Contrary to the official myth, its roots go back centuries (from Business Day, October 16, 2015)
Back then, the Springboks were a Second World War unit that had fought in the North African desert, and the Japanese were, well, the Japs, as the Germans were the Jerrys. The Japs wore funny squared-off baseball hats, as if they had retrieved them from a lunchbox at the bottom of a tank.
We re-enacted war scenes from pocket cartoon books sold at the café, depicting blonde captains dashing about in Jeeps. We pushed our teeth over our lower lips, pulled our temples back and said "hai", a lot. In an era when parents were not much bothered by stereotypes, we were encouraged to express our innate fighting natures, little soldiers in the making to later fight apartheid’s wars.
THE world has undergone a sea change since, and one of the greatest dividends is a move away from postwar militarism. That the differences among European nations — like those between Germany and Greece over government debt — could be settled on a battlefield is close to completely unthinkable now.
A key contributor to the new peacenik ethos is the rise of international sport. Instead of military battles, men now turn to enormous stadiums, where often more than 100,000 spectators get the chance to sublimate their aggression in Colosseum-like arenas replete with the symbols and markings warriors have displayed since the dawn of man.
Among the so-called contact sports, rugby stands out as the one which most resembles the "close combat" for which every soldier gets trained — even today when they call the shots by remote control drones.
Far from being the gentlemanly sport that according to legend arose from one schoolboy’s impatience with the tardiness of soccer — the primordial rugby player William Webb Ellis supposedly picked up the ball and ran with it to the goal posts instead of kicking it — its real roots go back centuries to man’s inhumanity to man.
Until quite recently, the 19th-century designers of the rugby union code had succeeded in convincing the sporting world that Ellis was the first rugby player. Although he did exist, he was used as propaganda in England's class war.
Large numbers of people began paying to watch sportsmen during the "Birth of the Modern", the years after the Napoleonic wars in the 1820s and 1830s. Chaotic versions of what was called ‘‘mob football’’, in which dozens of boys wrestled over the ball, were played at elite schools for the aristocracy. In attempts to bring order, pupils had by 1845 agreed to ban carrying the ball.
But when the kicking of shins was banned too, the upper classes baulked, and returned to mob football, especially at Rugby School, where sport was regarded as an essential ingredient in forming the patriotic types ever ready to sacrifice life and limb for the empire.
EACH school had its own rules — during interschool matches, the first half would be played according to the opponents' rules, and the second those of the hosts. So some senior pupils came together to draw up a unified code, seeking to preserve the basic wrestle-and-run ethos of mob football. But to remove the reference to the lower classes, they renamed mob football ‘‘rugby’’ after the school they were gathering in.
Meanwhile, the rebel entrepreneurs continued with the simplified version, making money by charging spectators nominal fees to watch teams play on land they owned. In order to make it ever more watchable, the game was progressively simplified until the Football Association was formed in 1863, giving us the word soccer.
This was easy to copy in the city streets of urbanising countries and, before long, soccer had become the relish of the British working classes.
Other working class off-shoots gave us rugby league and American gridiron, which both sought to limit the mindless brawls of mob football by declaring the ball dead as soon as it touched ground. Such simple changes have made these three dissident codes much more popular.
Rugby union, to justify its existence as a separate code — and as the aristocratic form of football — stuck to the unsightly schoolground brawls. By the 1890s, the aritcocrats realised they were losing the battle against the working classes.
So in 1895, after rugby league had followed soccer and formally inducted itself into a separate code, Webb Ellis was drafted to serve as the messenger of rugby as a game for the more advanced. A plaque was solemnly unveiled to commemorate his purported rebellion against soccer, setting sail one of sport’s most enduring legends.
Comparing sports for their levels of barbarism is neither here nor there — players are killed participating in supposedly genteel sports like cricket — but the mob football played at Rugby and other schools dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe, especially France. It is apt that Webb Ellis was buried in the campagne, not in England.
The first record of a rugby-like sport comes from Roman times. It surfaces again in the late middle ages, as a violent game played between villages in rural Normandy, land of the war-like Viking settlers.
Called la soule, after a leather cushion usually taken from a cathedral or church, it involved up to seven villages in one game and, on one recorded occasion, 800 players in a game that lasted several days. The aim was to get the soule to a specified spot, the door of a cathedral, or a pole in the middle of a stream between villages.
There were no rules. Church leaders oversaw the games, but this did not entail much more than warning shopkeepers to board up their shops for the duration. There were pitched battles between village factions, family feuds were played out and knives were frequently pulled.
The soule came to be ensheathed in tin to protect it from being cut up. Things got so bad that King Charles V tried to ban it in 1365, and in 1440, the bishop of Tréguier wanted to excommunicate players.
The game has survived to this day, and is played in a heavily policed form in French villages such as Vendome near Le Mans.
It spread across the channel, as mob football, and in the early 19th century it became entrenched at elite schools, no doubt as part of the sadistic prefect culture.
Every year, it is resurrected at Ashbourne as Royal Shrovetide Football, also with armed police contingents on standby.
WHEN the schoolmasters decided in 1845 that football had to be brought back to its roots, the rules they drew up to regulate the age-old brawling, and stop hour-long pile-ups, proliferated. After 180 years of trying, the game’s designers are still struggling to work out ones that are proper and fair. The brawls are nowadays called scrums, most probably from the French ‘‘escarmouche’’ for a group protective action, which gave English the word skirmish.
Every year, new permutations are tried and during every game, coach and player alike throw up their arms in perplexity over an incomprehensible interpretation.
So next time the scrum collapses after minutes of direction by an exasperated referee, be patient, as this is a far better expression and sublimation of the war-like impulses of males than, say, trench warfare near the Somme. When Eben Etzebeth next swats a mouthguard from an opponent's teeth, give the guy a break, at least he is not carrying a knife in his socks and that is not a gun in his shorts.