It’s five minutes to three on a Sunday afternoon in June. A crowd of around 5000 has gathered to watch the game. The players, their warm up completed, have temporarily left the field. Over the PA system the announcer is thanking sponsors and issuing reminders about upcoming events. Then comes the serious stuff. The announcer solemnly informs the crowd that ‘no discrimination will be tolerated’. There is no actual definition of just what constitutes this offence but should it occur, then details of how it may be reported are provided.
The only obvious discrimination at work is the location of the Warrington Rugby League Club supporters, corralled in a roofless section of the ground. Predictably the message is ignored by the crowd, gathered at the ramshackle Belle Vue Stadium to watch Wakefield Trinity, the home team, take on the visitors. Beyond team allegiance, one wonders how these mainly working class spectators might show discrimination towards each other. Despite the size of the crowd they are the sort of people who can be trusted to behave themselves. Within the stadium there isn’t a police officer to be seen.
Clearly Rugby League isn’t exempt from the need throughout sport to show it is ‘doing something’. These days, no governing body is exempt and the Rugby Football League now has protocols in place to deal with unacceptable language, behaviour of a discriminatory nature, or what might be classified as a hate crime. Concerning the latter, recent Premier League football matches are instructive. For example, all the protocols in the world didn’t protect the hapless Steve Bruce from some vile abuse when he was managing Newcastle United. This might in the eyes of some constitute a hate crime but the definition seems to vary depending upon one’s racial origins.
According to a BBC report, the RFL was persuaded back in 2020 that it had a problem. It decided to ‘tackle discrimination’ and an initiative was launched to coincide with Black History Month. The League now has a ‘Head of Inclusion and Diversity’ who has been quoted as saying ‘the RFL now has an opportunity to become a genuinely anti racist and anti discrimination sport’. Evidently she is oblivious to the game’s history. Perhaps a code of rugby created by white working class people is automatically suspect and a Year Zero approach is required. What then has the RFL been up to all these years, so that it now needs protocols and action plans of the sort more familiar to civil servants?
Followers of the game with long memories might recall Cardiff born Billy Boston MBE, a mixed race player who began his career with Wigan back in 1953. They’ve since unveiled a statue of him in the town. Then there’s Clive Sullivan MBE who was of West Indian descent and apart from playing for Hull FC, became captain of the Great Britain Rugby League team in 1972, the first black player to lead any British representative team. They’ve named a road after him in Hull. The list of distinguished black and mixed race players goes on: Ellery Hanley MBE, Martin Offiah MBE and Jason Robinson OBE. Of these, Robinson has perhaps the most impressive record switched leagues and for a time was captain of the England Rugby Union team. Robinson, who made a huge impact on both versions of the game, had some critical things to say in a Guardian interview in October 2020. He believes the sport is failing in many ways and lamented the decline in the number of black players at senior level. He pointed out that there are few Black faces to be seen at matches and on the field a lack of role models for black children to look up to.
It depends though on what it meant by black and more of this shortly. For its part, the RFL has been quite energetic when it comes to promoting the game amongst young people. For example, at this year’s Challenge Cup final, 300 children from community clubs were allowed on the pitch. This was mirrored the other Sunday at Belle Vue, when children from various local clubs came onto the field at half time. Evidently the structure is in place and volunteers are working hard to attract young people to the game. Despite this, the unspoken inference is that even with its long history of inclusiveness, black people are somehow deterred from becoming involved.
Rugby League’s history of developing black players and commemorating their achievements seems to count for little. The structure exists and if black players aren’t coming forward in enough numbers then why is it automatically the fault of the game? The reasons may be more complex. One black coach suggested that black people have fallen out of love with the game. However, amidst this criticism, the term black seems to be narrowly defined.
The game is hugely popular in poorer countries in the Pacific such as Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. There is an obvious incentive: players from these locations have an opportunity to make a good living from the game in Australia and New Zealand. Despite their small populations, these island nations make a significant contribution to Rugby League at the highest level. The chance to play in this country is for many the next obvious step. A glance at the current team photographs of seven Super League clubs (the premier division) shows that all are fielding players whose surnames suggest Pacific Islander origins. Incidentally, Wakefield’s coach is Willie Poching, the first Samoan to occupy this position at a senior club. There are clearly black players in the game but it depends on your definition of black.