth nations of Australia and New Zealand retain dominance however, although maybe we should wait and see if there are any more upsets to our expectations.

Welsh rugby fans Rugby is a very traditional sport in many ways with customs and practices drawing upon largely conservative values. On the one hand rugby is democratic; fans sit together and the sport is not marked by misbehaviour or riots among its fans, unlike football, but inequitable power geometries still mark the sport, especially in relation to social class. In England for example, the sport is strongly associated with independent schools and the establishment (which it is not in Wales, where the sport has traditional links with grammar schools and is more the sport of the people). Whilst rugby league, which contributed some players such as Burgess and Farrell, to the 2015 England team, has strong local, working class links in England rugby union retains upper and middle class associations.

One of the enduring characteristics of rugby is its all-pervasive culture of masculinity. Its embodied practices on the pitch are distinctive of aggressive, brave, corporeal masculinity, so it may not be surprising that the 2015 World Cup made no concessions to changing gender roles, which, albeit at a somewhat superficial level, the 2014 Men’s Football World Cup did with the inclusion of women players contributing to media coverage. Women play rugby and follow the sport enthusiastically but its culture is persistently masculine. The All Black’s performance of the haka, although it is defended as an enactment of ethnic diversity and not particularly pugilistic, has its roots in the challenge of Maori warriors and the New Zealand team has never included more than a very small number of Maori players. There is a women’s version of the haka, which demonstrates that women too can, as feminist philosopher, Judith Butler argues, ‘do masculinity’ but it doesn’t make the body practices involved any less masculine. The England coach Stuart Lancaster was mocked for instituting a code of behaviour to limit the excesses of unrestrained youthful masculinity in his players off the pitch.

Whatever the extent of residual class, gender and ethnic inequalities, there is evidence of change, which is made more possible by the incredibly high standard of the rugby being played in what has been, despite national disappointment, a magnificent global tournament.


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