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Satire

The UK's Sports Minister doesn't know difference between league and union. Good

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1st July, 2022
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“Hear all, see all, say nowt,
Tek all, keep all, gie nowt,
And if tha ever does owt fer nowt,
Allus do it fer thysen”

For those not versed in our dialect, maybe a translation is required. That is a famed Yorkshire proverb, referring to the ideal state of affairs.

Whatever they say, keep your mouth shut, whatever they give, take but don’t return, and whenever you give something of yours up, make sure you get something out of it.

It’s a good proverb to think of for the Rugby League World Cup organisers after a spectacular faux pas from the UK government’s Minister for Culture, Media and Sport made headlines across the country on Thursday by confusing rugby league and rugby union at a promotional event for the RL World Cup in St Helens.

Nadine Dorries, the minister in question, was presenting – and I use the word as loosely as possible – a report into the social impact of the RLWC, one of the key factors of the tournament that seeks to leave a lasting legacy in one of the most deprived parts of the industrialised world.

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“I’ve always quite liked the idea of rugby league,” she said. “My long-standing memory is that 2003 drop goal. I’ll let you into a secret. I think we were drinking Bloody Marys at the time. It was 11 o’clock in the morning but wow what a moment that was.”

The footage itself is quite hilarious, because the audience appears not to know if they’re meant to laugh or not, before sitting there in stunned silence. It led to ‘rugby league’ and ‘Nadine Dorries’ trending for the whole of Friday on UK Twitter, probably the biggest market cut through the tournament has had to date.

Australian audiences will probably not know who Nadine Dorries is, but she’s kind of a poster child for the reverse meritocracy that gets you a ministerial gig in the Conservative Party.

Gareth Widdop during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup final

Garth Widdop of England runs the ball during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup final. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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She’s already offended all the cultural types by essentially ignoring the arts throughout a pandemic that crippled the sector, and by making it really, really hard for touring musicians to play in Europe.

She’s also pissed off everyone who works in media by trying to privatise the BBC – literally the UK’s biggest cultural export – and then Channel 4, the best cultural broadcaster in the country (and the one that shows rugby league on free-to-air telly).

It’s not really surprising that she’s managed to alienate supporters of the third and fourth-biggest sports in the UK by conflating one with the other. I don’t know very much about rugby union as a game, but I’m going to assume that they’re just as amused by being confused for us as we are for them.

It’s quite easy to laugh at the whole incident, and indeed I mostly have, but there is a wider political context in which it sits that Australian audience won’t know about, and probably should.

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Dorries is also a poster child for this government’s theoretical promise to the north of England, where the vast majority of rugby league, and indeed, the Rugby League World Cup, is played.

She’s a working class Conservative from Liverpool – making it all the funnier that she doesn’t know the difference between league and union – and is supposed to be in tune with us, those weird people with flat vowels and a passing relationship with the letter h.

Dorries made her name as a backbencher by calling David Cameron and George Osborne, our previous PM/Chanceller duo “two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”. Of course, she is now the biggest defender of Boris Johnson, literally David Cameron’s classmate, but that’s by the by in Tory circles.

That current incumbent PM was returned in 2019 in an election that specifically targeted what they called ‘Workington Man’, a rugby league-loving, Brexit-voting bloke from the Cumbrian constituency of Workington.

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By breaking this traditional Labour area, the Tories won power comprehensively. They also operate the so-called ‘levelling up agenda’, building what they called ‘the Northern powerhouse’ to smooth the widening gaps between the North and South.

Boris Johnson called ‘levelling up’ the ‘defining mission’ of his government, though data suggests that the only parts of the UK to have grown in any way under his government are (quelle surprise) London and Northern Ireland, where their economic policy is basically linked to the Republic now because of complicated, tedious Brexit reasons.

If you look at the Indices of Multiple Deprivation Index – the essential guide to where the poorest people in England live – then you will see an almost direct overlap with where rugby league is played.

St Helens is eighth of 317 local government areas on the list: Hull is fourth, Manchester is fifth, Bradford is eleventh, Widnes is 13th, Oldham is 16th, Salford 19th and my own beloved hometown of Rochdale 20th – a remarkable surge of wealth from us, as we topped (or bottomed) the leaderboard for many years. Up the Dale!

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The event at which Dorries was speaking was being held at a junior rugby league club to present a report on the way that the World Cup has taken funds from the government and used them to not only host a tournament, but also to reinvest in the communities that play the game.

Mark Percival hands off Jake Connor

(Alex Dodd – CameraSport/Getty Images)

It’s been quite an astounding piece of social redistribution: the World Cup organisers appear to have convinced the Tories to give them money and then let them send it where they want.

It seems a far more effective way of actually introducing funding into grassroots sport than the Tories – who sold off all the playing fields that made the great football, rugby league and cricket players of the past – have ever managed.

To date, before a ball has been kicked, $44 million’s worth of funding has flowed directly from central government to local communities via the Rugby League World Cup.

Naturally, tournament CEO Jon Dutton found it prescient to ignore the ignorant and proclaim the success of the funding. Hear all, see all, say nowt.

“A fundamental obstacle to social mobility is a lack of local opportunities and the ability to have access to new experiences and build self-efficacy,” said Dutton. “Our Social Impact Programme has been about creating those opportunities.

“This interim report tells the story of a programme that’s created change and delivered a positive impact, in spite of significant challenges, and delivering our ambition to leave long-lasting outcomes for diverse communities beyond the Rugby League World Cup tournament.”

“It details the incredible power that sport has to make a difference.”

The second half of Dorries’ comment was also prophetic to the social experiences of league and union. Apologies to Australian rugby union fans here, because I don’t mean you, but rather your English cousins.

The novelist Philip Toynbee, himself an old boy of Rugby School, once wrote that “a bomb under the West car park at Twickenham on an international day would end fascism in England for a generation” and while that might be a bit dramatic in 2022, it speaks to the enduring links between the political right and the Rugby Football Union.

These were the people that only saw a problem with apartheid South Africa in 1984 (a full decade after Australia deemed it unacceptable) and didn’t pick a black player until 1988, by which point the rugby league team had already had two black captains. Wallabies, I’m not lumping you in with their toxic brand.

The Church of England was often referred to as the Conservative Party at prayer, and the RFU might well be called the Conservative Party at play, given the strong social, educational and political links between the two.

In no sport in England, not the Long Room at Lords, not the lawns of Wimbledon, has so much been done to benefit one class of people so much as with the Tories and rugby union.

When the Tories sold the playing fields, perhaps the only sport that wasn’t affected was rugby union, because private schools had their own grounds and didn’t need to use the council pitches.

When cuts went in that decimated both community sports and sport in state schools, the same thing occurred. When emergency loans were dished out during the pandemic, rugby union got over eight times as much as rugby league did.

John Bateman fends Konrad Hurrell during the Rugby League World Cup.

(Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

The heartlands of rugby union are, of course, exactly the same place as the heartlands of the Conservative Party, so this all makes perfect sense.

Once, discrimination looked like pure exclusion – ‘he’s from a good family’ – but now looks more like a reification campaign to target the most annoying bloke in the pub.

If you mention the Six Nations to the average punter, their mind will shift to a ruddy-faced bore who only drinks Guinness when marketing tells him to, wearing jeans with shoes, spouting about how ‘Top Gear’s not been the same since Jeremy and the boys left’.

This hypothetical yet very real Chipping Norton Man sits at the other end of the rugby bloke spectrum, with Workington Man at the other end, though in practice, they now vote for the same party.

The Rugby League World Cup can learn a lot from this. Rugby union has been able to covert a mass market of casual, essentially uncaring eventgoers into customers. They’re not the only ones, as darts and boxing have managed it too and with a demographic closer to that of rugby league.

Premiership Rugby and Super League are pretty equal in terms of average club attendances and TV viewership, but union has these huge events at Twickenham, plus the internationals, that draw in casual viewers.

Nadine Dorries, sipping her Bloody Mary at 11am, is clearly one of these. I, too, remember where I was on the 22nd of November 2003: Great Britain lost 18-12 to Australia in Huddersfield, where people trying to start a round of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot were widely booed.

Boyd Cordner

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The comments of the Minister of Culture, Media and Sport speak to that wider problem. For her, there is only one and the other one isn’t worth learning about, even when you’re speaking to an audience of people that love it.

In that sense, her pig-headed comments have perhaps brought more casual fans and mass market attention to a run-of-the-mill PR showcase designed for local and trade media than could ever have been expected.

This was an event telling people in St Helens how much rugby league was doing for them, until Nadine Dorries made it about how little the Tories cared about them.

Some of those who have heard about the Rugby League World Cup will buy tickets for a tournament they might not otherwise have known was happening because in the leafy suburbs of north London, where a semi-final will be taken place, having an event that Nadine Dorries thinks isn’t worth her time is a major selling point.

“Tek all, keep all, gie nowt” would be a good motto for this. Take their cash while it’s on offer, do something more useful with it than they would ever dream of, and shut up while they make fools of themselves. They’ll forget about us again soon enough, so make hay.

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