Old boys of the empire rugby nations are often charicatured as red-faced buffoons in blazers with wire badges, but elsewhere the game has a different feel, a stubborn history of social dissent and non-conformism.
In Italy, Benito Mussolini re-branded rugby as palla ovale, deciding it was an evolution of the classic Roman games feninda and harpastum. This new and frankly surprising Italian pedigree qualified the game to serve as a vehicle for fascist unity, and by 1927 rugby had its own propaganda committee. Palla ovale was going to revitalize Italian masculinity while teaching the subjugation of the individual to the needs of the group.
Rugby wouldn’t oblige. Despite the team framework, the game has always favoured individualism, from the moment in 1823 when William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball ‘with a fine disregard for the rules.’ Disobedience is at the source.
Mussolini found rugby inconveniently resistant to authority, the after-match irreverence as important to the players as the game itself. He dropped the sport in disgust, and for fascist purposes turned to volata, a malleable kind of handball.
These days, Italian rugby players are non-conformist simply because they’re not playing football. The same is true in the USA, where the football not being played is the gridiron game with pads and helmets. Rugby is the dissenting alternative, and many of today’s U.S. clubs were founded or revived at the time of student unrest in the 1960’s.
Rugby was part of a general campus awakening. Any big lads who fancied a ruck but also long hair and peace, man, rejected the authoritarian structures of American football. They wanted freedom, not drill-sergeant coaching routines, and because rugby was free of institutional funding it could be organized in a co-operative spirit by the players themselves.
It was in his rebellious student period that George W Bush played fullback for Yale. If the future president retained little from his exposure to the joys of non-conformism, then the same can’t be said for Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
There’s no doubting Che’s commitment. He loved rugby despite crippling asthma attacks and the disapproval of his father, and his team-mates gave him the affectionate nickname ‘Furious’. He founded and edited a rugby magazine called ‘Tackle’, and as a student world revolution came second to his passion for a game that rewards inspired leadership and a love of tumult.
Anyone with a fondness for this non-blazered tradition will be hoping that at the World Cup Argentina can continue to disrupt rugby’s established world order. Intelligent, aggressive, unapologetic, the Pumas are playing as if their compatriot Che was giving the pep-talk: “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.”