Today, professionalism remains a controversial topic of discussion. Rugby union’s traditionalists (the so-called Blazers), who decry a game now awash with sponsorship and television money, remain. Likewise, there are those who are more enthusiastic about change, who like to dismiss advocates of amateurism as Luddites. In order to truly understand these debates, a little bit of historical context is required.
Fans and players of rugby, league and union alike, have long engaged in a debate as to which creed is superior. Yet how many actually know why there are two games? and does the reason the two sports split really matter anymore?
At a general meeting of the rugby union, on 20th September 1893, a proposal was made by two Yorkshire representatives that “players be allowed compensation for bona fide loss of time”.
The debate about professionalism was not begun by this proposal. In the North of England working class men, who had begun getting involved in rugby in the 1870’s, had been protesting at the fact they were losing earnings in order to play in front of crowds sized the same as those watching international fixtures. Nevertheless, it was this moment that really kicked it off.
It was after this that the RFU we know today was formed, with its first law stating, “the name of the society shall be called the ‘Rugby Football Union’ and only clubs comprised entirely of amateurs shall be eligible for membership, and its headquarters shall be London where all general meetings shall be held.”
Fierce arguments took place at the first series of Annual General Meetings. It was argued by many in the North that the decision to locate the union in London, at times inconvenient to those from the North, as well as establishing a board comprised mostly of Southerners, in spite of the fact there were more clubs located in the North, was unjust.
As such, in 1895, the Northern Union was formed in Leeds and Huddersfield, accepting the principle that players should be compensated for lost work. Soon after a meeting was set up with clubs from Lancashire, and a number of them also joined.
The first resolution of the twenty participating clubs read: “The clubs here represented decide to form a Northern Rugby Football Union and pledge themselves to push forward without delay its establishment on the principle of payment for bona fide broken time only.”
Between 1895 and 1908 there were a serious of rule changes that altered the sport into that which we know today as Rugby League, which it was to become known as in 1922. Soon enough it evolved into a proper professional sport akin to football. Similar schisms occurred in Australia and New Zealand in 1907.
This split was to define the game in this period, and lead to a bitter rivalry that has only truly subsided in modern times. It is as a result of this rivalry that rugby union was so staunchly amateur for a century, rejecting the influx of money into the sport until 1995.
Rugby union’s traditional image as being a game that is the preserve of the middle class also comes from this era. In the 19th century middle class clubs (not exclusively from the South) rejected calls to support the influx of working class men into the game.
Although ancient history in sporting terms, this split has shaped both union and league more than any other single event. For those who want to understand the game today, and the assumptions and attitudes of those from the sport’s two different tribes, it remains key.
Written by Joe Ronan