Crossing Codes

Well, it was rugby last time and it’ll be rugby this time next week, so I might as well buck the trend and start talking a little more about rugby in preparation for the upcoming Lions tour (anyone who wants to hear my views regarding Christian Wade/Shane Williams’ callup will have to make themselves heard over the sound of me clapping with glee at the prospect of a bit of magic from either). However, today I will not be confining myself solely to my preferred variant of rugby union, but will instead be analysing its relationship to the other code; rugby league.

To tell the story of rugby league, we must travel back to 1895, just 22 years after the official founding of the game of rugby football. As befits a sport named after and originating from a public school, rugby at the time was very much a rich man’s game, particularly in the south of Britain, and such people could afford to live the amateur dream; where the game was not influenced by such crass things as money, but by honour and other such proud words. Indeed, as I explained last time, this attitude of die-hard defence of amateurism would persist in the union game for nearly the next century, and as late as 1995, as the game lay on the very verge of going professional, Will Carling was stripped of the England captaincy for (quite accurately) referring to the board of the RFU as ’57 old farts’.

However, way back in the late 19th century the game was just starting to take off in the north of England as well, where ex-public schoolboys were rather thin on the ground. This was working-class country, and rugby here was a working class game; for these men, amateurism was a hard task, and every game they played on a Saturday was another three hours where they weren’t earning much-needed cash. As such, a group of northern clubs proposed to the RFU that, with the reasonable income generated from the spectators at matches, players could be ‘recompensed for loss of time’; a reasonable request, one might assume. However, the old farts took the suggestion badly, not only rejecting it out of hand  but issuing a dictum that banned teams from playing at grounds where an entrance fee was charged for spectators. This, to put it mildly, did not go down well with the northern clubs, and on the 29th of August that year, 22 clubs formed the Northern Union; an entirely separate officiating organisation. Over 200 clubs would join the Northern Union within the next decade and a half (some argue this did the union code the world of good, stripping England of much of its skilled player base and making the international playing field more even), and gradually they also began fiddling with the laws, fitting them to their liking. The biggest changes came in 1906, when the number of men per team was reduced from 15 to 13 (dropping the flankers to give the attacking side more room; an idea being voiced by some in the union code at the moment too), and when the ruck was abolished, being replaced instead with rugby league’s characteristic ‘writhe around on the floor until the ref shouts “move”‘.

This revolutionised league’s playing structure, doing away with the dull scrummaging and mauling that dominated union at the time in favour of a faster, more flowing game. Gone was the suffering of the union winger, doomed to forever hang around getting cold and hoping for a pass or two; backs became the focus of the league game, as handling skills became prioritised over strength and wingers were encouraged to go looking for the ball, to make themselves useful. Games became far higher-scoring than in union (where 3-0 wins were not uncommon at the time), and this was only enhanced when league became a summer game, played on hard, fast grounds rather than getting bogged down in the mud and rain. Add to that the fact that league players could get paid to play, and it’s not surprising that many union players chose to switch codes (much to the chagrin of their respective unions, who would frequently ban them from ever playing the union code again). All in all, for much of the 20th century, rugby league could easily argue to be on top of its union cousin.

However, when union (finally, amidst much chaos and complaining) turned professional in 1995, the tide began to turn. In spite of everything, union had, particularly in the latter half of the century, maintained a bigger player and supporter base than league, and much of it in the affluent south; this meant that it was able to cash in on professionalism to an extent that league couldn’t match, and the union authorities had finally made concessions on the laws that were conducive to a far more spectator-friendly game. The tide began to turn. Union got richer (especially when businessmen like Francis Baron started to weigh in) and took back a few stars who had gone over to league. Then, it started poaching a few league stars of its own; former rugby league internationals like Lote Tuqiri, Jason Robinson & Andy Farrell began making their considerable presence felt as union started to wave around fat payslips and an approach to professionalism that has begun to take over from league in terms of intensity. Just recently, Sonny Bill Williams (who has just returned to league after a few years in an All Blacks shirt) has said that the approach that became second nature to him in union has marked him out in terms of professionalism in a league environment. As evidenced in this article, winner of the ‘most needlessly provocative title in a sporting article’ award.

So, rugby league then; a game conceived in rebellion to the arrogance of the wealthy southerners, it is in many ways the perfect embodiment of England’s north-south divide. Thankfully, said divide has (to me at least) receded somewhat in recent years, and so has some of the animosity between the two codes. This has lead some to propose a somewhat radical new idea; that the two codes combine, returning union to a single sport united by the best of both worlds. Will it happen in the forseeable future? Of course not; league is a proud game well capable of standing on its own two feet, and is blessed with some of the most passionate fans in sport, who I don’t think would take kindly to the identity of their sport fading away. Not only that, but trying to create a game appreciated by both parties would be a messy old business, even if the conception of the IRB has made union slightly more accepting than if negotiations were headed by unions quite as… vociferous as the RFU. Nonetheless, the debate does highlight an important issue; both codes have an awful lot to learn from one another, and union in particular has utilised the skills of former league talents both on the field and in coaching. With both games in serious trouble in places, particularly in today’s economic climate, not making use of such cooperation could prove very costly indeed.


…but some are more equal than others

Seemingly the key default belief of any modern, respectable government and, indeed, a well brought-up child of the modern age, is that of egalitarianism- that all men are born equal. Numerous documents, from the US Declaration of Independence to the UN Bill of Human Rights, have proclaimed this as a ‘self-evident truth’, and anyone who still blatantly clings onto the idea that some people are born ‘better’ than others by virtue of their family having more money is dubbed out of touch at best, and (bizarrely) a Nazi at worst. And this might be considered surprising given the amount of approval and the extent to which we set store by a person’s rank or status.

I mean, think about it. A child from a well-respected, middle class family with two professional parents will invariably get more opportunities in life, and will frequently be considered more ‘trustworthy’, than a kid born into a broken home with a mother on benefits and a father in jail, particularly if his accent (especially) or skin colour (possibly to a slightly lesser extent in Europe than the US) suggests this fact. Someone with an expensive, tailored suit can stand a better chance at a job interview to a candidate with an old, fading jacket and worn knees on his trousers that he has never been rich enough to replace, and I haven’t even started on the wage and job availability gap between men and women, despite that there are nowadays more female university graduates than males. You get the general idea. We might think that all are born equal, but that doesn’t mean we treat them like that.

Some have said that this, particularly in the world of work, is to do with the background and age of the people concerned. Particularly in large, old and incredibly valuable corporate enterprises such as banks, the average age of senior staff and shareholders tends to be on the grey end of things, the majority of them are male and many of them will have had the top-quality private education that allowed them to get there, so the argument put forward is that these men were brought up surrounded by this sort of ‘public schoolers are fantastic and everyone else is a pleb’ mentality. And it is without doubt true that very few companies have an average age of a board member below 50, and many above 65; in fact the average age of a CEO in the UK has recently gone up from a decade-long value of 51 to nearly 53.  However, the evidence suggests that the inclusion of younger board members and CEOs generally benefits a company by providing a fresher understanding of the modern world; data that could only be gathered by the fact that there are a large number of young, high-ranking businesspeople to evaluate. And anyway; in most job interviews, it’s less likely to be the board asking the questions than it is a recruiting officer of medium business experience- this may be an issue, but I don’t think it’s the key thing here.

It could well be possible that the true answer is that there is no cause at all, and the whole business is nothing more than a statistical blip. In Freakonomics, an analysis was done to find the twenty ‘blackest’ and ‘whitest’ boy’s names in the US (I seem to remember DeShawn was the ‘blackest’ and Jake the ‘whitest’), and then compared the job prospects of people with names on either of those two lists. The results suggested that people with one of the ‘white’ names did better in the job market than those with ‘black’ names, perhaps suggesting that interviewers are being, subconsciously or not, racist. But, a statistical analysis revealed this to not, in fact, be the case; we must remember that black Americans are, on average, less well off than their white countrymen, meaning they are more likely to go to a dodgy school, have problems at home or hang around with the wrong friends. Therefore, black people do worse, on average, on the job market because they are more likely to be not as well-qualified as white equivalents, making them, from a purely analytical standpoint, often worse candidates. This meant that Jake was more likely to get a job than DeShawn because Jake was simply more likely to be a better-educated guy, so any racism on the part of job interviewers is not prevalent enough to be statistically significant. To some extent, we may be looking at the same thing here- people who turn up to an interview with cheap or hand-me-down clothes are likely to have come from a poorer background to someone with a tailored Armani suit, and are therefore likely to have had a lower standard of education and make less attractive candidates to an interviewing panel. Similarly, women tend to drop their careers earlier in life if they want to start a family, since the traditional family model puts the man as chief breadwinner, meaning they are less likely to advance up the ladder and earn the high wages that could even out the difference in male/female pay.

But statistics cannot quite cover anything- to use another slightly tangential bit of research, a study done some years ago found that teachers gave higher marks to essays written in neat handwriting than they did to identical essays that were written messier. The neat handwriting suggested a diligent approach to learning, a good education in their formative years, making the teacher think the child was cleverer, and thus deserving of more marks, than a scruffier, less orderly hand. Once again, we can draw parallels to our two guys in their different suits. Mr Faded may have good qualifications and present himself well, but his attire suggests to his interviewers that he is from a poorer background. We have a subconscious understanding of the link between poorer backgrounds and the increased risk of poor education and other compromising factors, and so the interviewers unconsciously link our man to the idea that he has been less well educated than Mr Armani, even if the evidence presented before them suggests otherwise. They are not trying to be prejudiced, they just think the other guy looks more likely to be as good as his paperwork suggests. Some of it isn’t even linked to such logical connections; research suggests that interviewers, just as people in everyday life, are drawn to those they feel are similar to them, and they might also make the subconscious link that ‘my wife stays at home and looks after the kids, there aren’t that many women in the office, so what’s this one doing here?’- again, not deliberate discrimination, but it happens.

In many ways this is an unfortunate state of affairs, and one that we should attempt to remedy in everyday life whenever and wherever we can. But a lot of the stuff that to a casual observer might look prejudiced, might be violating our egalitarian creed, we do without thinking, letting out brain make connections that logic should not. The trick is not to ‘not judge a book by it’s cover’, but not to let your brain register that there’s a cover at all.

Rule Brittania

As I have mentioned a few times over the course of this blog, I am British (I prefer not to say English unless I’m talking about sport. Not sure why, exactly). The British as a race have a long list of achievements, giant-scale cock-ups and things we like to brush under the carpet (see the Crimean War for all three of those things), and since we spent most of the 17th-19th century either fighting over or controlling fairly massive swathes of the earth, the essence of Britishness has managed to make itself known in the psyche of just about every nation on Earth. Or, to put it another way, people have tons of stereotypes about the Brits, but not quite so many about, say, the Lithuanians (my apologies to any Lithuanians who end up reading this, but the British national psyche at least isn’t that good at distinguishing you from the rest of Eastern Europe).

British national stereotypes are a mixed bunch. We have the ‘ye olde’ stereotypical Brit- a top-hatted, tea drinking cricketer for whom the word ‘quaint’ was invented and who would never speak out of turn to anybody. Then there is the colonial stereotype- the old-fashioned, borderline-racist yet inherently capable silver-moustached ‘old boy’ living in a big house somewhere in the tropics with a few servants. He puts a lot of cash into the local public school down the road, paying for the cricket facilities. Or something. And then we have the hideously polite- just as obsessed about manners as his ‘ye olde’ cousin, but this time in a very subservient, almost Canadian, manner (I should clarify that I get this particular Canadian stereotype from the internet, since the only Canadians I know all seem… actually, I’ll get back to you on a generalistic stereotype)

However, modern Britain is, of course, not really like this- we are a very modern, incredibly diverse culture (despite David Cameron’s insistence that “multiculturalism has failed”- not one of his better lines) with a surprising geographical diversity too, for such a small country. So, since I am not really in the mood for anything particularly heavy today, I thought that this would be a good time to inform the internet as to a few new British stereotypes for you, just to bring you up to date.

1) The Chav
Used to be that inner-city Londoners all got classed as Cockneys- nowadays we have chavs instead. The chav in his natural state is a pack animal, rarely seen without company, and vulnerable when alone. His is the main market for bad rap music, oversized baseball caps and hoodies two sizes too big for them. They are a notoriously hard to become assimilated with, partly due to the natural verbal aggression of the pack, but also due to their strange tongue- officially known as London Street English (LSE), this bizarre dialect, calling from influences ranging from Vietnamese to Arabic, has now spread across large tracts of southern England, where it is generally confined to council estate, and has more recently been simply dubbed ‘Chav’. Despite a reputation for drugs, violence and vandalism, they are not to be feared by the confident, especially if numbers lie in one’s favour.

2) The West Country
The farming stereotype- round-cheeked, stick-bearing and (to complete the look) with a length of straw poking out of the mouth. Their dialect (a rather bumptious, heavily accented tongue where many a syllable may be lost beneath an ‘Aarrr’) can be no less strange and confusing than LSE, and despite being typically associated with the area west of Bristol (excluding, of course, Wales), is also to be found in East Anglia. Since we have progressed from the days of needing an army of bored young men to till the fields, leaving us to use combine harvesters and such instead, this tends to be a reasonably well-off group- there are no longer starving farmhands, only really farm owners & family. They tend to drive Land Rovers, and view science with roughly the same suspicion as an oncoming bush fire.

3) The Gap Yah…
The modern public schoolboy. Eton being a touch old-fashioned nowadays, the stereotype will now come from Harrow or Stowe (for whatever reason). Typically long of face, short of hair and severely lacking in both age and experience, these come in two subtly different classes. There is the overbearer- the one whose intense access to the very best that Daddy’s money can buy has left them better than everybody else at practically everything they care to mention, and will point this out to you at every opportunity. These may be recognised by the incessant and constantly nagging desire to break their face. The second is the wannabe- the kid who got bullied at Whitgift, who isn’t actually that good at anything but is still richer than you and likes you to know it. They are characterised by always pretending to be of the overbearer class, and endeavouring to be as competent as them, but always cocking up. Interestingly, failure provides the main distinction between the two classes- whilst a wannabe will just act cool and pretend that you cheated them, an overbearer will simply cut out all the timewasting and begin the vitriolic hatred then and there. Both classes are likely to drink heavily (of proper drinks of course- stuff like cider is for plebs and Muggles), travel widel, and hopefully meet their match one of these days soon.

That list was not what you’d call exhaustive, but it’s reasonably accurate from what I’ve experienced. Plus, it was quite nice and relaxing for me.

(If I have in any way offended you or the stereotype you represent over the course of this post, then please feel free to ignore it and laugh at the other ones instead)