The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan has, for one former England international, placed the sport on an unprecedented “knife edge”.
High tackling and refereeing controversies have, in Ugo Monye’s view, displaced skill and tactics as the main talking points. From this point of view, the game is now a troubling spectacle of physical danger and technological capture.
It is a pressing problem for contemporary contact sports like the rugby codes, and American and Australian football.
For much of the last century there was comparatively little interest in athlete safety. The various codes of football were physical pastimes borne out of chaotic folk physical play in which participants could be badly hurt. Rules were gradually introduced to manage the mayhem, especially as a sport industry began to develop in industrial societies, starting with Britain.
The late 19th-century Olympic revival gave sport a noble face, but there was ultra-violence in some of the Ancient Games, such as the pankration, which according to some historical accounts made cage fighting and the UFC look like a model of sporting restraint.
Certainly, underpinning the very idea of modern sport was the regulation of physical contests. This process of sportisationentailed the introduction of rules not just to reduce the carnage that could arise from ungoverned sport, but a preoccupation with performance measurement and scoring that could captivate fans and energise bookmakers alike.
Rugby union offers a compelling test case of how sport has developed. A so-called hooligan’s game played by gentlemen, its origins in Britain moved from the village green to the elite public (fee-paying) schools.
Rugby mutated into a test of manliness, especially for those who were to populate the officer class destined to fight – or at least to lead – in imperial wars.
It also figured in the fantasies of the male members of the ruling class who, from their estates in the shires or grand homes in the cities, were prone to mythologise the muddied exploits of their boyhoods.
This inherently tough game was stubbornly amateur, disparaging the practice of being paid to play - a luxury that could be afforded by its privileged strata. But the game, having escaped the schools, was now operating alongside professional sports such as association football (soccer) and cricket.
For this reason, rugby league broke away from its parent in 1895, as players demanded to be compensated for travel, injury and time. It took almost nine decades for rugby union to follow suit as a professional sport, although in many parts of the world, such as France, ‘shamateurism’ had taken hold long before.
Indeed, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed that, as it became more organised and industrial, rugby union developed its own class structure, with the forwards doing the hard physical work like the proletariat, while the bourgeoisie of backs (from which ranks captains were drawn) directed the unglamorous toil of the game’s new working class.
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