Review of The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby

Collins, Tony The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Pp. 551. Notes, Index. $40.00 hardcover.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Dettmar

For someone who grow up in Rugby-League-obsessed Kingston upon Hull (in northern England), played Rugby Union until the age of 18, and still religiously follows the England Rugby Union team, five hundred pages on the history of rugby was a fascinating and entertaining read. Tony Collins’s The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby reads at times like a page turning novel and at times like an encyclopedia as he attempts to keep both hardcore rugby fans and those who are just learning about the game interested. It is a credit to Collins that he largely succeeds.

oval-world-cover

Bloomsbury, 2015

Each chapter of The Oval World could be a turned into a book in its own right. Collins details the origins of the game in the “Six Nations” of the northern hemisphere (England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, and later Italy) and does a similar job with rugby around the world as he focuses on the powerhouses of the southern hemisphere (New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa), as well as nations such as Argentina and Japan who have a less well-known but nonetheless interesting rugby history.

If there is one criticism of Collins’s work, it is that he does perhaps try to do too much. The histories of Rugby League and Rugby Union have been written. There are also excellent monographs of the history of the sport in most of the major rugby playing nations. For anyone who has read these histories, Collins’s work might leave them wanting more. It will however undoubtedly whet the appetite of those who are just beginning to learn about the game and will hopefully turn others towards more specific pieces of work in the canon of rugby history.

One of the great strengths of The Oval World is how Collins manages to link the growth of rugby with the social history of the country he is detailing. The very real want of the Scots to beat the English, how the Rhondda Valley became the home of Welsh rugby, the influence of the founder of the Modern Olympic Games Baron Pierre de Coubertin on French rugby, and how Ireland’s Easter uprising had a very real effect on the nation’s rugby team are used by Collins as a lens into turn of the twentieth century European culture. The iconic Tom Brown’s School Day’s by Thomas Hughes sits next to a discussion of how rugby perfectly fit the ethos of nineteenth century Muscular Christianity and Collins expertly proves that, as all good sports historians know, sport can be a convenient vehicle through which to view a society.

Collins manages to capture the innate affection that the history of the game has in the British Isles as well as throughout the nations of the former British Empire. The New Zealand All Blacks tour of 1905 is recounted in various guises throughout the book both as a source of pride for Welsh rugby–it’s one of the few times they have beaten New Zealand–and for New Zealand rugby as the tour that saw them win 34 of 35 matches and announce themselves as a world rugby presence. Maybe it is because I am Brit who researches US sport history, but the section on rugby in the southern hemisphere was the most informative and interesting section of the book for me and I found myself learning about the cultural significance of the sport in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa (and indeed wanting to know more). It is this that makes me believe that for those who have never heard of William Webb Ellis the book will be an excellent starting point whilst those that have can always cherry pick the chapters they wish to read.

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Wales defeating the mighty New Zealand All Blacks in 1905. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The book is, perhaps inevitably, centered on the British Isles and at times the reader can be left wanting to learn more about the native traditions of rugby playing countries around the world. There are however some fascinating stories about when these cultures clash such as the influence of Welshman (for the Welsh are the standard bearers of British rugby) Harry Owen Roe whose mantra tous les joeurs sont des trois-quarts (all players are three-quarters) sums up the expansive free-flowing style of French rugby to this day.

I do worry that the complexities of the differences of the two codes of rugby (Union and League) will be lost on the casual reader. Despite sharing a name and an origin, the games have different rules, organizing bodies, histories, cultures, and fans. Collins does an excellent job highlighting how issues of class and professionalism led to the great schism (as it is known) but this is a complex issue that deserves its own book (there are many that do tell this story). I am not sure if Collins is more of a Rugby Union fan but after reading his book I would hazard a guess that this is the case.

As I have tried to describe, the book is full of rich detail and anecdotes that leave the reader smiling and at times shaking their head. Collins’ training as an historian is clear, there is an extensive index and notes section (which includes his bibliography) and the book could easily have been picked up by an academic press. The reader is often left wishing there were images of some of the great scenes, players, and games he describes (as a US historian I would have particularly enjoyed seeing images from Dartmouth College Rugby Clubs tour of Great Britain in 1958 for example) but, of course, this is not always possible.

The book will inevitably draw parallels with David Goldblatt’s award winning book on soccer The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer and Collins certainly follows this same approach of trying to connect the history of the game with the history of a nation. Whilst not as substantial as Goldblatt’s thousand pages on soccer history, Collins’s work is a great starting place for those wanting to know about rugby, a useful book for fans of the game, and a great resource for anyone looking for a cultural history of a nation (and there are many nations discussed in the book). Now that Collins has set the standard I hope someone follows up and expands upon his work.

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at dettmarb@gmail.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.

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