My home town of St Helens is a bit odd. Caught between northern football giants, Liverpool and Manchester, woolly backs — as we’re known for reasons muddled by history — will tell you we’re either Lancastrians or Merseysiders, depending on how old they are.
In fact, one of the easier ways for one woolly back to spot another in the wild is to overhear them describing where they are from as “near Liverpool”. It’s code for “no-one knows where St Helens is”.
This is probably true for a lot of northern, working-class mining towns. It just seems unfair given that we inspired the Olympic Games opening ceremony, gave the world Johnny Vegas, Pilkington Glass, Beechams, a bunch of Harry Potter films and we have one of the best sports team in the world. St Helens RFL.
“All sports develop a culture and an identity of where they sit in society. Rugby union saw itself as morally superior, and to an extent, that’s still true,” Tony Collins, a historian and author of numerous books of rugby history, tells The Overtake. “So, it looks down on football, and in particular league, as it’s seen as working class and breaking away from rugby union’s natural leadership.”
The development of identity and breaking away that Collins refers to is known in rugby history as the schism. In the late 18th century, rugby was becoming more codified, further distinguishing it from football and by 1871, clubs across England formed the Rugby Football Union (RFU) — the governing body of the sport.
I expected it to be exaggerated but the more I looked into it, the more I could see the RFU was explicit about the working class player not being on the same terms as them.
While the sport was popular throughout the country, it really took off in the north, in particular, Lancashire and Yorkshire. In the north, the game was played by working men with little spare time after working six days a week and attending church on a Sunday, while down south, it was played by “gentlemen” with plenty of leisure time. Despite the limitations of the work, the northern players and teams were pulling in big, paying crowds for matches and were getting good at the game — better than their upper-class counterparts that dominated the game in the south.
Nowadays, we sometimes see class as simply the amount of wealth one is born into but the English class system is a real bastard and, historically, being born into a higher class doesn’t just make you richer, it makes you a better person. There is no way some northern oiks could possibly be better at something. They don’t even own mills, how could they be good at sports?
At the time, being a professional sportsman wasn’t really a career. Clubs could pay expenses that a gentleman — for this purpose, legally defined by your class and upbringing rather than you manners — might incur in travelling to a game but this payment didn’t extend to regular folks. This made taking time off work for games, training or to recover from injuries, expensive and sometimes impossible for the working-class player.
These were the same players that were pulling in ticket sales, so the northern clubs came up with “broken time payments”, which was essentially remunerations to make up wages lost from work.
This thoroughly annoyed the classist RFU, which began to argue that such payments were against the values of amateurism; the idea that a sport should simply be played for the love of it and payment for play would lead to professionalism, making players too concerned with winning and money rather than good sportsmanship and participation. Of course, in reality, the toffs in charge weren’t being good sports anyway, they just didn’t want the working classes to participate.
People tend not to say these things in public, but in rugby, they just didn’t care
This dedication to amateurism wasn’t really to protect the sport, it was to remove working class people. Regarding this classism, Collins says: “I expected it to be exaggerated but the more I looked into it, the more I could see the RFU was explicit about the working class player not being on the same terms as them.”
Influential rugby union supporters outright stated that it was about class. RFU administrator Harry Garnett said in the 1890s: “If working men can’t afford to play, they shouldn’t play at all.” International cricket and rugby league Cambridge alumn Frank Mitchell thought that working class people were too stupid to understand the rules of the game.
Collins jokes: “People tend not to say these things in public, but in rugby, they just didn’t care.”
It wasn’t just in the UK where this war on the working classes occurs. Anywhere rugby became popular, the class division followed, including Austalia and France. Interestingly enough, the referee of first French rugby union final was the aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin. Known best for reviving the Olympic Games, Coubertin was a steadfast proponent of amateurism and studied the sports program of Rugby School, where rugby union was codified.
Eventually, the northern powerhouse got bored with being treated like crap by an organisation based so far away that northerners practically had no say at all in how they were governed. Not much has changed in over a century.
So, on 29 August 1895, a total of 22 clubs from across Yorkshire and Lancashire (including the aforementioned St Helens before it was re-zoned) got together in a hotel in Huddersfield to form the Northern Rugby Football Union, which later became the Rugby Football League (RFL).
And with that rebellion, the working class north was able to carve out its own domain. In these towns, where the word “rugby” was shorthand for rugby league — while in the rest of the country, it is shorthand for rugby union — players got better, rules evolved and fans became more dedicated.
It sees itself as a bit of an outsider, as a bit of a rebel game. And that’s how working class people see themselves. Ignored by the establishment.
While football is also working class dominated game, it doesn’t have a posher, elitist variant to compete with and is played throughout the nation with teams in the north as good as any team in the south. But this division in rugby entrenched the teams in the north in their defiance.
While the social identity of rugby union may be that of superiority, league created an identity too. As Collins says: “Rugby league has a sense of being outside the establishment. It sees itself as a bit of an outsider, as a bit of a rebel game. And that’s how working class people see themselves. Ignored by the establishment.”
And while league was being ignored, it quietly got more progressive. Professionalism, the apparent trading of sporting integrity for pay and winning, made it more inclusive than a lot of its sporting counterparts. Probably because in league, being good at the game means more than your background.
George Bennett left rugby union because of the racism that prevented him from playing for the Welsh national team in 1930 and went on to play for the Welsh league team. Likewise, Clive Sullivan became the first black captain of any British sporting team back in 1972.
In 2012, the RFL has received an award from Stonewall, a charity dedicated to creating equality and acceptance of the LGBT+ community in the workplace, for battling homophobia and, because of its positive attitude toward LGBT+ staff, the RFL was the first UK sporting organisation to make it into the top 100 of The Stonewall Index.
“National coverage in the media and the strength of the international game. The finance and sponsorship also contribute,” say Derek Traynor, head of St Helens RFL Academy and under 19s head coach, describing some reasons why rugby union still outshines league in the public mind.
“The leading stars in rugby union are world-known, but the leading stars in rugby league are little heard of outside of the M62 corridor,” he adds, referring to the motorway connecting the north west and east — and most of the teams in rugby league. And it’s true that, while league is popular internationally, union dominates the international sports calendar with events like the World Cup and Six Nations.
the chance to realise boyhood dreams and represent your home town is a lot more accessible for these players than in most other sports due to a higher rate of progression through the ranks
Its lack of recognition aside, rugby is still valuable for working-class kids. Its relationship to local identity and its accessibility provide more than just the opportunity to develop social skills and self-esteem.
St Helens RFL Academy is attached to Cowley International College, with the school itself having a long association with rugby league and the Saints. St Helens’ hooker (it’s a rugby position, grow up) and Great Britain international James Roby was born and bred in St Helens and attended Cowley before its formal association with Saints. He is regularly held up as a prime example of the opportunities league can open up for young players. I know this firsthand because I was three years below Roby at Cowley.
“Rugby league offers working-class kids the opportunity to play sport at local, national and international levels at all ages from the early high school years,” says Traynor.
“Young rugby league players in the northern towns generally support their local clubs from an early age and the chance to realise boyhood dreams and represent your home town is a lot more accessible for these players than in most other sports due to a higher rate of progression through the ranks from scholarship to super league to international.”
It may only be small but, for northerners, this opportunity isn’t limited by the circumstances of your birth, only your skill and dedication. Ironically, the idea that amateurism, playing games for the love of it alone, the very concept meant to rule out the working class, has been subverted. It’s almost a cottage industry for northerners from working-class towns and cities that is protected by the prejudices toward it. If you’re working class, it belongs to you and no one can take it away.
Maybe league, thanks to sponsorships, media coverage or entrenched ideas of what it is — from both outside and in — will never be able to match the recognition of union, but maybe that’s not important. It has a proud history of standing up for itself and valuing those who want to play regardless of the advantages they were born with. The country and the world might never really care about rugby league, but then again, if we cared what they thought, we wouldn’t have invented rugby league in the first place.