top of page

Rugby: The Great Divide

In 1895, the great game of Rugby saw a divide - split down the middle due to differences in how the game should be played, rewarded and viewed. A direct rift which, drawn on a map, could be identified as the North/South of England divide.

The reason for this, professionalism. The more affluent areas in the South viewed professionalism as a disgrace to the game whereas the Northern, working class communities needed professionalism to survive from week to week.

Over the years after the split, many northern rugby clubs put their differences behind with the RFU and re-joined the Rugby Union but for those that didn't, the Rugby Football League was created.

The Rugby Football League offered a different type of rugby, one of which where the ball wasn't caught up in the middle of the park and unheard of for minutes on end. They took 2 players off each side to create space around the park, and introduced a “play the ball” rule to prevent the ball being lost under a pile of bodies. This proved popular amongst spectators, and gate numbers increased steadily amongst rugby league clubs.

Not only in England - France, which had also adopted the new, exciting brand of rugby known locally as “le trieze” had seen attendances rise since the formation of the sport after France was prevented from entering the 5 Nations tournament because of the accusation of professionalism.

The aftermath saw hundreds of clubs make the switch from Rugby to Rugby League in the South of France from 1934 until 1940. The 2nd World War divided France, and no more so than when the Nazis backed the Vichy Government. The Vichy administration helped outlaw Rugby League in France - all League assets were handed back over to Rugby Union after the Vichy regime, headed by Marshal Pétain, successfully lobbied to have it outlawed as a “corrupter” of French youth.

Rugby League's stadiums, kit and money were therefore handed over to Rugby Union, which saw French Rugby League not fully recovering - and not compensated despite official recognition from the French Government in 2002.

This however was not an isolated incident, the years following the 2nd World War have seen countries such as Italy, Japan, South Africa, Russia, UAE and Serbia have heavy restrictions placed on Rugby League, thanks to the RFU successfully lobbying against Rugby League.

The Head of Rugby League in UAE since 2007, Sol Mokdad, was even arrested and sent to prison in 2015 for “running an illegal organisation” despite Rugby League being a sovereign sport. He was later released without charge, on condition that he left UAE and returned to his native Lebanon.

Here in the United Kingdom we are no strangers to the Union/League conflicting divide with even a “injustice and interference with human rights” claim in parliament in 1995 when Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the varsity Rugby Union match because he played Rugby League during his youth in his native Warrington.

Rugby League which has been the symbol of working class Rugby throughout its rich history, has found itself re-building after political restrictions have been put in place. The plight of Rugby League's struggle during the Vichy government can be found in the book 'The Forbidden Game' by Mike Rylance, which examines in depth the potential deconstruction of Rugby League which was aided by the Nazi regime and the RFU.

bottom of page