The ebbs and flows of Welsh rugby can be seen as reflecting the state of the Welsh economy. Rugby arrived with the rapid industrialisation and immigration that took place in south Wales in the second half of the nineteenth century. The rules and controlled competitiveness of rugby were consonant with the needs and interests of industrial society: rugby was seen as an improving sort of activity and an alternative to the beer hall and gin palace, a way of protecting members of the working class from the excesses of their own culture (Smith and Williams, 1980). Welsh rugby enjoyed its first golden era around the first decade of the twentieth century, the time of the peak of the economy of south Wales. It declined dramatically in the inter-war years, when Wales lost about half a million of its population. Many rugby teams dissolved in the economic depression of the 1930s and many players, including almost the entire Pontypool pack, went to work for rugby league clubs in the north of England (Morgan, 1980, p. 230). The second golden era for Welsh rugby, the 1970s, coincided with the modernisation of the Welsh economy and the arrival of newer industries. Players around this time were teachers (especially in the London Welsh team), business executives, finance advisers, industrial consultants, sports shop owners and sales representatives (Smith and Williams, 1980). No longer miners or steelworkers themselves, many, including Barry John and Gareth Edwards, were the sons of miners. It is commonly said that the decline of Welsh rugby in the 1980s was because it had lost its roots, lying as these did in an economy characterised by heavy manual work. With heavy industry in decline, more traditional notions of masculinity held less sway.
As well as drawing on and reflecting transformations in the economy, rugby is itself an area of work. Although an ostensibly amateur game until 1995, from before the dawn of the twentieth century it was characterised by forms ofstarting before 1897 when the legendary Arthur J. Gould, controversially, was bought a detached house in Newport. After that the game was supported by ‘boot money’ and other forms of shamateurism to keep players involved and to discourage their defection to English rugby league clubs, after playing for which players became ineligible to play amateur rugby in or for Wales. With a blind eye apparently turned by the Inland Revenue, for 100 years cash ‘from the car park’ and sinecures (paid jobs which involve little work) in the public and private sectors supported the players.
This was accompanied by the growing commercialisation of the game, drawing in more money. This involved the increase in merchandising (magazines, memorabilia, media coverage) and sponsorship (as brands sought to associate themselves with the game and the faces), culminating in professionalisation in 1995. Shane Williams describes his amazement (though it is commonplace) at being offered a Toyota convertible sports car, to be updated every six months (Williams and Parfitt, 2008). Professionalism and commercialisation alter some of the meanings of the game and also the lifestyle of its players.
A part of this transformation is that rugby has become work for the stars, not simply something undertaken for local or national pride. Clearly, the pride in representing Wales remains absolutely central, but the rewards and lifestyle that are associated with the game at this level have changed beyond recognition. Shane Williams, for example, refers to owning plots of land and ten properties (Williams and Parfitt, 2008). The work, of course, is rather different from what it was: it is gruelling, six days a week during the season, with an enhanced focus on fitness and nutrition, and negotiated agreements about the number of matches a player plays per season and having a block of time off in the summer. Discipline is tight and players are expected by their employers to present themselves in particular ways and to speak in public and to the press. So professionalisation has changed not only the organisation of the game and the remuneration of the players, but also the experience of the job of player, which is both more disciplined and no longer confined to behaviour on the pitch.