Rugby in northern England
In 1888 the gentlemen who ran the Rugby Union (and the Empire) were based in southern England, and the England test was played in London. Yet the playing strength of the English game was in the north of the country. The Natives played two-thirds of their British matches in the north of England, and suffered their heaviest defeats to Halifax and Yorkshire. Only five fixtures were played in Wales, three in Ireland, and one in Scotland, whose rugby union was then in dispute with England’s. Much of the itinerary is a list of grim industrial towns that are now rugby league strongholds: Wakefield (two matches), Wigan, Bradford, Leeds (two), Castleford, Warrington, Halifax, Widnes (two), St Helens, Salford, Rochdale....
The ‘great schism’ within English rugby over the rules of the game and the issue of compensating players for time off work was not to come until 1895, when the southern ‘amateurs’ and northern ‘professionals’ divided the sport into two warring codes. As Ryan has pointed out, one consequence of this was that the ‘Originals’ of 1905/6 faced much weaker opposition in many areas than the Natives encountered.
Whereas the Natives were criticised in the south for over-vigorous play, they were praised in the north for their ‘fairness’. Crowds were bigger in the north, too – it was here that Eyton organised most of their repeat fixtures. While southerners extolled the character-building qualities of team sport, northerners wanted to win, for themselves and for the communities which supported them. Challenge cup competitions developed first in the north (the Rugby Football Union disliked the emphasis these placed on winning).
There were simply not enough former public schoolboys in Yorkshire and Lancashire to set the tone of the game there. Tough men from mills and pits were used to physical exertion and taking knocks. They played hard but (at least in their own eyes) fair, and enjoyed competing against colonials who like themselves were looked down on by the English elites. Nor did Eyton’s pursuit of profit faze them.