• 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

    Sep 26,
  • Men and women all over the world would like to be fearless, tough, stoical, and accepted into an amiably like-minded team that wants and needs to work together. It’s not just New Zealanders. This explains why the game of rugby is spreading, and the less established rugby nations growing stronger. Different countries take the universal rugby values and shape them in different ways, and Japan is a good example. Watch closely the next time a Japanese player is replaced during a match. He will turn after crossing the white line and bow to the opposition, to his team-mates, to the pitch itself. This is a ritual familiar from martial arts – the rugby player is saluting his large open-air dojo.

    Sep 19,
  • Visitors to this year’s Rugby World Cup will notice, at least during daylight hours, that the natives are speaking a foreign language. This is the first tournament hosted by a non-English-speaking nation, and in its rugby vocabulary France insists that the game is more than muscles and bish-bosh, even at scrum-time. Le scrum is not a word that rugbymen across the Channel decided to adopt. They could have done so, alongside le drop, but for the heart of the battle they revived instead la mêlée, a word last used in a competitive context in the 11th century. In the medieval period la mêlée was used to describe collisions of courtly knights in mock battles. Plus ça change. In rugby, too,

    Sep 11,
  • I’ve been trying to remember what happened on the school’s first overseas rugby tour, to France in 1984. And despite serious effort and middle-aged habit, I can’t honestly claim that things were better in the old days. Spending a week in a disused police barracks outside Toulouse was not many people’s idea of fun, even then. Nor do I imagine, back in the twentieth century just as now, that many nutritionists or tourist board officials would have approved our welcoming dinner of boiled horse. There was also the challenge of braving deepest French rugby country with masters-in-charge who were experts in English and Chemistry. Perhaps it was linguistic confusion, then, which had us playing local youth teams for whom everyone

    Jun 26,