On This Day in Rugby League: 125 years of Tradition and Change

Richard de la Riviere offers a unique approach to a 125-year story of rebellion, struggle and change.

It was the 1st of July 1916, and as the war continued to rage across Europe, the British and their Allies developed a plan to break the stalemate of trench warfare. The agreed operation was on the 25-mile front on the River Somme in Northern France, where troops were mobilised to advance forward.

The Battle of the Somme would go down in history as the bloodiest day in British military history. Many of the infantry who went over the top were the Pals Battalions made up of friends, relatives and workmates serving side by side. Within the first 24 hours, over 57,000 men were injured, and 19,240 were killed.

Many of those killed were ordinary working class people who had been swept along with the patriotic fervour that had engulfed the nation at the outbreak of war. Few had anticipated that they would never return. And rugby league players were no exception. As part of the recruitment drive, international stars such as Huddersfield’s Fred Longstaff and Leeds Billy Jarman joined the front line. But at the Somme, they were killed. Others from clubs such as Warrington, Rochdale and Oldham lost players as the conflict continued to its bloody conclusion.

Their sacrifice was something that the Australian super coach Wayne Bennett drew on when he came over to England in 2016 to manage the international side in a test series. Ahead of a crucial test against New Zealand, Bennett took the England players to France to look at the graves of those players who had swapped the rugby pitch for the battleground. As England’s James Graham revealed in a recent podcast interview with Bennett, it greatly impacted the team. “They weren’t exempt. It was get out there and be ready to die.”

The link between rugby league and its past is always present in supporters’ minds. As the sport of an industrial working class that has struggled to gain mass support outside of the areas it originated, supporting a team is usually a tradition handed down from grandparent to parent to child. As such, each generation feels a duty to acknowledge the past and preserve history in some form. And there is no better person to narrate the past than Richard de la Rivière, whose new book Rugby League: On This Day has been published this month.

The idea of an On This Day approach to writing history is not a new one. In the historical world, figures such as Dan Snow have achieved critical acclaim by condensing thousand-year accounts into short stories. It is an effective way to tell stories and highlight anniversaries to new audiences in the political world. Sports writers, however, who have turned their hands to write football, cricket and rugby versions often offer a basic run-through of stats, figures and match reports from the history of a club. Rugby League: On This Day offers much more.

On This Day is the sort of history book we now expect from the man who has emerged as one of the most prolific historians of the game. As a former editor of Rugby League World magazine, he brings his eye for a story to historical events that go well beyond what happened during the eighty minutes on the pitch.

Almost a decade ago, he defined his style in the hugely important Rugby League: A Critical History which mapped out the game’s decline since its boom in the late 80s and early 90s. In an era where everything appeared to be moving forward for the game, he argued that the switch to Summer had not only led to a decline in international competition but also created a cartel at the top of Super League. As the game has moved from one crisis to another in the intervening years, he has, in many ways, been proven right. 

It is as a historian of the game in his weekly retrospective pieces for the League Express where he has developed the stories and the narratives for this new project. The task of covering 125 years through 366 snapshots is no easy task. The author has had to decide which events are to be included and which ones are to be overlooked. But in pulling together 366 different stories, we begin to see trends and patterns which have made up the history of the games. Moreover, the variety of the stories, as outlined by his recounting of the league players killed at the Somme, allows the reader to understand the wider story of Britain.

When the troops returned home, for example, de la Rivière recounts how as the economy improved and lifestyles changed, so did interest in the game. In the “roaring twenties”, the boom in spectator sports saw Great Britain pack out grounds across Australia. Back home, the governing body recognised that they needed to match demand. So in June 1928, a decision was made to take the Challenge Cup final to give northern supporters a glamorous trip down south each year. And the sport would never be the same again.

Other stories show how the political and social impact shaped the mood of the times. In one story, de la Rivière recalls how in the 1970s, Oldham players went on strike over a pay dispute that resulted in a local amateur side turning out instead. In the 1980s, he recounts the drama of a bomb scare at Swinton, while at the turn of the century, he explores how Warrington came under pressure for their “guerrilla marketing” of a local derby against Widnes – by depicting Widnes with a smoggy skyline, a barrel of toxic waste and a three-eyed fish. In the week that the Queen died, and as the sport had to decide whether to continue playing, On This Day shows us that we have been here before. When Diana died in 1997, the London Broncos were able to play while football was cancelled, thanks to Richard Branson.

More broadly, you can trace the changing social attitude to the rise of black players, from Billy Boston being banned from entering South Africa to Clive Sullivan lifting the World Cup to Des Drummond being racially abused on the pitch by a spectator. And as a long-time chronicler of the women’s game, de la Rivière is well placed to revisit this aspect, from the Great Britain lionesses Ashes victories over Australia to the rise of the Women’s Super League in modern times.

Of course, not everybody will look at this book for social and political trends. But the skill of an On This Day approach, weaving together 366 different stories to tell a 125-year history, means that readers can get whatever they wish from this book. For those not interested in the social aspect, de la Rivière recounts the great games, finals and Test matches in condensed form.

And for those that care for the oddities and randomness of the game, there are stories in here that even the most seasoned rugby league watcher will discover; from the story of Minnie Cotton to the afternoon that future Salford coach Paul Rowley saved a young girl from drowning. In a sport that is well versed in the ups and downs of its 125-year history, de la Rivière has found a different way of telling it, making for a timely addition to the rugby league history shelves.

Rugby League: On This Day is written and published by Richard de la Rivière, the League Express writer and one-time editor of Rugby League World. It is available via ebay now

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s