“Rugby League is a 13-a-side game played by white working-class males in the North of England. It is the dominant winter sport in the states of New South Wales and Queensland in Australia and is also popular in France, New Zealand. Fiji and Tonga despite playing second fiddle there to Rugby Union. It barely figures elsewhere”. This statement, although broadly true, contains a major misconception.
Professional Rugby League is limited to only a small part of the North, confined almost entirely to an area some 10 miles north and south of the M62 motorway. It has no presence in Northumberland, Durham, North and South Yorkshire and much of Lancashire. Its only major outpost is in West Cumbria, where it is the dominant winter sport in Workington and Whitehaven and a significant presence in Barrow-in-Furness. Whole areas of historic Lancashire are also Rugby League deserts – Liverpool, Blackpool, Preston, Burnley, Bury, Bolton, Blackburn for example. It barely figures in Manchester. The cities and towns of South Yorkshire – Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster – are similarly barren. It has a presence alongside Football in a few towns either side of the Pennines – Halifax, Rochdale and Oldham for example – but has suffered serious decline there over the last 50 years. It has a high profile alongside Football in Hull, Huddersfield, Bradford and Leeds but is dominant in only two areas – a cluster of towns in what used to be west Lancashire (Wigan, Warrington, Widnes, St. Helens) and the old woollen and mining towns south and west of Leeds (Wakefield, Castleford, Dewsbury ,Batley). Its geographical base, therefore, even in the North of England, is remarkably narrow.
Socially, however, it is a different story the significance of which goes back to the game`s origins. Competitive sport played between towns many miles apart originated in the 19th century railway age. Manchester and Leeds, for example, are only some 45 miles apart but it was only when linked by rail in 1839 that competitive sport became a practical proposition. Common sets of rules were required. Leading roles were played by the public schools (the formation of the Football Association in 1863 is a good example, as chronicled by the recent Netflix series “The English Game”). The Eton form of football banned the use of the hand (except for goalkeepers), the Rugby form did not. A major boost to both was the Saturday half-holiday introduced into the industrial areas by Disraeli`s government in 1875. Churches began to form their own teams to play against each other on the newly-freed Saturday afternoons. Within a few years both forms of the game became spectator sports with charges for admission to grounds. Some film of these early years by Mitchell and Kenyon can be found on Youtube.
Soon, however, a problem appeared. If a team in Lancashire was due to play in Yorkshire (or vice-versa) on a Saturday afternoon its players would be unable to work in the morning because they would have to travel. Demands grew for them to be compensated. The Football Association solved the problem by dividing its game into professional and amateur, a distinction which remained until the early 1970s (the F.A. Amateur Cup was reserved, at least in theory, for teams which did not pay their players). The Rugby Union, however, insisted that its game should remain strictly amateur, which it did, at least in theory, until the early 1990s, and refused to allow “broken time” compensation to be paid to players unable to work on Saturday mornings. Many players, however, could not afford this loss of earnings. So on 29 August 1895 a meeting number of clubs in the George Hotel Huddersfield voted to leave the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and form their own Northern Football Union, which in 1922 changed its name to the Rugby (Football) League. The two codes drifted further apart when in order to make its game more attractive to spectators the Northern Union reduced the number of players in each team from 15 to 13.
Despite its adherence to amateurism the RFU retained its hold over working-class areas in the East and West Midlands (notably Leicester, Northampton and Coventry) and the West country (notably Gloucester, Bristol and especially Cornwall). The division between the codes in the industrial north was, however, rigid. Anyone who had a trial for a Rugby League team, or played League even as an amateur, was banned from Union for life anywhere in the world. Trialists for League teams were listed in match programmes under pseudonyms such as A.N.Other or S.O.Else, hoping not to be identified. Union players from deprived areas such as South Wales and Cornwall moved northwards to make a living from League, the more prominent for large signing-on fees. The class division was even present in the education system. In Rochdale, for example, boys who passed the 11+ and went on to the local Grammar School played Rugby Union, no doubt with the idea of equipping them to mix in later life with the professional and managerial classes to which they were expected to aspire. 11+ failures in their Secondary Moderns played Rugby League. This was the case in many of the towns with a significant Rugby League presence. Thus Rugby League in these areas became the preserve of the manual working class.
Non-white stars have emerged in Rugby League, as in Football, and since Union became professional in the 1990s the hostility between the two codes of Rugby has largely abated. Both Jason Robinson and Andy Farrell, star Union player and coach respectively, were recruits from Wigan Rugby League. In 1995 Wigan (RL) and Bath (RU) played against each other, once under Union rules and once under League. But the class division in the likes of Wigan and Hull is still there.
As a post-script, the division between the codes in France took a sinister political turn. Rugby League became closely associated in the 1930s with the political Left, Union with the Right. When the Vichy regime came to power in 1940 it banned Rugby League altogether and transferred all of its assets to the French Rugby Union. Although League was legalised again in 1946 its assets have never been returned.
By Henry Falconer
Picture credit: digiarnie, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons