It will be well-known to most people who read this site that I am a somewhat fanatical follower of the game called Rugby Union football. I am so because as a kid growing up in New Zealand my bedroom wall was covered with pictures of every representative New Zealand team (still known everywhere as the All Blacks from the colour of the jersey they wore when they first sallied out into the world in 1884). I knew the names of most of the players who travelled to Brtain in 1905, and the later team, just as successful, of 1924, so it could be taken that I am fairly well versed in the history and myths of the game.
In the last week or so I have come across two items that have surprised me. One of them is a French film in which the recruitment of Polynesian players by French clubs is likened almost to slave traffic; and the other is a scholarly book that calls into question the founding myth of the origin of the game, which was supposed to have taken place in 1823, when a boy at Rugby school called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, thus distinguishing the game from the prevailing soccer.
This myth is so firmly established that when the World Cup of Rugby was established in 1987 the trophy for which it is played was called the William Webb Ellis cup.
The book I came across for 50 cents at my favorite used book store in Montreal was a history of the split that occurred around 1895 between the amateur game, Rugby Union, whose development was based on its popularity among English public schools, and the professional variant, today known as Rugby League. The main difference between the two versions is that the Union game has 15 players, while League has only 13. In this book, Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football, the author Tony Collins says the commemorative plaque at Rugby school to Ellis’s great initiative, a plaque that is regarded as authoritative, was not erected until 1900, and that Ellis’s name was never mentioned in relation to the event until 1877 --- that is more than half a century after he is reputed to have taken the ball in hand and run with it. This is about equivalent to the Gospels recording Jesus’s time on earth being written years after the events by obsessed followers of the religion that had been developed around his name. Not the most reliable witnesses, one would think.
Collins suggests that even though an inquiry into the origins of the game conducted by the Old Rugbeian society had been unable to find either witness or even hearsay evidence for Ellis’s supposed contribution, they nevertheless went ahead with their commemoration because of their desire to establish that the Rugby game did not arise in any way from the traditions of folk football. In other words it was a class act, not at all surprising when one considers the history of class distinctions that have always plagued Britain.
In fact Collins produces another surprising fact, namely, that in its earliest forms, the game of Rugby was distinguished primarily by a practice known as “shinning” --- in other words, the deliberate, and quite vicious kicking of the shins of the opposing team. This was carried to such lengths that particular forms of boot with pointed, reinforced toes were used to maximize the damage done to the opposing shins.
The film I saw this week about the recruitment of Polynesian players into French Rugby is called Mercenaire, and was screened in Montreal as part of the Cinemania festival of films. It is the first feature made by Sacha Wolff, and it is a gritty, realistic effort that, as Wolff said in an interview when his film was screened at this year’s Cannes film festival, deals with an area of life that has been little investigated by filmmakers, but that, according to him (and I agree) should yield interesting results if they would only take the trouble. His film certainly contains some wonderful close-up footage of the game under way, but its value lies in the sociology of its subject.
A huge young man from New Caledonia, played by a French Polynesian, Toki Pilioko, is put in touch with a lower-level Rugby club that is importing players in the hope that they might help the club rise to higher level competition. When the lad tells his father about this, the father says he is going nowhere. But the son insists, “I am going,” the first time the youth has ever opposed his father, and is then thrashed mercilessly by his powerful belt-wielding father, who ends the thrashing by declaring that his son is now dead, he no longer has a son, and he can go wherever he likes.
Of course, once he arrives in France he finds himself enmeshed in a pack of lies: for example, the local Pacific agent in New Caledonia told his prospective purchasers that he weighed 140 kg, but he turned out to weight only 120. The promoter uses this as an excuse to sell his contract to a minor club (Agen was named: I found this of especial interest, because this was the club which a few years ago brought to France from Fiji a man going by the resplendent name of Rupeni Caucaunibuka who is widely regarded as possibly the greatest winger ever to play the game, a prolific try-scorer at even the highest level of the game; unfortunately, he turned out to be a mysteriously unreliable man, often simply not turning up, disappearing, in fact, without notifying his club who would find out only later in the week that he had returned to Fiji to see his children, or because he was homesick. He was frequently suspended by his nation, Fiji, and his club, Agen, and by others who hopefully hired him, only to suffer the same inconsistencies, until his career dribbled to an ignominious close as a player who seemed to answer to higher calls than those of his contracts).
Anyway, the conditions in which this boy finds himself, an innocent, unused to the ways of the world, but a lad brought up in a religious environment, and with a strongly entrenched sense of right and wrong, are shown as being not much short of what is known these days as indentured slavery. The film is permeated with violence, not only on the field of play (in which it is perhaps overplayed) but between the various characters. It is not a particularly pretty film, but it is fascinating because of the unusual quality of its protagonists, a film very much worth seeing.
The only other film I can recall which deals with Rugby is the 1963 film by Lindsay Anderson called This Sporting Life, in which Richard Harris had his first starring role, leading him to an Academy award nomination. The film was lumped into the category of “kitchen sink” drama that had enlivened the British stage. It was certainly a gritty study of a man who, except for the racial difference, was not unlike the Polynesian hero of Wolff’s film. A man of strong feelings that he was inexpert in expressing. A man given to violent solutions, and impulsive actions.
That film remains probably the best ever made about any variety of football, with the possible exception of Oliver Stone’s amazing study of the gridiron game, Any Given Sunday, made 35 years after Anderson’s film, and a film in which he uses the game as a metaphor for American life.
That only three such films spring to mind in the last half century seems to suggest that Wolff is right: it is a field that would reward greater attention from film-makers.