Rugby League On The Fields Of Eton And Harrow? Why Not?

Sport is becoming more inclusive which is absolutely crucial for the health and well being of our young people going forward. The old saying that rugby is a “game for men” has quite rightly gone out of the window with the women’s rugby league World Cup won by Australia this year showing how far the game of rugby league has come, albeit with much still to do.

Rugby league and diversity have tended to go hand in hand. When Clive Sullivan lifted the World Cup in 1972 he was the first black captain of a national side. He was so well liked that a major road in Hull is named after him. Players like Martin Offiah, Des Drummond and Ellery Hanley have followed in Sullivan’s footsteps. However, it is true to suggest that uptake in Asian communities (particularly ones in the game’s heartlands) has been more challenging. Indeed, despite the World Cup, the women’s game is one of those rare matters that rugby union has been more ahead of the game on.

The men’s World Cup Final this year saw a gallant England lose narrowly to the all conquering Australians whom many expected to win by a country mile. Australia has numerous advantages to England in terms of rugby league and the question is continually asked as to what can be done to improve England’s chances? The geographical restriction the game has certainly is not helpful and expansion plans have come and gone and come again. However, one area that has not been explored is private schools, particularly those in or near the game’s heartlands.

There are those in rugby league circles who regard rugby union as the enemy and are fiercely defensive of the game’s working class roots. What is often forgotten was that it was not just the middle and upper classes that had a problem with players moving to rugby league, many in the working class Welsh valleys regarded “going North” as treachery. The discrimination that rugby league faced for much of its history should now be forgiven, if not forgotten with a view to improving the player base in the hope this will give England a more fighting chance against the Australians. There is little reason as to why rugby league cannot be played at our public schools (Eton and Harrow included) alongside other sports. Indeed, there may be a symbiotic benefit for all.

Many may object to a private school system full stop and that is not for debate here. Many of these schools have strong rugby union traditions and, significantly, the expertise and excellent facilities to produce top quality rugby players. The tradition of these schools means that they, invariably, have 1st, 2nd and even 3rd XVs and one might suggest that a 1st VIII also could be in existence and players can even move between the two codes, depending on their skill set.

Readers of previous blogs will know that I have some issues with rugby in schools but, if we are going to have contact sports in schools then there exists no reason why two codes of rugby cannot be played simultaneously. The North of England is home to many private schools, most of whom do not play rugby league despite their relative close proximity to the M62 corridor. Eton and Harrow may be a more distant project but getting rugby league into these more local non-traditional schools would be another step into diversifying the sport and getting more people playing.

Sport should not be classified by gender, race or sexual orientation and not should it be by social class. Stating rugby union is a “middle class” sport is simply not true at grassroots level. Indeed it is the tradition of the area (Wales, Scottish Borders, the West Country as examples) that will have more of an impact on what sports are played.

If people object to rugby league in private schools then they need to ask themselves why? Are they such a snob that they cannot cope with seeing their little Ruperts and Hermiones play that “Northern game” or are they so backward thinking that they would rather their own sport suffer rather than mix with new communities?

Rugby league’s biggest threat is not rugby union but the behemoth that is football being right on its doorstep. Anything that will help stem that tide should be welcomed, even if it means breaking down traditional and historic barriers.