Zut alors! The French, not the English, invented rugby
In this extract from his new novel ‘Drie’, Hans Pienaar says rugby didn’t originate at a school in England but from mob football in France
The young main character, rugby prodigy Jaco Blignaut, starts playing for a club in a rural village of France in the 1970s.
The mayor used to be a rugby player himself. When my French gets a little better, I find people “te” and “toi” instead of “vous” me, as if I am a permanent friend in their homes and apartments. I pay almost never for a glass of wine, or three, four. Free meals and all sorts of help and gifts there are aplenty, what they call “aide sociale”, because direct payment is not allowed since the game is supposed to be amateur.
Everyone is inspired by the second miracle of Lourdes. Only in France is rugby, and not football, the beautiful game, le beau jeu, and it is in and around Lourdes where le rugby panache was developed even further. Dans les villages the teams often change the rules to try and keep the game alive.
This is accompanied by many skirmishes, a big fight for minutes on end during which I just stand aside and wait, because my French is too slow and without dialect to take part. But I can see that all kinds of disputes about family, debt and women are being dragged in. Often a player simply walks off the field and goes home. It is only really a problem if he takes the ball with him.
Often a player simply walks off the field and goes home. It is only really a problem if he takes the ball with him.
They teach me the cravatte, when you tackle someone from behind around the throat, the fourchette, or the takedown with two forked fingers in the eyes, the cartouche of a smashing barrel and a poor pass as a saucisson, an offal sausage.
Chef de gare, they mock the referee with his important signs, like the station master with his signals. Our referee is not close to God or even a priest: He is the short-of-breath butcher in his white and blue apron with the blood of innocent lambs still on it. He has great difficulty with keeping up, even though his short legs pump like pistons. By the time he reaches a ruck, much has happened that cannot be mentioned in a slaughterhouse with freshly sharpened knives.
Afterwards it's all paix and serenité again. For the moment, before the après-match, the troisième demi-temps (third half). In the bistrots, with the duck-like Citroën trucks and their flatbeds parked in the mud outside, the wild farmers and their workers sit stuffed onto a bench. There they and the squinting foresters, still ducking falling trees, punt their cause with passion and lots of wine.
Bertrand, the prop, soon convinces me that they have a case. “You English...”
“Wait a minute,” I retort, “I’m only half English.”
“Even worse, Jac-O, even worse. Because you chose to be half English — real English people can’t help it, they are born with it.”
This is a good example of the kind of argument that is settled with a glass of beer poured over the head, but Bertrand is also the team’s intellectual.
“You English have never been able to forgive us for the Norman invasion. Now you are trying to get us back by annexing our cultural goods.”
I roll my eyes. Not the thing about English words taking over again. Placekick, tackle, biftek, barbe-cul...
“Rugby, connard, you stole rugby from us.”
“But you call it rugby yourself, because it’s named after the school Rugby, an English school.”
“It’s an example of French ridicule. You will understand it yet, when your French is good enough. We stick to the word rugby because the French Revolution is not over yet; we need the English aristocracy’s heads to be chopped off too. Prince Charles, ha, just like the first Charles, coupe de la tête, that’s why we still have the guillotine.”
Bertrand is now le drunk, and snaps his fingers.
“But what about William Webb Ellis?” I fall into his trap.
“Ha!” Bertrand exclaims. “That’s the final proof: You are un anglais incorrigible, a victim of colonialism, an indoctrinated and trained agent of the British Empire. Tell me, you ever know what became of Ellis?”
I shrug my shoulders; he did not fight in the First Boer War nor become the British prime minister. Bertrand jumps up and pulls me out of my chair so that I fall about over the players sitting or lying against the wall until we are in the club office. He digs out a yellow container of Kodak slides and holds one up to the light: “What do you see?”
“Something with bars around it and ... rosettes.”
“And this one?”
It’s a tombstone. “That’s where you want to hide from your wife.”
“Ah, damn it.” Bertrand gives me a light slap on the head. “There see, it reads: William Webb Ellis.”
“If you say so.”
“Ellis was un mortel whose grave is not in England, not in one of its colonies, not in America, not in the sea, but in...”
Bertrand now conducts... “In France.”
He slams his fist on the desk, jiggling the empty bottles.
“Ellis spoke out against the misuse of his name to spread a myth that the English have now used for 120 years to proclaim the superiority of their own culture — not only that, that the highest form of play, and therefore the highest form of civilisation, is rugby at a private school in England.”
Later, when we are sober, Bertrand explains the story to me. The English claim that Ellis picked up a soccer ball in 1823 and started running with it. “But when was the first soccer match played?” he asks rhetorically.
“Probably in the 1820s?”
“Tort! Wrong! A full forty years later, in 1863. Then Ellis was already an old man. Just eight years later he died, in Alpes-Maritimes.”
He shows me again on the slide, the engraved date: 1872.
Bertrand now has my attention. Where did the story with which millions of children grow up come from? He explains: In 1895, 30 years later, the English Rugby Union had the legend investigated and concluded that it was fake. They traced it to a letter in Rugby’s school magazine, The Meteor, published in 1876. The author, Bertrand says with a snort, was “un antiquaire, un préteur” — a pawnbroker.
We have our own: a thin man who is quick to offer the players free wine, which you think is generous of him, until you drink it, and find it is just as defeated and dusty as the rubbish in his shop. “Pinards,” Bertrand mocks him, an equally antique name for cheap wine.
Rugby School’s antiquary was one Boxham; he made up the story that Ellis started running with the ball in 1823, while Ellis actually was a cricket player. The rugby bosses established all this in 1895, but then decided not to tamper with the legend.
So the whole thing was propaganda! Aristocrats like those in the posh schools of Rugby and Cambridge don’t play soccer, and neither do Afrikaners, the teachers instilled in us, because it’s too primitive — it’s a game for Portuguese and black people.
And I suddenly understand the scepticism among the country people over the rules. It’s part of the class struggle. The aristocratic school culture in England is one of punishment and penance. The myriad often random, sadomasochistic rules ensure that punishment is inevitable. The penalty kick and all its injustices and incomprehensibilities naturally fit into it.
Punishment is not what soccer is about. Granted, it’s inevitable that players will get free kicks against them, and yellow cards, but they seldom cost them match-winning points and penalty kicks are infrequent. A rugby player will never work in a painting of Christ on the cross — for that he is just too guilty of transgressing the many rules, while innocent soccer players, especially the Italian types, practically play with nails through their hands.
Original sin, the fact that you are going to transgress against your will, is the engine of every rugby match: And to win you have to rely on your opponent’s, your fellow man’s original sin, and he on yours. That’s how it is for ordinary people too: Other people’s sin is a way to take advantage of life, and the many points produced by the penalties of rugby reveals how everyone can get rich through it.
When I tell Bertrand all this, he chuckles quietly to himself. “Now you are going to become a true Frenchman. A human actually. Sinner! Pêcheur!”
During the next match I have to concentrate hard to stick to the rules. It doesn’t help. Before I know what I am doing I hit someone back for the first time, right in front of the referee. He can scarcely believe his eyes and fumbles for his whistle — how often does a referee get the chance to send someone off without creating a riot?
Afterwards I bemoan my fate: “But the lock hit me first.”
Bertrand has no patience with me. “You know by this time the one who strikes last is the culprit.”
“But it’s not fair.”
“Fair is an English word; you’re now in the campagne of France.” They themselves use the word “fair”, not “juste”, precisely because it is not a French thing.
“In England,” preaches Bertrand, “rugby is still only one hundred and fifty years old. Here with us it is centuries old, as old as France itself.”
“That guy, the lock, his name is Aleron, and he hits all flyhalfs on principle,” he continues. “They already know they shouldn’t take exception to his late tackles.”
“How can you expect such a thing?”
“Because he doesn’t think. All he sees is the one who bit him two years before, and now he holds it against all flyhalfs.”
“So that flyhalf was a cannibal then?”
“No, on his part the biter did it because two years before someone had tackled him so hard that his teeth clattered against each other and one broke.”
“So you see, if you don't punish the last misdemeanour, but try to apply fairness, you will have to go back so far in history that you won’t know where to stop.”
“Do you want to tell me that my quarrel goes back to Louis the Fourteenth?”
“No, don’t get a big head now. The kings did not play, only the mob.”
"La condition humaine" is not a writer gets nausea from the white paper in front of him, but a bunch of people lying on the ground and kicking in the air to get back up during a mob fight.”
Because the first form of rugby was already played by the Romans. Harpastum. From Rome it spread first to the land of Asterix, long before the land of Andy Capp. Although Bertrand’s argument is that it arose from something even more elementary, even more “originel”, to grab something from someone else’s hands and start wrestling over it. But when you get help from others, the problem arises that everything soon collapses in a tangle of bodies and arms. You can never retrieve the thing again from the mass of flesh.
“La condition humaine,” Bertrand declares in a voice from the Resistance, “is not a writer who sits and gets nausea from the white paper in front of him, but a bunch of people lying on the ground and kicking in the air to get back up during a mob fight.”
The game not only survived in the most distant villages, especially those in the south, it spread to England, like all French things. There it was called “mob football”, or “shrovetide football” after the annual festival, and there too it was banished, the first time when Edward II complained about the “rageries de grosses pelotes de pee” (fighting over big footballs). As late as 1835 the Highway Act banned it on the country's roads.
Around the 1820s, a new thing arose, in the years after the Napoleonic catastrophe, the years of the Naissance de la Moderne, the birth of the modern: sport that people paid to watch. Only schools organised mob football matches on fields, but there was one big problem: Each had its own rules. And even worse: The whole thing was highly boring, like a single grip in a Turkish wrestling match lasting hours.
A bunch of breakaways came together and reduced football to its simplest, easiest, form with universal and far fewer rules. Thou shalt not handle the ball with thine hands, and thou shalt not kick thy neighbour in the shin. The result was soccer, the true beautiful game.
Initially, the English fathers of rugby — a group of teachers at Rugby, a school reputed for its tough preparation of pupils for service to the empire — the problem of the many sets of rules for mob football were overcome with typical English give and take: Matches were played for one half with the one set of rules and the second half with the opponents’ rules. There was no question of trying to simplify things: The essence of aristocratic life was the multitude of rules you had to follow, from waxing your boots to your wig’s ruffles, and which your butler had to swot up from thick manuals in his attic room.
That’s why the multitude of rules are retained and what the scrum tries to regulate, to this day. Even so, breakaways other than the soccer suckers too realised the scrum was the off-putting, unattractive problem, and their solution was as simple as that of soccer’s: Declare the ball dead as soon as someone falls on it. And so Rugby League was born. Which soon like soccer became more popular than Rugby Union. Only the aristocrats with their insistence that it remains an amateur game — so only for people who don’t need to earn money — kept the original game going.
Drie is published by Protea Books
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.