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‘War by other means’: Rugby and warfare


Henry Allingham, one of the last two veterans to pass away in 2009, said of the Great War: ‘Of course I remember. I was there. I have no choice but to remember’. We, who were not there, do have a choice. We must choose to remember.

In October 2009, I set out not to write a book, but on a rugby tour to France with thirty teenage boys. I was determined that they should understand the significance of Remembrance. I had uncovered the sad story at our club, Rosslyn Park, of a lost war memorial. A small 1919 press clipping stated seventy-two died, but no names; I had begun delving through the club’s records in search of those men.

We found that the French club RC Compiègne had lost 58 out of 120 members. On the edge of a forest where the Armistice was signed in 1918, before our game of rugby, we held a ceremony by their pitchside memorial. We chose to remember the men of two clubs, English and French, as well as their own family members. A French Army officer spoke: ‘Rugby and warfare’, he said, ‘share a common language, but enfin il nous faut souvenir, they are very different.’

This set me on the path to writing a first book, which became The Final Whistle to explore this insight. Why this common language?

My generation can still hear in its mind’s ear the sonorous burr of Bill McLaren, ‘voice of rugby’ and artillery gunner, describing the boot of Gavin Hastings as ‘mighty like a howitzer’. The Times reported ‘aerial bombardment’ when Wales played New Zealand in 1935; passes are ‘fired’, stand-offs launch ‘torpedo’ kicks, and scrum-halves ‘snipe’ round the blindside. A Daily Telegraph journalist wrote in 2013 after a young, unfancied England defeated Ireland in Dublin, wrote: ‘These are no mere kids who need the roar of a Twickenham crowd to encourage them to puff out chests. These are guys for the trenches, steely and trustworthy.’

Where did it come from, this language bond between rugby and warfare? And how is it that a century later the imagery born of the Great War is still deployed (see what I did there?) to add colour and drama to sports reports? It is not, heaven forbid, lazy journalism but something deeper, more intuitive, and an echo of shared values.

My conclusion is this. There are many sports that carry danger and physical risk for individual competitors, notably anything to do with horses and cars. Boxers willingly climb into the ring for a beating, and sadly even cricketers now face untimely death at the crease. Uniquely, however, in team sports rugby players deliberately and consistently, and without the protection of helmets or padding, put themselves in harm’s way on behalf of others – on behalf of the team and in its common cause. This is what soldiers also do, and their comradeship sustains them far more than patriotic ideals, mission statements or even Kevlar. Perhaps this explains this unconscious bond between rugby and soldiering and, in consequence, an almost symbiotic vocabulary.

In a far better-qualified view, Australian Army Chief, General Sir Peter Cosgrove put it more explicitly: ‘There are similarities,’ he argued, ‘between the harsh and lethal demands of warfare and the thrill we get from a full-bodied contact sport like rugby. The thing about rugby is that it does prepare people to keep going under severe stress when things they have to do are extraordinarily hard.’ Cosgrove was not the first military commander to draw the parallel. Admiral Lord Jellicoe concurred:

‘Rugby football, to my mind, above all games is one which develops the qualities which go to make good fighting men. It teaches unselfishness, esprit de corps, quickness of decision, and keeps fit those engaged in it.’

After the final whistle of 1918, there was a sporting celebration of Empire and military teamwork, as well as of the human triumph of survival and a welcome return to the pastimes of peace. The King’s Cup of 1919, played by teams of returning soldiers, was the first sporting expression of newly-won nationhood for former colonies – and long before football’s first World Cup in 1930. In a format recognisable today, rugby-playing soldiers of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, the British Army and the RAF did a springtime victory lap of Britain, to popular acclaim. 100 years later, as we remember the Centenary of the Great War, we have just witnessed the most successful Rugby World Cup ever.

We have also seen how sport can lift the spirit of nations and – in time of evil – bring them together in common decency and mutual support. After the Paris attacks came the symbolism and solidarity at football’s Wembley. Even the tennis Davis Cup in an anxious Belgium became a sporting celebration in defiance of terror.

Sport can forge connections across nations and help heal conflict. In war-torn Afghanistan, journalist Asad Ziar, who is promoting rugby to a tough war-hardened people in Afghanistan, says rugby – the rough, physical ’melon-ball game’, which appeals to those whose traditional sport is buzkashi, a hybrid of rugby and polo using a goat’s carcase as ‘ball’ – ‘can help divided communities to focus on sustainable peace and reconciliation and build international understanding and friendship’.

HM Ambassador to Kabul echoed him at a recent tournament celebrating the World Cup: ‘Playing sport isn’t just important because it’s fun and encourages a healthy lifestyle. Sport is a valuable means to build bridges between communities because it promotes peace, tolerance and understanding. Rugby’s core values of passion, fair play, respect, discipline and teamwork can provide an important source of inspiration for young people.’

Cliché has it that sport is ‘war without guns’. If it is so, then so be it, and all the better for it. If rugby and warfare do indeed share a common language, we must remember they are very different. We must remember.

By Stephen Cooper

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