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The Nations of Rugby; The World of Rugby

Submitted by on November 10, 2010 – 4:13 pm 7 Comments |  

The significance of sports in structuring modern geographical relations is underappreciated by scholars. People, men especially, tend to bond with places through their identification with athletic teams. Following sports also teaches geography; as teams travel, so do their fans, vicariously. Even matters of geopolitical import can be initiated on the playing field. In 1969, a brief war between Honduras and El Salvador La guerra del fútbolwas sparked by a soccer contest. Several years later, the United States and China began to normalize their relationship over table-tennis tournaments, engaging in “ping-pong diplomacy.”

The organization of athletic conferences also sheds light on basic geographical categorization. The geographical units of sports are often distinctive, even at the national level: two-thirds of the “nations” – and “countries” of European rugby union* are not nations at all as the term is most commonly understood. Three are subdivisions – “constituent countries” of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, and Wales. The fourth is as an amalgam, composed of one sovereign state (the Republic of Ireland) and another division of the U.K. (Northern Ireland).

The global distribution of sports partially reflects historical patterns of imperial rule. The cricket-playing world, as we will see later, largely follows the map of the late 19th century British Empire. In the case of rugby, a game formalized in an English boarding school of the same name, such linkages are not as obvious. Settler colonies certainly show up, especially South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Invisible on the map are the game’s ties to the British colonial sphere in the Pacific; Rugby is the most popular sport in Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. The prevalence of rugby in Argentina is also connected to colonialism of a sort, as British investments in the country a hundred years age were so extensive that Argentina is often considered to have been part of Britain’s informal empire. But rugby did not spread to all British colonies, being little played in South Asia, the Caribbean, and the Anglophone parts of tropical Africa. Other countries, moreover, adopted rugby without a colonial connection to Britain. The game’s popularity in Georgia evidently stems from its similarities to an indigenous Georgian game.

Sport affiliations can divide countries as well as connect them. Australia, for example, is split by the so-called Barassi Line into two winter-sports zones. South and west of the line, Australian rules football dominates, whereas to the north and east, rugby rules. New South Wales and Queensland are thus linked to New Zealand in this regard rather than to the rest of Australia. But that could be changing. A November 9, 2010 article in the Otago Daily Times claims that Australian rules football is spreading in South Island New Zealand.

Australian rules football is rooted in, and quite similar to, Ireland’s Gaelic football. Irish and Australian football teams regularly play each other, but they have to adjust their rule to do so. The result in a hybrid game called “international rules football.” It too is spreading; October 23, 2010, saw the first match of such “compromise” football in Malmö, Sweden.

* “Rugby” refers to two separate games: rugby union and rugby league.

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  • Danny

    The proliferation of different games that go by the name of football reveals something interesting: Great diversity in the White English-speaking countries – the source of all team sports, while most of the rest of the world follows Soccer almost exclusively.

    This reflects the fact that organized team sports were initially unique to white Anglo-Saxon civilization before they spread to the rest of the world – team sports were valued highly by Anglo Saxon educators, a concept that was alien elsewhere. Before team sports people did play games, but those games didn't have fixed rules. The codification of the various sports we call 'football' was a gradual process that took decades, and occurred simulateneously in different parts of the the White English-Speaking world, this explains why different parts of the English Speaking World developed different games: Soccer relying exclusively on the foot, the 2 Rugby codes and the 2 Gridiron codes being extremely physical, with the Australian and Gaelic versions being somewhere in between.

    The rest of the world received these games at a later stage after they were already codified – mostly Soccer – but this happened when the games were already codified.

  • ironrailsironweights

    Rugby's status in the United States is essentially the exact opposite of football's status. Very few if any high schools or colleges play rugby, there are no professional leagues, yet amateur leagues for adults are quite popular, found in most major metropolitan areas. Football is immensely popular in high schools and colleges, the NFL is the world's wealthiest and most successful sports league, yet there are almost no adult amateur leagues. Go figure.


  • Martin W. Lewis

    The British origin of many sports, as Danny notes, is of interest and is probably worthy of a separate blog posting. I am not sure, however, that we can say that all team sports originated in the English-speaking world. Lacrosse has American Indian origins, and the ancient Meso-American ball-game is still played in some parts of Mexico under the name of "ulama." Peter makes an interesting comparison between football and rugby in the U.S. Rugby is rapidly gaining popularity as a club sport at Stanford — for women as well as men. This year the Stanford female rugby team toured New Zealand and Fiji :

  • Danny

    Also, Polo was played in Iran, though it was later codified by English-speakers (as was Lacrosse). And Team Handball was invented in Germany. So not all team sports were invented by English speakers – but the vast majority were.

  • Gavin

    Within "rugby" the two variants, league and union, are quite different and themselves have different geographical spreads. E.g. in England, rugby league is largely confined to an arc from Liverpool to Hull, with rugby union predominating elsewhere. I'd be interested to know if there's a similar split in e.g. Australia

  • ironrailsironweights

    Rugby is rapidly gaining popularity as a club sport at Stanford — for women as well as men.

    The NCAA has considered recognizing women's rugby as an intercollegiate sport, but hasn't said anything similar about the men's version. College rugby actually might be better off as a club sport as it doesn't have to deal with the NCAA's bureaucratic control. And it's not as if NCAA recognition would bring a higher profile, given that most fully recognized college sports – even baseball – are relatively obscure.


  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Russians too have had a baseball-like team game — LAPTA — which has been mentioned already in Old Russian manuscripts. No Anglo-Saxon influence, as far as I can tell. In fact, some believe that baseball was created based on "lapta" by Russian-Americans.