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The history of rugby is Christian

Paul Roe looks back at the birth of the game Israel Folau plays

It’s a pity that lately talk about hell has overshadowed the fact that the energies of heaven actually had more to do with putting the ball in the rugby scrum than that joyless abode below.

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I used to joke with mates that I could prove rugby’s claim to being the sport played on the golden streets. The broad reaction to Israel Folau’s fiery Instagram post set me to reviewing my case.

Rugby football was meant to embody the reforms Thomas Arnold envisaged for his school.

To my surprise, I found there is more than a touch of heaven about many of the sports we follow religiously in Australia.

In fact, there is a body of evidence that the strapping Pacific Islanders currently storming the sporting fields of the nation may be awakening us to priorities we have forgotten.

In 1827, when the forceful Dr Thomas Arnold arrived at Rugby School (in Warwickshire, England) as the new headmaster, it was a mess.

Bullying, drinking, poaching and theft were rife among the pupils. The teachers were poorly paid and resorted readily to flogging students for misdemeanours.

Arnold had suffered these humiliations himself as a boy and arrived at Rugby bent on lifting the game in education.

His goal was to foster a vital faith and genuine Christian character in the boys – first by modelling it himself. His reforms at the school put the priority on developing their spiritual side and, springing from this, a robust moral life. A broad range of intellectual skills then would be built around that core.

When delivered with kindness and firmness, Arnold believed this would help produce the fearless and moral men who were going to be the leaders of the nation.

His model became the prototype for the regeneration of the English public-school system. By mid-century, his educational approach had swept across the globe. Its ghost still haunts the halls of private schools and colleges of Australia.

A powerful driver in this transformation was turning shambolic schoolboy games into organised sport.

In this way, Rugby football was meant to embody the reforms Arnold envisaged for his school.

The myth of young student William Webb Ellis seizing the football and running with it became an enduring part of Rugby School folklore. But for another graduate, author Thomas Hughes, the real hero was Dr Arnold himself. Hughes preached his headmaster’s Rugby gospel to the world in the popular novel Tom Brown’s School Days.

Published in 1857, it sold 28,000 copies in five years and launched not only an educational philosophy, but a phenomenon that became known as “muscular Christianity” – teaching the value of godly teamwork.

Hughes passionately argued Arnold’s rationale for young men playing sports such as rugby (which later took the form of different codes). “The least of the muscular Christians has hold of the old chivalrous belief, that a man’s body is given to him to be trained …and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes… [It] does not hold that mere strength or activity are in themselves worthy of any respect or worship, or that one man is a bit better than another because he can knock him down…”

Israel Folau’s ancestors were almost certainly among them.

The instigator of the modern Olympics, Charles Pierre de Frédy (the Baron of Coubertin), was inspired to declare that Arnold, “gave the precise formula for the role of athletics in education. The cause was quickly won. Playing fields sprang up all over England.” And all over the world. In every continent people seized on the idea that sport should be harnessed to the highest purposes.

Evangelist Dwight L Moody also caught the spirit, challenging the young men of England to throw their best energies into missionary work. He helped trigger an epic story: one of England’s top cricketers, C.T. Studd (his name is on the Ashes urn), stirred his generation into action by leaving his sporting career to serve the peoples of India and Africa. Some ventured into the Pacific Islands – many of them died there – bringing the transforming message of Jesus to some of the biggest, wildest people on earth.

Israel Folau’s ancestors were almost certainly among them.

It’s believed Methodist missionaries brought not just religion, but rugby to Tonga. I have a chunky Tongan mate in Dubbo who coaches a local team. He told me that at home, footy training always began with singing a hymn (the boys know the whole Wesleyan hymnbook by heart) and a prayer. They learned that faith drives their game, and many are joyfully transplanting this onto the playing fields of secular Australia – and who’s going to jeer at a 120 kilogram Islander for being religious!

My mate Bruno knew nothing about Thomas Arnold’s goals – but he’s modelling them to Aussies all around him who have lost touch with faith.

He’s started a something called Tradies’ InSight because he saw so many men struggling with issues that are destroying them. The Rugby Headmaster’s legacy lives on.

Hidden behind the furore about Israel Folau’s supposed “homophobia”, I see another story – a footballer once damaged by the ugly behaviour that haunts many codes, now modelling the values that gave sinews to rugby.

Some feel he could have done better with his social media post, but I have heard few dispute his fine qualities as a man.

He looks to have precisely the kind of character that the numerous football commissions of inquiry are trying to foster in their players.

These are rousing reminders of Rugby’s spiritual roots.

The Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire (1981) retold the true story of Scottish rugby union hero turned sprinter Eric Liddell. Because of his Christian convictions about observing the Sabbath, Liddell refused to run in 100 metre heats during the 1924 Olympics – and he came under enormous public pressure.

Famously, he went on to win gold in the 400m instead. The on-screen moment where the ‘Flying Scotsman’ argues “God made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure”, breathes the spirit of Muscular Christianity. But Liddell’s greatest achievement occurred away from the sporting arena.

Incarcerated in a Japanese POW camp and suffering from a brain tumour during World War II, his character was severely tested. But his courage and cheerfulness became a tower of strength to the 2000 prisoners he was interned with. A sporting journalist reported: “He was one of the most chivalrous of Scots, as an athlete and a man.” The good Dr Arnold would have been proud.

So, when the voices of Pacific Islanders make the stadiums of Australia ring with hymns or they kneel to pray, it’s not just a quaint cultural activity. These are rousing reminders of Rugby’s spiritual roots.

What Australians should realise is that men like Israel Folau are trying to play rugby the way Dr Arnold purposed it for his pupils – as a tough, exuberant expression of faith in the Living God.

They don’t always get it right. But when they do, it’s the kind of game that you might legitimately expect to light up the playing fields of heaven.

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