Rugby is a unifying sport, bringing many players and supporters together from around the world. The Rugby World Cup, which is being held in France this year, is an opportunity for nations from all over the world to face each other on the field.
While rugby is still a popular sport in France today, few people know that it almost disappeared from the French sporting landscape during the First World War. Even fewer realise that its survival was thanks to the Australian and New Zealander soldiers.
On 3 August 1914, Germany declared war on France. The next day, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, and soon many European nations were engaged in a conflict that would last four long years.
Soldiers were confronted by a combination of fear and boredom. Gradually, soldiers found ways to keep themselves busy by playing team sports, many introduced by troops from the British Empire. Rugby was a popular sport in France and in the ranks, but met with competition from another increasingly popular sport; football.
In the midst of war, soldiers tended to prefer sports that were less violent than rugby and as football gained in popularity, it progressively replaced rugby in the French lines. Many soldiers including professional rugby players had already lost their lives during the war. The risk of French rugby disappearing was increasing every day.
The Union of French Athletic Sports Societies (USFSA) set up a commission chaired by Charles Brennus, manager of the French national team, to come up with a plan to save rugby. This plan involved encouraging Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) soldiers to play with and against French soldiers in informal and official test matches.
The high popularity of rugby in Australia and New Zealand made the soldiers of these countries perfect ambassadors for the sport. In addition, the Oceanian teams, renowned for their quality of game and technique, were admired in Europe. Soon French soldiers met Australian and New Zealand soldiers on the field. Through these meetings, the French game improved and became more precise. Through advice from the Anzacs, even the most novice French players improved their tackles, dribbles, scrums,
Official matches were also organised between Australian and New Zealand divisions such as the First Australian General Hospital and the New Zealand Bakery units who met in Rouen in May 1916. One of the most important was for the “Somme Cup” in April 1917 at the Velodrome of the Bois de Vincennes, where more than 60,000 spectators came to watch the match between the French army team and the New Zealand ‘War All Blacks’ (a 40-0 French defeat).
The defeat was bitter for the French team, but rugby’s popularity was at its highest, and clubs behind the Allied lines welcomed more new players, mainly young high school students and senior citizens, who were either too young or too old to be mobilised. It was also at this time that age groups were introduced to sport, which spread to other disciplines after the war.
Rugby continued to be played by soldiers at the time of demobilisation. In England, the French once again faced the New Zealanders, but also the Australians, Canadians, Welsh, British and Americans, thus confirming France’s place in international rugby.
However, although rugby was important for all nations during the conflict and survived the First World War, most pre-war teams were decimated after the four years of conflict. Nearly 133 identified international players were lost to the Allies during the First World War.
The Sir John Monash Centre is hosting a temporary exhibition entitled In the Scrum: Rugby during the First World War.
Free admission during the Sir John Monash Centre’s opening hours until 5 November 2023. For more information, please contact [email protected].
Bibliography: Michel Merkel, 14‑18. Le sport dans les tranchées. Un héritage inattendu de la Grande Guerre, Toulouse, Le Pas d’Oiseau, 2012.