What do you get when you mix one of the world’s leading sports historians with one of the best sports archives bar none? One hell of a read, that’s what. Tony Collins, Professor of Social History at Leeds Metropolitan University, devoted four years to scrutinizing RFU and IRB minutes at Twickenham, then writing this remarkable history of our game. “I wanted to get behind the myths,” he says, “but also to give the sport the same serious attention as you might see in a political or military history.”

A 15-page bibliography testifies to the thoroughness of his work, and as a rugby league fan he admits to being shocked by the extent to which union’s rulers ostracized those of their own who had links – however tenuous – with the professional code. The RFU’s ‘scorched earth’ policy adopted after the 1895 schism alienated many amateurs in England’s north, but paradoxically did union a power of good. Had England had the pick of every rugby player in the land, they might have dominated for decades; instead, the likes of Wales, South Africa and New Zealand were able to take on and beat the Mother Country, giving rise to union’s global popularity. Not until 1986 could amateur players move freely between the two codes, and as late as 1994 Ady Spencer was forced to withdraw from the Varsity Match because he also played rugby league.

Union’s relationship with league is but one plank of a book that neatly divides rugby’s history into social themes: class, money, war, imperialism. For those with a studious bent who missed it when it first appeared last year, Collins’s work is a must for your bookshelf.

RW RATING 5/5

BUY IT AT:  Routledge.com RRP:  £19.99  PUBLISHED BY:  Routledge

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This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Rugby World Magazine

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