Rugby’s Roots- How Colonialism Shaped Rugby

Have you ever wondered why the Rugby World Cup and the IRB World Rankings are occupied by tiny Pacific Island nations and world sporting minnows such as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Namibia and yet world superpowers and sporting powerhouses such as Spain, Germany, Brazil and China are completely absent? Everyone knows the story of Rugby schoolboy William Webb-Ellis picking up the football and running with it in 1823 but what fascinates me is what happened afterwards, how did rugby go from Rugby to Buenos Aires, to Toronto, to Tokyo and to Tbilisi and become the cultural presence and geographical mismatch that we see today.

The most common way rugby was spread was through colonialism. Simply put, British ex-pats introduced the game to members of the British Empire while living there. This can be seen transparently today as 12 of the 20 top teams in the rugby world rankings were part of the British empire including dominant nations such as Australia, New Zealand and the USA. However, the most interesting example is Fiji, one of the most miscellaneous and arbitrary nations to the untrained eye but familiar to the common rugby fan and a dominant force in world rugby. Fiji are not only one of the few countries in the world to not have a national football team, they also only have one Olympic medal in their history, a gold one, in Rugby Sevens. So is it that Fijian’s don’t like other sports? No, it is simply that they weren’t exposed to other sports. Rugby was first played in Fiji in 1884 by British soldiers stationed on Viti Levu Island at the Native Constabulary at Ba when they noticed how genetically perfect the Fijian soldiers were for the physicality and pace of the new game. After that rugby took off on the pacific island, initially it was just played by Fijian soldiers and British ex-pats but soon a Fijian Rugby National Governing Body was formed and they played their first international vs Samoa in 1925 which kicked off at 7am so that the players had enough time to shower and change and be in work on time and the field also had a giant tree on the halfway line. Today Fiji are 11th in the rugby world rankings with recent competitive victories over Wales, Scotland, France and Italy and they dominate the Sevens circuit with 3 series wins in its 20-year existence. A similar story occurred in Namibia where rugby was introduced due to British and allied victory in World War One when the British commonwealth nation South Africa took control of Namibia which had been a German colony.

However, rugby wasn’t just spread through colonialism, Uruguay recently broke into the top 20 of the rugby world rankings and competed in the last two Rugby World Cups and they were introduced to the game by Christian missionaries from the UK who came to enforce religion. Furthermore, the Eastern European country of Georgia adopted rugby because it was so similar to the traditional Georgian game of ‘Lelo’ in which men of rival towns competed to carry a ball over a large field into the opposing team’s creek, hence why the nickname of the Georgian rugby team today is the ‘Lelos’.   

To conclude, if you asked an average person, say a football fan, to find Fiji or Namibia on a map they would undoubtedly fail, they probably wouldn’t even know that Samoa and Tonga even exist, however a common rugby fan could find Fiji on a map, tell you it’s capital city and tell you the names of 20 famous Fijian’s. There is a native Fijian in almost every major tier one rugby nation with England’s recent examples including Joe Cokanasiga, Nathan Hughes and Semesa Rokodunguni while Fijian’s litter every major rugby league with around 34 in France’s Top 14 in 2017 and over 20 in the English Premiership including this summer’s big money signings of Semi Radrada and Nemani Nadolo. How many Fijian’s play football in the English Premiership? I don’t think you need me to tell you it’s 0. In summary Fijian’s are core blocks that hold together the world of rugby, not just Fijian’s but also Samoan’s, Tongan’s and New Zealander’s and none of this would have happened if a British colonist hadn’t one day passed them a rugby ball (and yet the Kiwi’s, Aussies and Saffa’s still have the cheek to beat us at every World Cup). Rugby today is defined by those early Victorian colonies and without them maybe rugby might have never left the shores of England.

5 thoughts on “Rugby’s Roots- How Colonialism Shaped Rugby

  1. Another great article Ben. Clearly well researched too. Is there any evidence for the role independent boarding schools played in this as many top schools (Millfield, Harrow, Stonyhurst, Mount St Mary’s, Sedburgh etc) sponsor Pacific Islanders to come over and enhance their skills etc. Keep up the good work mate!

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    1. Definitely, I’ve read loads about that, same with South Africans and New Zealander’s, not to mention the whole England squad comes from those schools aswell! Cheers for reading

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      1. Hi Ben, what an amazingly researched article. Look forward to reading more. Good luck with this exciting venture. See you soon. Pete.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d never thought about this, but it’s so true. Great article. New to your blog but seems more in depth than some of what I read in the papers.

    Liked by 1 person

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