Rugby and the Facade of Racial Harmony

My previous research on rugby opened my eyes to the relationship that rugby has to race relations and the building of a masculine national identity. This relationship is most clear and documented in South Africa and New Zealand, two rugby powerhouses at the international level of play. Both nations have endured European imperialism in their respective histories and therefore provide an interesting site of comparison when it comes to race relations and the sport. The consequences of imperialism are still being felt in both nations and have come to the forefront in the realm of rugby.

Research question: To what extent does rugby use race as a tool to build a unifying, masculine national identity?

My first source, “Football code: the social diffusion of ‘soccer’ in South Africa” written by University of Johannesburg researcher Lloyd Hill, examines the relationship that rugby has with soccer in South Africa. In my blog on stereotypes of the sport I explored the racial undertones of these two sports. Hill draws upon social, cultural, economic, and political factors that have come to influence the frameworks present within each sport that have led to their racialization. Rugby became popular at universities attended by white Europeans, and this “nascent English education system fostered a general commitment to the ‘doxic’ ideals of masculine athleticism, which was then manifested in the promotion of specific English codes and the displacement of traditional sporting activities”(22, 23). Indigenous black South Africans had no access to this system of higher education; instead the indigenous population interacted with the lower- and middle-class European soldiers. These soldiers popularized soccer, a blue-collar sport in England, among the natives. In the twentieth century explicit racialization made rugby a sport strictly for the white population as the nation as a whole went through its’ period of apartheid.

My next source explores rugby’s role in reducing racial divides entrenched in South Africa post-Apartheid. Lynette Steenveld and Larry Strelitz describe how the late Nelson Mandela strategically embraced the South African national rugby team as they hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela’s actions were significant because of the rugby’s explicit history of racism; however, “then-recently elected Mandela attempt[ed] to promote a vision of South Africanism which transcended the primordial view of ethnic identity promoted by Apartheid ideology”(609). Steenveld and Strelitz examine international rugby as a display of both nationalism and militarism in the stabilizing nation that served as a source of patriotism. Despite this acceptance of rugby by Mandela, accusations of racism, both institutionalized and de facto, remain present in the sport to this day and it seems like the acceptance was purely political and has yet to fully influence South African society.

Turning my attention to New Zealand for my final source, the authors Andrew D. Grainger, Mark J. Falcous, and Joshua I. Newman develop a argument that despite of the racial harmony that the national rugby team seems to promote through the tradition of ‘the haka,’ a pre-game dance that originated as a Maori war dance. In New Zealand, rugby began attracting more athletes of indigenous descent at the expense of white athletes during the 1990s. The authors call this phenomenon “browning of the sport,” and “the throes of a dominant post-colonial national mythscape” sought to re-establish whiteness as the cultural norm. Unlike South Africa, New Zealand’s white population is by far the majority race. Because of this, the idea of “browning” and the responses to it by whites in positions of power shows institutionalized racism that is rejected by many white athletes in the article. So despite the appearance of racial harmony that the ‘haka’ displays, racialization may still be at play in the sport.


Grainger, Andrew D., Mark Falcous, and Joshua I Newman. “Postcolonial Anxieties and the Browning of New Zealand Rugby.” Contemporary Pacific. September 1st, 2012. Web.

Hill, Lloyd. “Football as Code: The Social Diffusion of ‘soccer’ in South Africa.” Soccer and Society. January 1st, 2010. Web.

Steenveld, Lynette, and Larry Strelitz. “The 1995 Rugby World Cup and the Politics of Nation-building in South Africa.” Media Culture Society. October 1998. Web.

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1 Response to Rugby and the Facade of Racial Harmony

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    Good, solid sources. I like that you have chosen two sites often referred to as “settler colonies.” “Settler colonies” are former colonies (and nations today) where imperialist powers chose to concentrate their power and population. These sites formed different relationships to native populations and the land than in other places. I’d enjoy hearing a bit more about how each of these sources if valuable to you in answering your question. What specific insights do you feel you gain from these sources? Having the histories and analysis provided by these sources will enable you to do more precise work in understanding how race and national identity continue to operate today in rugby.

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