RUGBY – FICTION, FILM, AND STAGE
BY ALLYN FREEMAN
For a sport celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2023, rugby union exhibits a shortfall of novels, films, or theatrical productions. Although there exist numerous thousands of informative non-fiction books dealing with histories, biographies, and coaching techniques, there has been a scarcity of creative storytelling. Ironically, two Rugby League entries remain the standouts in the categories of staged play and cinema.
One striking question is whether the general rugby narrative is unexciting when it appears by means of the printed word? Part of the answer can be observed in a statistic: the UK’s Rugby World magazine (inaugurated in 1960) – the largest rugby publication in the world – only sells a mere 27,000 newsstand copies per month. Great Britain numbers over twenty-million plus followers of the sport, with thirteen-million viewers having watched the England vs. South Africa 2019 Rugby World Cup final in Japan.
Tom Brown’s School Days – Novel
The most famous book about rugby remains Tom Brown’s School Days authored by Thomas Hughes in 1857. It narrates life at Rugby School and its celebrated headmaster Thomas Arnold. The work represents nineteenth-century fiction in the genre of British public school tales. It’s a historic direct line from this tome to James Hilton’s 1934 best-selling novel, Good Bye, Mr. Chips, about a dedicated teacher’s life and career at Brookfield School.
In Hughes’ book, teenager Tom Brown transfers to Rugby School where he attempts to conform to the mores of the institution. He is bullied and tortured by Harry Flashman, an older boy with a sadistic streak. Brown and his schoolmate friends overcome the evil Flashman. Notably, Tom plays rugby football, marking one of the sport’s first literary appearances. In the twentieth-century, novelist George MacDonald Fraser penned The Flashman Papers, twelve humorous and historically accurate novels about the villain’s post-Rugby School exploits.
Tom Brown’s School Days directly influenced the introduction of rugby into France. After reading the novel, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin visited Rugby School in 1883 to study the role of rugby and other sports. He narrated the trip in the book L’Education en Angleterre, which then saw upper class Parisian school boys adapting rugby for the first time. The Baron’s most famous credit is resurrecting the modern-day Olympic games movement.
The Changing Room – Theatrical Play
The Changing Room is a theatrical drama by former professional Rugby League player David Storey, which was originally staged in London in 1971. The action takes place in the club’s dressing room before, during and after a Rugby League match. It arrived on Broadway in 1973, where the production garnered many Tony Awards, including, one for John Lithgow who won for Best Featured Actor.
This Sporting Life – Novel and Motion Picture
The shared consensus is that This Sporting Life ranks on the list of the top 100 movies about sport. In black and white, this British gem from 1963, was directed by Lindsey Anderson, and starred actor Richard Harris in his film debut. David Storey adapted the screenplay from his 1960 novel of the same title.
It’s a gritty story of a Rugby League player from the town of Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Part love story (actress Rachel Roberts), part professional rugby setting, it narrates the grim reality of miner Frank Machin, a standout rugger for the town team. Two factors contributed to the picture’s critical success; it first appeared as an involving novel written by Storey, a former Rugby League competitor, and, secondly, Harris had experienced a career as a top rugger in Ireland while playing for Munster Juniors and GarryOwen RFC, a suburb of Limerick.
Invictus – Book and Motion Picture
This 2009 classic generated positive film critic and movie fan approval for the portrayal of the spiritual reunification of South Africa from the combined efforts of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, rugby captain of the Springboks. It was directed by Clint Eastwood, and starred Morgan Freeman as Mandela, and Matt Damon as Pienaar.
The story came from the non-fiction book “Playing The Enemy,” which detailed the combined efforts of the formerly imprisoned Black leader and the Afrikaans rugby player during the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. The crowning moment occurs when the home nation defeats the All Blacks 15-12 in extra time for the RWC title in Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg. Mandela hands the William Webb Ellis Trophy to Pienaar in a symbolic, black and white depiction of national unity.
The movie features many scenes of rugby play. The film’s one grumble – from rugby players worldwide – centered around the fact that the actor-athletes chosen to portray the Springboks and All Blacks seemed a tad beefy and old.
Forever Strong – Motion Picture
In 2008, a group of well-meaning people decided that a story of a wayward American youth who redeems himself by playing rugby in Salt Lake City, Utah, would make an interesting film. It did not. Wikipedia reported the film generated only $720,000 at box office. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a negative score of 29-percent.
Additional rugby movies were: Mercenary, 2016, Grand Slam, 1978, and Murder Ball, 2005, the excellent documentary about wheelchair rugby. The well-received film of Tom Brown’s School Days in 1940 starred Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Headmaster Thomas Arnold with Jimmy Lydon as Tom. Actor Billy Halup, a mainstay of the Dead End Kids movies, portrayed Harry Flashman.