To be sure, rugby enjoyed a surge of popularity in the U.S. a century and a half ago, but it didn’t last. Ivy League colleges in the Northeast, joined by colleges in California, took up a sport that had already sprawled outward from its Victorian roots at the British boarding school it’s named after. Emigrants had carried rugby across the British Empire, and expats in the U.S., as in Europe, had started clubs. But even gold medals for the American rugby teams in 1920 and 1925 weren’t enough to prevent it being eclipsed altogether in the following years by football, which Collins notes was quickly growing from a regional to a national game.
Even compared to football, rugby has a particularly violent reputation—unlike the American sport, rugby is fast, fluid, and played without helmets or body armor. Growing up in London, I played rugby from the age of 8 to 18, every winter, four afternoons a week. Even in the snow, we scrimmaged wildly in cotton shirts and shorts, socks rolled down to the ankles. The terms of the game themselves conjure up a vision of animalistic mayhem: “rucks,” when players converge after a play goes awry and the ball is on the ground; and “mauls,” organized brawls among the eight forwards who do the dirty work on the team. (Seven backs, who do the running and kicking, support them.) Meanwhile, the classic rugby tackle is perhaps best compared to trying to grab the rear legs of a galloping pony that’s wearing cleats.
In addition to being a rugby fanatic, Collins is also a social historian who trains his eye on the less savory parts of the sport’s history. As as he describes in The Oval World, no other game carries such a burden of snobbery and racism. Soccer, the saying goes, is “a gentleman’s sport, played by hooligans.” Rugby is “a hooligan’s sport, played by gentlemen.” The Victorians who wrote the rules believed in the amateur ideal—playing for the love of the game, not for money, which turns out to be an expensive habit. This approach thrived in the posh precincts of Britain’s public schools, where elitist bigotry did too. Rugby’s ruling class, the founders of the Rugby Football Union in 1871, despised the plebeians who also loved the game. When the clubs of England’s industrial north seceded in 1895 and formed a professional Rugby League with rules of its own, the amateur RFU closed ranks: A Union player caught talking to League officials could be banned for life.
In The Oval World, Collins does a thorough job of describing how the soul of the game was bound up in class war and imperial ambition. Faithful to the amateur ideal, the Victorian officer class believed the empire might run on money, but that the imperial character must not and needed to be strengthened in other ways. “The leaders of British society, industry, and empire had to be educated in the competitive spirit that drove the engine of economic expansion,” Collins writes. Yet rugby’s creators didn’t foresee how the rapid popularity of team sports in general would eventually create a ticket-buying public, and sportsmen who played for money.