The split between Rugby League and Rugby Union is the story of national class division

The Webb Ellis myth aimed to cement the claim of union’s leaders that rugby belonged to the public school men.

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Success for the England football or cricket teams can bring moments of national unity. Success for the England rugby union team in their World Cup campaign, currently nearing the end of the group stage, would bring a timely reminder of national division.

Resentment of rugby union remains strong among rugby league supporters, whose Great Britain side will play in New Zealand during the latter stages of union’s World Cup. The overlap will emphasise how the class and geographical fractures between the two rugby codes, deepened by globalisation and deindustrialisation, are representative of the social and economic fault lines of modern England.

Rugby union’s history of class prejudice is engraved on its World Cup trophy, named the Webb Ellis Cup. The fiction that William Webb Ellis invented rugby, when he supposedly picked up the ball and ran with it during a football match at Rugby School in 1823, was only adopted in 1895 when the sport split between league and union, as rugby historian Tony Collins has shown.

That split came after years of dispute between the public school men in charge of the governing Rugby Football Union, who insisted on gentlemanly amateurism, and the increasingly powerful clubs from industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire, whose working-class players could not afford to play without payment for time missed at work. The RFU, alarmed at how working-class clubs rose to dominate football after it legalised professionalism in 1885, rejected the northern rugby clubs’ calls for these payments to be legalised, forcing them into schism. The Webb Ellis myth, propagated post-split, aimed to cement the claim of union’s leaders that rugby belonged to the public school men, not the northern rebels.

Those northern rugby league clubs, mostly located in a chain of towns and cities stretching from St Helens to Hull, were initially at the heart of the national economy. But the fortunes of those places were corroded by the deindustrialisation of the 1980s, with the financial crisis and austerity inflicting further damage.

The resulting modern social divide between the rugby codes is evident from the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation. In rugby league, five of the ten English top-flight clubs are located in areas among the 10 per cent most deprived in England: Huddersfield, Hull FC, Hull Kingston Rovers, Wakefield and Wigan.

By contrast, none of the 12 rugby union Premiership clubs are located in areas among the 10 per cent most deprived, and three play in areas among the 20 per cent least deprived: Harlequins in south-west London, Exeter and Worcester.

And union remains closely connected with private schooling, despite some shifts since the advent of professionalism in 1995. Of the 30 players in the England World Cup squad who were educated in England, 16 attended fee-paying schools. In league, Collins, whose books include Rugby’s Great Split, has found just six privately educated players in 115 years of England and Great Britain internationals.

That rugby union is heavily slanted towards London (the location of England’s Twickenham HQ), as well as towards wealthier areas and fee-paying schools, helps explain the bountiful coverage lavished on it by national media based in the capital. Union’s audience also means it can generate high income from multinational corporate sponsors.

Meanwhile, some in rugby league fear that the game’s principal base in deprived northern towns makes it unappealing to sponsors and to the broadcasters who will bid for its next TV deal. The introduction of a Toronto club, promoted to the Super League this week, is in part an attempt to address those fears.

Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, a former mining and mill town that is a stronghold for rugby league, says that in Wigan the game is “a symbol of a very proud town that has contributed enormously to this country’s fortunes”. The sport is “one of the few communal things that has really survived and thrived,” she adds.

“The consequence of rugby league being largely ignored by the national media and receiving very little prominence in comparison to other sports like rugby union is that [supporters] feel that the national conversation is something they are not part of, that they’ve been cut out of it altogether,” says Nandy.

League’s base in deindustrialised towns explains why nine of the ten English top-flight clubs are located in Parliamentary constituencies known or estimated to have backed Leave in the EU referendum. But union has a place in the vanguard of the Brexit revolution. Boris Johnson, who played tighthead prop in the Balliol College, Oxford rugby union side, once said he would take a run at the prime minister’s job “if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum”. He has also described “the rugby scrum [as] a metaphor for my political beliefs”, in that “one person’s forward progress drives another person’s forward progress”. (This is not true in rugby league, where scrums are mere uncontested restarts.)

Now the Prime Minister, class and sporting descendant of the men who drove out the northern clubs in 1895, is focusing Tory electoral strategy on a terrain of Leave-voting, traditionally Labour constituencies with rugby league towns at its core.

England aim to make rugby union’s World Cup final on 2 November. The Great Britain rugby league team play New Zealand on the same date, two days after the (current) scheduled date of the UK’s exit from the EU. Quite apart from Brexit divisions, the spectacle of two forms of rugby watched at home by two distinct TV audiences, separated by social and regional inequality, would confirm that England has been unwell for some time.

John Morgan is deputy news editor of the Times Higher Education.