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An Oval World: Six Places Where Rugby is a Religion

As the World Cup draws to a close, we're profiling the places that rugby fans call home, the spots on this earth that have embraced the sport like no other.

by David Whelan
Oct 29 2015, 9:17pm

Photo by PA Images

VICE Sports has teamed up with Beats by Dr. Dre to bring you a unique perspective on this year's Rugby World Cup. From unlikely heroes to the lowdown on cutting-edge equipment and technology, we're delving into the stories behind the stats at the pinnacle of global rugby.

#TheGameStartsHere in partnership with Beats by Dr. Dre

Say the words "rugby fans" and most people will picture a bunch of white dudes with popped collars walking down the Kings Road to the nearest eggs benedict place. But hold on, that's no different to assuming all football fans are thugs, or that tennis lovers all vote Conservative. (Also, eggs benedict is a fantastic dish – one that legitimately goes toward achieving that elusive umami hit).

But enough about brunch – rugby fans, just like the players, are far larger in number than is commonly presumed. In fact there are areas of rugby fandom – towns, counties, whole goddamn nations – that magnetically pull supporters toward them like a celestial body's gravity. Here we champion those places that rugby fans call home, the spots on this earth that have embraced rugby like no other sport.

THE SOUTH OF FRANCE

If the Premiership and La Liga dominate football club competition in Europe, there's no doubt that France's Top 14 is the dominant force in rugby. As soon as you start heading south from Paris, people start to change. Out go the Zidane and Henry shirts, in come the Sébastien Chabal jerseys with matching beards and bigger-than-a-human-head biceps. While the French in general like rugby, the south of France adores it.

How much do the French love rugby? Enough to stare down the All Blacks during the haka. Nuff said | PA Images

READ MORE: The Essential Songs of the Rugby World Cup

Take a flight out of Toulouse and you'll see rugby posts peaking out behind buildings at every opportunity. The south-west of France is rugby's Gallic heart – and yet no one knows how it first started. Rumours suggest it was English sailors playing the game on the docks of Bordeaux that first lit the fire, but now the Port of the Moon is the indisputable home of European rugby. There are 170 clubs in the South of France and 34,000 registered players. Most are farmer stock – there's a saying that rearing a young lamb is just like nurturing a new player's talents.

RUGBY, WARWICKSHIRE – ENGLAND

England – despite being pretty average at it on an international level for about as long as it takes to travel the world by micro scooter – has its very own rugby hot spots. Of course, England is the birthplace of the sport and historically it's to thank for forging the passion coalfaces across the world (and also giving birth to all those pesky sides that are now better than them).

Where better to focus than the place that gave the sport its name? The town of Rugby is a bubbling cauldron of sporting enthusiasm, home to at least six rugby clubs and the proud father to a beloved sport. Over in the Warwickshire town, history feels like just a second ago – they support rugby with the ferocity of a Japanese soldier lost in the forests of Manchuria, under the impression WW2 is still going on. It's that fervent.

The story goes that William Webb Ellis was playing a game of football at Rugby School when, all of a sudden, he decided to pick the ball up and run with it in his hands. The Meteor, the school magazine, later published a description of this new game. Rugby had been played before, but nobody had bothered to write down the rules of particular codes. Ellis was the first. Oh, and Rugby is also the home of the jet engine – there must be something in the water.

Nowadays, cities from Bath to Leicester dominate the domestic league and produce an endless stream of rugby stars, as well as consistently selling out their stadia.

READ MORE: The Key Stadiums of the Rugby World Cup

There is, however, a brain-drain from the English north – with only six Northerners in the World Cup squad and no players plying their club trade further north than the Midlands. This is a real shame, as the north of England has long been regarded as a rugby heartland, but in recent times Rugby League has overtaken Union in terms of popularity.

WALES

Popularity can either be derived by sheer numbers or, in the case of Wales, by the fervour of their love. Rugby is forged on to every Welshman's soul – whether they like it or not. Despite having a population of only 3 million, the Welsh are a prodigiously talented bunch, with a pro league of their very own and over 300 clubs, which is one for every 42-square-miles. Most of their players come from the Valleys, which may be the only place in Britain where more people can explain what a ruck is than an indirect freekick. Alongside New Zealand, Wales is one of just two entire nations that can legitimately call rugby their national sport.

The fanaticism of Welsh rugby fans is truly a sight to behold | PA Images

Despite this, history suggests that the Welsh love affair with rugby was ignited by – wait for it – an Englishman. In 1884, Frank Hancock introduced the 'Cardiff System', a of play reliant on seven backs rather than the six that were customary at the time, to the Cardiff Rugby Club, which ushered in an era of Welsh dominance across the sport. This caused a knock on effect and an upswing of popularity in the sport, specifically from the working class, who helped establish a whopping 200 teams in the capital alone by 1905. And, to cap this all off, when New Zealand came to town in the same year – the unbeatable All Blacks, the original side that started it all – Wales beat them 3-0 to seal one of their finest victories of all time.

DON TORCUATO / THE NORTHERN SUBURBS OF BUENOS AIRES

Here's a bet: the most asked question by casual fans during this World Cup has been, "Why does Argentina play rugby?" While the British Isles and the Antipodes are explainable, rugby in South America has always seemed to be a mysterious quirk.

It's not really – Los Pumas fans are noted for being the most passionate and dedicated bunch around. Rugby is played throughout all of Argentina, but the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires alone boast 80 separate clubs. Arid but urbanized, the capital is the perfect hotbed to cultivate the steel required to be a world-class player.

READ MORE: 10 Reasons Why the Rugby World Cup Final Will Be a Cracker

Even though rugby is now up there as Argentina's second national sport, its origins were slightly less inclusive. Originally started by British expats in 1873, locals were banned from playing the game – though they could watch. One fiery encounter in the capital in 1890 ended with every single one of the 2,500 fans being arrested. That is passion!

By 1904, locals began to compete as separate clubs – and just over 100 years later, Los Pumas would compete in their first ever World Cup semi-final, eventually finishing the tournament in third spot. The Hindú Club are the ruling warriors of the Argentinian league, having existed for an impressive 96 years.

NEW ZEALAND

Well, obviously. The All Blacks are just as synonymous with rugby as your granny is with McVities biscuits: think of one and you automatically think of the other. Charles Monro, who fell head over heels with the sport during his time at school in London, first introduced the Maori homeland to rugby in 1870. Monro, often perceived to be the godfather of the All Blacks, not only transformed the Nelson Football Club into the Nelson Rugby Football Club, he also founded the Wellington side, as well as refereeing the first ever game on the North Island. Kiwis have cherished the sport like a newborn child ever since. Nowadays, New Zealand is home to the premier rugby club competition in the world, Super Rugby, which regularly attracts and produces the planet's finest talent.

For this World Cup, their fans have had to spend a wee fortune to be here – seriously, we're talking in the realm of £25,000. Each. But they're here in their swarms because rugby now flows in their veins. A sport not for the light-hearted, it was a match made in heaven. They're not too bad at cricket, either.

CALCUTTA, INDIA

Hold on a second – India? Do they even have a rugby team? Cricket dominating, hockey mastering, tennis doubles specialists India? Settle down at the back: India has a long relationship with rugby.

The Calcutta Cup, which is awarded to the winner of Scotland and England's match in the Six Nations, may have lost its connection with history, but it has its origins in the 19th century, when an English side would pit themselves against a British all-stars side in the center of Kolkata. Today there are only 40,000 registered rugby players in India (at least a fifth of them women), a miniscule drop in a vast ocean of 1.25 billion people. Nevertheless, the country is home to two ancient clubs, one of which is based in Calcutta.

READ MORE: Profiling Rugby's Unlikeliest Heroes

Founded in 1873, the Calcutta Rugby Football Club was forged by a group of Rugby School old-boys who wanted to take the sport to the sub-continent. Despite liquidating soon after the British army presence departed the sport left its mark, both in England and India and, in recent times, Birla Tyres have sponsored a yearly tournament in the city. While the original club may have departed, the spectre lives on with an amateur outfit designed in its image.

Harlequins have visited to train with the local youth while more and more charity organisations are promoting the sport in slums. While rugby may not yet be a huge thing across the nation, there's no doubt that Calcutta will always be a special place for the sport.


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