Traditionally, rugby union has been seen as the preserve of the middle class, whereas rugby league a working class dominated game. These divides are historic. It was in 1895 that the split between the two codes occurred, when Northern clubs decided to break from the national governing body in order to financially compensate players for working hours missed.
Union has been labelled elitist ever since, and this identity has been consistent globally, with mirror situations in South Africa and Australia in particular. This season however, Ellis Genge returned the issue of class inclusivity to the forefront of debate with characteristic force. Genge grew up on the Knowle West estate in Bristol, and his working-class background marks him out as near unique in modern English rugby. Background plays an important part in shaping a personality, and Genge openly draws from the more abrasive and competitive elements of his character to great effect on the pitch.
Off it however, Genge has stated, “because of how I look, act, where I’m from, I get looked at differently.” He is often depicted as a hard-man in the media, an accurate portrayal that he certainly enjoys, but this image has its complications, and perhaps pigeonholes an articulate, intelligent young player into a simplistic and predefined typecast.
Class, race and background have been placed at the very centre of sporting conversation recently, with players from all sports, Raheem Sterling most prominently, increasingly driving debate on these issues. Whilst race relations remain an issue throughout society, Genge doesn’t believe it is ethnicity that is most problematic in rugby, but rather what he labels “culture”, and his sense that “there’s that private school mould in rugby,” a mould that he ostensibly, and with pride, does not conform to.
What Genge illustrates however, is the shameful rarity with which people from his socioeconomic background are breaking into the highest tiers of English rugby. Currently, 60% of English Premiership rugby players attended fee-paying school, compared to just 6% of footballers and 7% of the wider population. This is not a new problem, but it is not one that appears to be progressing towards a resolution at any great speed.
In the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad 20 out of 31 players had been privately educated, a concentration more pronounced than in 2003, as only 11 of England’s World Cup winning squad were educated privately. In contrast, according to Tenzer, between 2000 and 2013 there were just 6 privately educated rugby league players in England. Of course, there are variations to this rule, and rugby union is by no means universally an elite sport (this would be a charge soundly rejected by many in more provincial parts of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England).
Neither, is wealth disparity an issue specific to rugby, Millfield, one of the England’s leading fee-paying schools, see around 50 alumni receive international recognition in a variety of sports annually. However, success in rugby is, perhaps more than any other sport, seemingly dependent on education. Only two comprehensive schools have ever won the English U-18 Schools Cup, and students at schools such as Belvedere, Blackrock and St. Michael’s in Dublin dominate the Leinster Schools Cup. Recent graduates from this system, where players are exposed to high levels of coaching and competitive game-play from an early age, include James Ryan and Garry Ringrose. In New Zealand too the situation is similar, with a series of established, well-resourced private schools providing a well-trodden pathway to professionalism.
Of course, there are exceptions, and Genge is one, but the concentration of talent and resources in a series of private schools excludes those who cannot afford to access such wealth of opportunity. It is fundamentally elitist and, in Ellis Genge’s own words, “it’s stopping the game from progressing.”
Written By Joe Ronan