Why is Rugby League still patronised as a mud-splattered, parochial throwback?

Rugby league is the product of a very English revolution. It still has an egalitarian, anti-establishment, strictly northern way of viewing the world. That it has failed to make the world listen, or watch, only confirms its outlaw – and so grittily romant

Richard Harris as the Yorkshire coal miner and rugby player Franc Machin in the 1963 film "This Sporting Life". Photo: Rex Features/Moviestore Collection

A much-admired Observer cartoon of the 1980s, drawn by the incomparable Trog, contrasted a pair of Home Counties champagne swillers, basking in the sun, with a gloomy middle-aged couple from the north. The latter, sheltering from the rain, observed: “They’ve got their prime minister, why can’t we have ours?” Had they been from Yorkshire, Lancashire or Cumbria, they might have been tempted to add, on a more defiant note: “They’ve got their rugby, we’ve got ours.”

In spite – or maybe because – of Margaret Thatcher’s divisiveness and the return of the geographical fault lines that marked that low, dishonest decade, the umbilical cord between the 13-a-side oval ball game and its northern heartlands remains intact. Whatever side of the north-south divide you happen to fall on, there should be a deep appreciation that a small corner of northern England – between junctions seven and 38 of the M62 – will be forever rugby league.

In late November, fans and players from Leeds Rhinos came to see my dark comedy about Eddie Waring, Playing the Joker, at West Yorkshire Playhouse. As the Q and A afterwards illustrated, in an age of sporting globalisation and postmodern homogenisation – and after three decades of manufacturing decline – the self-styled people’s game has not only survived but flourishes as the apotheosis of northern defiance. According to Professor Tony Collins, author of Rugby’s Great Split, being a fan has become “almost a daily act of defiance. People are choosing to follow a sport that is ignored, in the main, by the establishment. It’s seen as outside the mainstream. People are making a decision to do something that is aberrant. In today’s Britain, we should all be going to watch the Premier League, then catching up with the Six Nations and then looking forward to Andy Murray at Wimbledon. So to say, ‘No, I’m going to watch the rugby league’ – it’s a political act, albeit with a small ‘p’.”

We northerners are well-balanced people: we have chips on both our shoulders. One of our long-standing gripes is that Their Rugby – union – is treated as a national sport while Our Rugby – league – is patronised as a parochial throwback to a mud-splattered, black-and-white, trouble-at-the-mill world of slag heaps, Tetley’s ale, black pudding, whippets, brass bands and bizarrely accented, trilby-hatted buffoons droning on about “up and unders” and “early baths”.

The final of a World Cup contested by 14 nations takes place at Old Trafford on Saturday 30 November; proof enough, one would have thought, of rugby league’s global reach. Most pundits agree that the competition has been hugely entertaining. Big crowds have watched exciting games at a variety of venues in England, Wales, Ireland and France. But, as John Prescott put it with typical bluntness: “You’ve probably heard very little about this because the London-dominated media prefer the posher rugby union to its rougher working-class northern cousin.” As a broadsheet columnist remarked after watching this season’s Challenge Cup final, “The game remains a prisoner of geography.”

It’s as if, as another icon of northern defiance once put it, the world won’t listen. Or, more to the point, watch. (I’m not sure Morrissey’s a fan; I can’t recall Waring joining Pat Phoenix, Viv Nicholson and Shelagh Delaney in the pantheon of Smiths cover stars.) “Why hasn’t the World Cup got a headline sponsor?” asks Phil Caplan, editor of the magazine Forty-20. “Because too many companies perceive the sport as being northern. If you’re content to be seen and talked about as a northern sport, that is exactly what it will be. There are more schools and juniors playing the sport in London than in Leeds and Wigan. Rugby union has heartlands, as does rugby league . . . but one is seen as a worldwide, global sport; the other as a northern, parochial one.”

Northern Union, as it was called on its formation in 1895, was the product of a very English revolution: a rebellion against the southern gentleman-amateur toffs who objected to working-class players being financially compensated for missing their Saturday morning shifts. Thirty years later, this breakaway northern league adopted open professionalism – while union remained an amateur sport until 1995.

Although both codes are now professional, they remain different entities. League is a more fluid, open game, having reduced teams from 15 to 13, dropped line-outs and phased out rucks and mauls and, to a large extent, scrums – and introduced “play the ball”, in which the tackled player heels the ball back to a teammate. From the interwar years, when a Bradford crowd sang “On Ilkley Moor Baht ’At” rather than “God Save the Queen” before a match between Britain and Australia, to the coal strike of 1984-85, when players who were blacklegs were jeered by their own supporters, it provided, according to the screenwriter Colin Welland, the north’s “cultural adrenalin”.

Welland was in the vanguard of a working class new wave that stormed the London barricades in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of his fellow writers, such as David Storey, Alan Sillitoe and Barry Hines, saw sport as an embodiment of local, collective identity. In This Sporting Life, for example, Storey – who had played professionally for Leeds – has his antihero Arthur Machin declaring: “There are no stars in this game. Just men like me.” The author unsentimentally depicted a game rooted in its environment; its graft, combativeness and occasional violence the product of the hard Pennine rock of the rugged hills. It had been built on the mines, docks and textile factories of the Industrial Revolution, which had bred, he argued, a “camaraderie that came from a united struggle, whether against nature or the class system”.

The problem is that, 50 years after Storey’s novel was adapted for the big screen, Rugby League Land has been completely transformed. The heavy industry that was its staple has gone. Take the tiny Yorkshire mining town of Featherstone. The two things that have any significance in its history are coal mining and rugby league. Residents used to hang their washing lines on the club’s post office ground. Before a game, perhaps apocryphally, if “Fev” needed a prop forward, an official would go to the top of the nearest mine shaft and whistle.

In 1995, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against a proposed merger with neighbouring clubs; unlike the campaign to keep their pits open a decade earlier, this action succeeded – but those traditional, fixed, stable, working-class communities, commemorated by Richard Hoggart in his book The Uses of Literacy, have mostly disappeared.

“The industries that formed the physique of the players either at semi-professional or amateur level are no more,” says Caplan. “Our raw material is in increasingly short supply.” It is one of the oldest clichés to say that sport mirrors life. Yet the demise of northern manufacturing, particularly in the mining communities of Featherstone, Castleford and Wakefield, the heavy woollen areas of Dewsbury and Batley and the railway engineering hub of Hoggart’s beloved Hunslet, has severely depleted the gene pool of many smalltown clubs.

In Books Do Furnish a Room, Anthony Powell wrote: “It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them.” Everyone, Powell elaborated, has a personal myth. He was writing about fictional characters but the axiom can be applied equally to sport. Tennis, despite Andy Murray’s best efforts, remains wedded to the middle-class suburbs of the Home Counties. Rugby league’s personal myth is that it is the sporting expression of an overlooked, downtrodden, “true” England: a physical manifestation of collective solidarity, honest endeavour and commitment to fair play. This runs counter to the modern, marketed version of a dynamic, 21st-century summer sport, reinvented by Rupert Murdoch’s all-singing, all-dancing Super League.

There is a part of me that still buys into this myth. Like swaths of 20th-century variety hall comedy and pop music, from the Beatles to the Smiths, rugby league still has an egalitarian, anti-establishment, strictly northern way of viewing the world. That it has failed to make the world listen, or watch, only confirms its outlaw – and so grittily romantic – status.

According to Tony Collins, the tropes that define British sport have not changed in a century. “As in 1914, football is still the national sport. Rugby union is still strong in south Wales; in England, it’s still strong in the public schools, professions and universities, with a working-class fringe down in the south-west. And rugby league is strong in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. Rugby league doesn’t have the financial strength of football or the institutional strength of rugby union.” Pundits have been predicting the death of rugby league since its formation but, as Collins notes, “This World Cup shows it’s very much alive and kicking.”

Since the great northern uprising of 1895, there have been periodic attempts to expand and rebrand: moving the Challenge Cup final to Wembley in 1929, offering up Waring as the nation’s unofficial court jester in the 1960s, setting up a London team, Fulham, in 1980, accepting the Murdoch shilling (£87m) in 1995. All of these moves have broadened the game’s base. At heart, however, it remains rooted in – perhaps locked into – its dissenting, regionally distinctive history. Rejoice.

Anthony Clavane’s “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe” is published by Quercus (£17.99)