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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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1.1.3 Gender and ‘race’

Popular images of Wales and Welshness have been profoundly male (with the exception of the Welsh ‘Mam’, a representation of motherhood and nurturing) (see Beddoe, 2000) – reflecting patriarchy generally but, more specifically for Wales, the nature of employment (men in coal and steel), the politics and the rugby. Since its construction in the later Victorian era, Welsh national identity has been very male, and sport generally in many ways remains the ‘last bastion’ of traditional masculine values (Messner, 1987). In Wales rugby constitutes something of an extreme version of such values, given the nature of the masculinity which lies at the heart of rugby (the strength and aggression that it involves) and the sport’s centrality to the nation.

Excluded from the national sport until fairly recently, women have also been largely absent from sporting representations of the nation – which are so important in defining the nature of the nation (Andrews, 1996). Rugby is quite an extreme case of this, rooted as it is in a very distinctive form of masculinity, in which toughness is central and highly prized. With it goes a deep-rooted masculine drinking culture. Autobiographies by Welsh squad players, even in the era of professionalism, paint a picture of a culture of drinking games, drinking through the night, being sick on buses, being carried home legless and getting wrecked (Henson, 2005a; Williams and Parfitt, 2008).

To some extent the masculinity of rugby (as masculinity more generally) has changed and is changing. As late as the mid 1990s, the players’ bar at the Arms Park, the old national stadium, was for men only, with the only woman present the barmaid; there was a separate bar for wives and girlfriends (personal communication, Eric Bowers, 22 October 2009). In the 1970s women supported rugby in the sense of providing the tea after a game, but didn’t go to watch matches much. Broader changes in society – such as more women going to work and enjoying greater independence – have led to a stronger presence of women at rugby matches. This coincides with the rise of celebrity culture.

As well as becoming more prominent as supporters, women are now more involved as players. Women’s rugby has been played in Wales since the 1970s, though the Welsh Women’s Rugby Union affiliated to the WRU only in 1994, the women’s Six Nations Championship began in 2003, and women’s rugby was fully integrated into the WRU only in 2007. Women’s rugby is now one of the fastest growing form of the game, but the hyper-masculinity of rugby makes feminine play problematic; hence its remarkably low profile and the very little media coverage of women’s rugby. Thus women remain marginalised here as in other areas of life in Wales.

At the same time, new masculinities and femininities are emerging. The ‘laddette culture’ (smoking, drinking, swearing and fighting) is one aspect of this. And Henson represents another strand of these changes. As he says, ‘It takes two hours to get ready – hot bath, shave my legs and face, moisturise, put fake tan on and do my hair – which takes a bit of time’ (Henson, 2005b). Although an exception, Henson challenges hypermasculinised images of players. Gareth Thomas, Wales’s most-capped player (100 times) and former Wales and Lions captain, came out as gay in December 2009. He remains the only rugby star to have come out as gay, something quite remarkable given the masculinity of rugby culture. As Thomas said:

‘It is the toughest, most macho of male sports ... In many ways, it’s barbaric ... It’s pretty tough for me being the only international rugby player prepared to break the taboo ... I’m not aware of any other gay player in the game’.

(BBC, 2009)

Black and ethnic minorities are to be found in low numbers throughout Wales, with the exception of Cardiff and particularly Butetown, the area otherwise known as the docks, the bay or Tiger Bay. It is from this area that one of Wales’s best-known black rugby players emerged. Billy Boston started his career playing for Cardiff International Athletic Club (the CIACs), and went on to play rugby league in Wigan in the 1950s and 1960s. More recently there have been a few other prominent black Welsh players, notably Glen Webbe, Nigel Walker and Colin Charvis.

The CIACs has been a truly multicultural team. The club was formed in 1946 by returning black servicemen on the basis of an explicit belief in a multi-racial society and religious tolerance, embracing all ‘races’ and religions and reflecting the diversity of the local population. The CIAC badge incorporates clasping black and white hands and the club motto Unus et idem, ‘One and the same’. ‘The name Cardiff Internationals came up because there were so many different nationalities. But sometimes the opposition thought we were actually international players from the Cardiff City team’ (CIACs, 2009). The CIACs were among the residents of Butetown who were active in the anti-apartheid movement in Cardiff from the late 1960s. They joined one of the earliest anti-apartheid demonstrations, carrying a banner depicting a black hand on a rugby ball on the try line and the slogan ‘Don’t deny their right to try’.

The CIACs were almost the only rugby players who actively opposed apartheid prior to the few years before the end of apartheid when almost everyone was against it. (The London Welsh player John Taylor was another of the extremely few players to take a stand.) Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the WRU was quite happy to repeatedly play South African teams, despite the protests of students, churches and trade unions, and even though South Africa was banned from the Olympic movement and was subject to a Commonwealth ban on sporting and cultural contact. In the belief that politics should be kept out of sport, the WRU and its players were among the more influential bodies to add credibility to the increasingly isolated apartheid regime, in stark contrast with the politics of the CIACs.

More recently there have been occasional allegations of racism in Welsh rugby, for example by the crowd in relation to Colin Charvis and Aled Brew at an away game against Ulster in 2007, and by a Munster player in the European Rugby Cup in 2005 who was alleged to have called the Ospreys’ centre, the Samoan Elvis Seveali, a ‘f*cking black c*nt’. Although the allegation was not confirmed, as Henson reports:

‘Racist remarks do fly around, it does go on. You hear it in some games. You even get it during training sessions’

(Henson, 2005a, p. 160).

This exposes the myth that racism isn’t an issue in Wales. Having said that, the issue is recognised by the WRU.

In 2013, Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC) partnered with the Welsh Rugby Union to produce a joint anti racism team poster, which was launched during the Six Nations tournament. Jason Webber, SRtRC Campaign Worker, was reported as saying:

“The regional rugby clubs already back the campaign and we believed that through the power of rugby we can really tackle racism in society.”

(Show Racism the Red Card, 2013)