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Men's Rugby History of Welsh rugby union: Why Wales play union and not league

FOOTBALL in its various forms is a game of class clashes and competing codes dating back to the late 19th century, when a disorderly game developed various sets of laws and regulations to become the group of global sports we know today.

Chaos didn’t quite turn into order, but the various offshoots of mob football, or Cnapan in Wales, became increasingly organised and their potential to become spectator sports became apparent.

Wales played a key part in the development of these games, and that rugby union took hold as the code of choice, becoming the national sport ahead of the association (soccer) game, was the result of a rugby togetherness which doesn’t exist in England. A union in all senses of the word.

The mining and industrial regions of Wales had more in common with towns in the north of England, where rugby league eventually became the sport of the working class, than it did with the upper and middle-class union playing areas in the south-east of England.

As the working classes began to make rugby their own, adding their own twists to the rules and generally making the games more exciting to watch and play, there was a need for the workers to be paid. Time out to play rugby interfered with their day jobs, and therefore their incomes.

While the upper classes could afford to play for free, those entertaining the masses in working-class towns in the north of England, Wales and the south-west needed some compensation for their time.

In 1888, a professional soccer league was created by teams in the north of England and the Midlands, which planted a seed in the minds of the Northern Union rugby clubs. They wanted to replicate this.

In London, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) feared that the onset of professional rugby in the north would lead to a takeover by these clubs, as had happened in soccer. 

In the 10 years since its inception, soccer’s FA Cup had been won by amateur clubs from London and the south-east, such as Wanderers FC, Oxford University, Royal Engineers and Old Etonians, but when Blackburn Rovers made the 1882 final, narrowly losing out to Old Etonians, there was a changing of the guard.

Blackburn Olympic won the subsequent final, defeating Old Etonians in extra time, and the next four FA Cups were won by Blackburn Rovers. Even a Scottish side, Queens Park, who would have a big impact on the future of soccer as a passing game, made two finals.

Between 1884 and 1899, no teams south of the Midlands made the final of the FA Cup, and it was all down to the rise of the northern working class, and professionalism.

Fearing a similar invasion from the north, the RFU took extreme steps to outlaw professionalism in rugby, disowning the Northern Union which eventually formed its own professional leagues in 1895, changing the rules to make them more spectator-friendly and eventually changing the name to rugby league.

Passing the ball was encouraged, as it had been by soccer teams in Scotland and northern England, and sluggish forward play was replaced by a more exciting, expansive game.

Incidentally, such expansive rugby can still be seen in the play of any rugby union sides born in working-class regions, including France, New Zealand, the Pacific islands and Wales.

So why did Wales stick with union instead of adopting rugby league which would allow its working-class players to receive payment for their time?

It’s partly down to one man, Arthur Gould. Gould was a Welsh rugby legend of the late 19th century. One of the sport’s earliest celebrities. He was so popular that during his testimonial year in 1896, enough money was raised for the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) to pay off his mortgage, effectively buying his house and giving it back to him.

When this news crossed the border, the RFU was furious and accused the Welsh of professionalism. The WRU saw this as an insult to one of their great players and broke its ties with the international board of rugby union and the RFU as a result.

The RFU changed their stance, realising that if it alienated Wales its clubs might join the newly formed Northern Union (rugby league) which was a perfect fit for the country’s working-class players and clubs.

Tony Collins, author of A Social History of English Rugby Union, believes this was a big turning point in the history of Welsh rugby and rugby union in Great Britain as a whole.

“The RFU backed down because they realised that if they expelled Wales over professionalism, Wales would join up with the Northern Union,” explains Collins.

“It would mean the power of union and its international appeal would be weakened and the Northern Union would be strengthened.

“The two best teams in the four nations at that time were England and Wales, and the best players of England and Wales would be playing Northern Union, which would be a huge blow to the RFU.

“If Wales went, that would probably mean clubs in south-west England — Bristol, Gloucester, Bath etc — would also leave as, due to the transport links at that time, it was easier for them to play Welsh teams.

“English rugby union would then be restricted to middle-class clubs in the south-east.”

So the RFU didn’t ban Gould and didn’t enforce its own rules in an attempt to make sure rugby union remained stronger than the Northern Union. 

From then on it turned a blind eye to professionalism in Wales, and even though the WRU were also generally opposed to the practice and many Welsh players throughout the 20th century went north to play rugby league, this particular incident meant league would never take hold in the country.

There was another reason the Welsh didn’t join the Northern Union. The league and union split had weakened the England rugby union team, which meant Wales was by far the best union side in the four nations — something they quite liked.

“By 1895 around 45 per cent of England’s rugby union players came from the north, so after the split England were incredibly weak,” adds Collins.

“That meant Wales, the up and coming nation, gained a tremendous amount of national pride because they could beat England every year. 

“Between 1899 and 1909 Wales beat England 10 times out of 11, with the other match ending in a draw. That meant in Wales rugby was the most important game because they could beat the English, which the Welsh soccer team couldn’t do.”

This is why, over 100 years later, one of the smallest nations in the Rugby World Cup are among the favourites to reach the final. The only chance of Wales meeting England would be in said final (or the third-place play-off).

Should this happen, the whole of Wales will be watching, but parts of England may be more interested in the New Zealand v Great Britain rugby league match which just happens to take place on the same day — a Great Britain side likely to contain a few Australians, but no Welsh players.

Union remains Wales’s national sport due to manoeuvring by the RFU in the late 19th century and the subsequent success of the Welsh team which made its countrymen, land of its fathers, proud. 

But it very nearly wasn’t and, rather than being in Japan, the best Welsh rugby players could easily have been preparing for a trip to New Zealand as the dominant presence in the Great Britain rugby league team.

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