Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Looking for English Identity and Nationalism in England v.Wales Rugby

February 14th, 2010 · 1 Comment



For my paper assessing the perceived recent revival of specifically English identity, my experiential component will hopefully be a patchwork of interviews, participant observation, and attending of events related to political organizations and causes connected to English identity, such as the Campaign for an English Parliament. Last Saturday, I decided to start my experiential off in sort of the shallow end with some participant observation of an England v. Wales Six Nations Rugby Match at the Murderers Pub in the City Centre.

While my paper is likely to focus more on the political and social implications of a rise in English Identity, cultural institutions and particularly sports teams are some of the most visible institutions which divide the UK. Rugby, like football and cricket, is one of the sports in which England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete separately in international competitions, and I’d hoped watching the behaviour of English Rugby supporters (especially interaction with Welsh supporters and the ways in which they showed support for their team) would give some indication of where investment in national sports teams fits into this rise in English identity.

The crowd in the Murderers Pub was substantial on this Saturday afternoon, large especially given the fact that the rugby was live on BBC One, so it was hard for me to find a perch from which I could best observe things. The majority of the crowd were white men between about thirty and sixty, about ten of whom were wearing England rugby apparel and watching on the large projector screen. The rest of the patrons, however, seemed just as likely casual fans of rugby than England die hards. I was glad to see that there were a decent number of Wales supporters as well, and they made a decent roar when the Welsh scored. These ex-pats seemed much more likely, percentage-wise, to be wearing Wales apparel than their English counterparts did English apparel, and one older woman was even wearing a Welsh flag sort as a sort of cape. One interesting thing about England v. Wales is that essentially the English are taking their opponents on at their “national” sport. Although I could not record every interaction between the English and Welsh supporters, things generally seemed very cordial, without too much interaction at all between supporters.

Also, I was looking to see what symbols are associated with support of the English national team, and was a bit surprised. I saw very little of the Cross of St. George (which is likely to be a focus of the paper, and actually flies above the door at the Murderers). While the St. George flag has become identified more and more with England Football, the rugby team uses another symbol of Englishness, a red rose, on their jerseys. This underlined my most significant observation of the day: support of this national team does not seem to be conflated with any sort of political nationalism in the least, at least for Rugby supporters. For example, when England made the decisive score towards the end, the core group of England supporters did not belt out God Save the Queen, as England football fans sometimes do at such a moment (even, presumably, when playing another British team). Rather, they sang the American spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which became associated with the English national team about twenty years ago. This may have to do with the English rugby still feeling like almost a niche sport and community compared especially to football in England, and so rugby fans have developed their own unique rituals to distinguish themselves. After all, when the English football team wins a big match, it generally is a moment of unusual English national unity deserving of God Save the Queen, whereas interest in English rugby still doesn’t seem to cut across the whole of society in that way.


I hope to apply these very preliminary findings to my research and experiences in the coming months on the cultural side of English identity. Oh, and England won by a final score of 30-17, and I pretty much have the rules of the sport down now.  Give rugby a shot if you haven’t yet, it’s actually very watchable. And I can’t recommend the Murderers highly enough either.

Tags: Aidan