Within moments of England sealing their stunning, horribly tense victory in the Cricket World Cup, individuals from all political creeds were quick to try and claim it as a triumph for their particular world view. Sport, however, is not politics, and, regardless of what the Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world may claim to believe, should not be manipulated in an attempt to divide people down tribal lines.
Instead, what the Cricket World Cup demonstrated in emphatic fashion is the positive impact that sport can have in fostering a hope, inclusivity and unity. This was crystallised in the image of a joyous England team, made up of people from every cross-section of society, with their long shadows stretching across Lord’s, racing away in celebration after the drama of that agonising Super Over.
From Eoin Morgan’s words of encouragement to Jofra Archer after his wide ball, to his beautiful line in the post match press conference about having Allah, as well as the luck of the Irish, on their side, the captain summed England’s togetherness up neatly.
For rugby fans, we must hope that Japan 2019 can offer the same brilliant inspiration and excitement. It will certainly be a difficult task. The lessons to take from the Cricket World Cup though, are obvious.
First off all, having the final on terrestrial television was a masterstroke, and whilst England may not have triumphed if not for the funding received from Sky, it is clear that, to maximise popular impact, ensuring that matches are free to air is critical. With the ITV/BBC Six Nations deal set to expire in 2021, this is an issue that must be addressed. Secondly, the rugby community must champion sport’s capacity to bring people together.
Rugby has a long history of doing just this. The sport has deep roots in Ireland, with IRFU founded in 1886, yet for Irish nationalists of the 19th and 20th century the sport represented the unwanted encroachment of Englishness. In 1929, defending the GAA ban on ‘foreign games,’ a correspondent in the Nenagh Guardian argued for vigilance against “advances of foreign influence.” However, having once been seen as a threat to Gallicism, rugby soon came to transform into a means of asserting a common identity and fraternity on the island of Ireland.
As the moving BT Sport documentary ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ demonstrated last year, rugby played an important, if controversial role, during The Troubles. According to Jason Tuck, a historian of Irish sport, the Irish rugby team constitutes a “temporary union of two politically distinct nations through sport,” one capable cooling tensions in the name of a common cause.
Likewise, Tommy Bowe, a native of County Monaghan and general legend of Irish rugby, put it like this, “what seals it all together is you play and support one team in one jersey.” Ultimately, whether unionist, nationalist or anything in between, everyone wants to get one up on the English on the rugby pitch.
For Wales, rugby holds a strong grip on the country’s culture. It is the national sport and, having spread rapidly after arriving in codified form in the mid-19th century, has always been a truly working class game in Wales. According to Gareth Williams, professor of history at the University of Glamorgan, “rugby plays an almost unique role in contemporary welsh society in that it is able to unite factions and geographical areas that which in other sense have little in common.”
Most famously of all, in South Africa, the World Cup of 1995 symbolised a turning point in the country’s history, away from apartheid and towards a new, reconciled and positive future. Nelson Mandela handing the Webb-Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar is one of sport’s greatest ever moments.
These, like England’s cricketing success, are just a few examples of sport’s ability to drive change, offer hope and nurture commonalities. As Japan 2019 approaches, the rugby community must commit to channelling this potential once more, and hope the action on the pitch comes somewhere close to matching the drama at Lord’s yesterday.
Written by Joe Ronan