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Rugby union and rural life: what is the connection?

Friday 24 October 2003

From Down Under, our country columnist John Sheard reflects on the rugby union world cup and the attractions this tough game has for country folk

Dateline: Ocean Grove, Victoria, Saturday, October 25

AS I WRITE this, in a small town overlooking the Southern Ocean, this part of Australia is gripped with rugby union fever, a relatively new phenomenon for this a staunch Aussie rules football country.

The reason: tomorrow, England play Samoa in a game we must win if they are to avoid a deadly clash with the New Zealand, the joint favourites, in the quarter finals in a game which many people – Aussies excepted – should be the final.

Thousands and English rugby fans are flocking into Melbourne for the game and many of them – the vast majority of them perhaps – come from small towns like Skipton, Grassington and Settle in England’s rural corners: the North up to the Scottish borders, the West Country, and the relatively unspoiled bits of the East Midlands.

And this, to me, poses the question: why is it that the big industrial cities are obsessed with soccer, despite all its violence, greed and corruption, and country folk prefer the honest but much more violent game with the oval ball?

The stars of this world cup come from New Zealand, Australia, the rural south west of France and the more remote framing areas of South Africa, all countries or regions where farming is at the core of life.

And farmers pay and important part in the life of the two clubs of which I am a member, Skipton and Kirkby Lonsdale.

Could it be that farming and other country work like dry-stone walling of forestry are tough, open-air pursuits which call for not just hard work but also long term endurance and physical effort verging sometimes on pain?

Is that men brought up in the countryside have bred into them a certain bloody-minded hardness of character which is essential in a good rugby player?

Or is it simply that straight forward country folk prefer the often brutal honesty of rugby to the false glamour, sham and money-hunger of the spoilt brats who grace – and regularly disgrace – the soccer pitch and, far too often, the nation as a whole?

When I left England three weeks ago, one international soccer player was involved in drug allegations, several other premier league players were under investigation for alleged gang-rape, and multi-millionaire David Beckham might be unable to play for England because he had a poorly toe.

Dearie, dearie me! My lads at Skipton and Kirkby turn out every Saturday, in the foulest weather than January and February can throw, to have lumps kocked off them – and they actually have to pay for the pleasure by coughing up their quite-hefty players’ "subs".

As far as I know, no sport’s psychologist (of which there are now many) has ever investigated why town means soccer and country means rugby. It is a subject which is worthy of the effort.

I tend to think that soccer is the obvious choice for the cash-obsessed city slicker whilst rugby is the game for strong, honest, straight-forward country lads. But then, I’m biased….

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