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12th October 2015

Rugby and our rulers

Joely Thomas examines if there is more to the exclusivity of rugby and our political elites than we might think

The Rugby World Cup continues as nations from across the globe bring together teams of men with huge thighs to battle it out amidst blood, sweat and enough mud to excite a thousand elephants. But does anyone really care? From the reaction we have seen so far, the answer would probably be “no.”

In fact, you could be forgiven for not even having realised that the competition is taking place. A few banners hang shivering off lamp posts while memorabilia lies scattered amidst supermarkets, waiting in resignation for the sales, and even poor Shaun the Sheep, whom Argos, amongst others, have dressed in a miniature rugby top, looks embarrassed by his latest outfit.

An economic impact report carried out by Ernst & Young optimistically predicted that the competition would generate £2.2 billion in total output, but The Guardian recently reported ITV executives’ fears that England’s exit will translate into a loss in advertising revenue, with pubs, hotels and supermarkets also standing to make less gains than was hoped. As it was, figures for the games peaked at around 11 million—only 1 million more than the semi-final of The Great British Bake Off.

Some have tried harder than others to engage the public. BBC Radio 1 allowed space for fans to promote the game but their reasons were hardly riveting. Players showing respect to the referee and fans from both sides getting along is apparently the best the game has to offer. I could almost hear listeners shouting “But we don’t want a jolly day out where we all agree at the end that the best team won! We want to fight! We want a game that can be taken off the pitch and onto the battlefield! We want football!”

For while the upper class toddles off to a nice match of throw the egg, it is behind football that the masses unite, that the emotions normally expressed only as words finally explode from the reserved Englishman and Englishwoman.

It was among the working classes, of course, that football grew into the popular sport it is today. Armed only with a pig’s bladder, thousands would at times pour into whatever space could be found with the simple and honest aim of getting the ball into the opposition’s goal. It was banned from being played on the streets and Richard II even completely outlawed the game at one point, alarmed that the people were not practising their archery in preparation for the upcoming war with Scotland. But it came back in full force.

Then the posh boys at Rugby School had to cheat. Rumour has it that William Webb Ellis (after whom the World Cup’s trophy is named) couldn’t compete fairly but had to pick up the ball and run with it. Instead of disciplining such behaviour, it was claimed to be a new game. Rules were over-complicated and the shape of the ball changed. “This is our superior game that you don’t know how to play,” was the implication.

And this is the problem with politics—it has become a game of rugby. MPs may act all brawly, with a “hear, hear” there and a “there, there” here, but the public are left with the sense that, after all has been spoken, hands are shaken and everyone skips merrily home to enjoy a nice cream tea. “We’re not playing the game wrong,” is what people hear, “You just don’t understand the rules.”

Politicians have picked up on the popularity of football and have observed its power with envy. Wanting some for themselves, they have exaggerated their ties to the game. Ed Miliband claims to be a Leeds United fan whilst David Cameron’s PR even had him out jogging in an Aston Villa shirt until he amused the country last election by forgetting his apparent loyalty to the club and announcing, “Of course, I’d rather you supported West Ham.”

But if politics is to really engage the masses, it needs to go further than empty allegiances with sport. We already have team colours, now all that’s needed are the shirts. Printing “Corbyn”, “Cameron” or “Bennett” on the back can surely be claimed for under expenses, and the Left already has a songbook full of anti-austerity chants from which to choose.

I admit it might not be pretty but then revolutions rarely are. George Osborne may well head-butt Diane Abbott in the final minutes, as Hilary Benn takes advantage of tripping on a bench to shout “Mr Speaker, Mr Speaker, the Right Honourable Gentleman pushed me!”

But it would be lively, passionate, honest; and Prime Minister’s Question Time would certainly draw more viewers than the Rugby World Cup.

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