‘Dai for England’: Rugby Union and Four-Nations Identity

‘Dai for England’: Rugby Union and Four-Nations Identity

Joe Hall (International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University) uses a four nations approach to discuss national identity and rugby union. 

It is often claimed, mostly by those who wish it to be true, that sport and politics do not mix. No one could hope to say the same, however, of sport and national identity. In modern times, the identities and histories of most nations – particularly the four nations that are the subject of this blog – can be illuminated by casting a sporting light on them. As Adrian Smith and Dilwyn Porter have put it, ‘sport supplies a mirror that a people holds up to itself’.[1]

One sport which is particularly apt for investigating four-nations identity is rugby union. Four-nations interaction has been built in to the sport since the very first international fixture in 1871,[2]and an annual competition between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales which began in 1882 continues to this day (with the addition of France and Italy along the way).[3]What’s more, the ‘home nations’ do not only play against each other, but also with each other, thanks to the existence of the British and Irish Lions – an international touring team that has existed since 1888.

Rugby, therefore, has a rich history of both rivalry and friendship among the four nations. Through my own PhD research on post-war England and rugby union, for which I am conducting oral history interviews with former English rugby internationals, interesting thoughts on English and British national identity have emerged. I would like to take a brief look here at how the national identity of English rugby players has been influenced by playing both with and against players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and what this can tell us about wider ideas of four-nations identity in the post-war period.

There is no doubt that English rugby players are, on the whole, proud of being English. When asked whether they felt patriotic when playing for their country, those I have interviewed often reply with immediate certainty. Phil Judd, who captained England in the 1960s, said that there was ‘no question’ that he felt patriotic when playing for England – ‘you were honoured to be picked to play for your country’. David Duckham, one of England’s most well-known names of the seventies, talks of his continuing pride on hearing the national anthem, and how it reminds him of standing proud in his England jersey before a match.[4]

Interestingly, though, these strong feelings of Englishness do not, in general, preclude feelings of Britishness. In terms of the attitudes of English rugby players to Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the story seems to be one of friendly rivalry – of temporary competition, but permanent brotherhood. The same David Duckham who spoke of his pride at being English, and England’s rivalry with Wales, named his autobiography ‘Dai for England’. This referred to the fact that Welsh fans, impressed by his performances for the British Lions and the Barbarians, had taken to calling him by the Welsh name of Dai – ‘one of the highest compliments [he] ever received’. Malcolm Phillips, an England star of the late fifties and early sixties, comments that he got on ‘remarkably well’ with players from other countries, stating that there was ‘an international camaraderie’.[5]

Players from the four nations not only bonded after matches they had played against each other, but an elite few also played with each other on the aforementioned British Lions tours. This was a particularly potent breeding ground for four-nations solidarity – players were representing the British Isles as a whole, and spending up to three or four months together meant lifelong friendships were made. When asked about playing with players of ‘rival’ nations on a Lions tour, Colin McFadyean simply said ‘It didn’t matter’; he made strong friendships with Irish and Welsh players that remain to this day.[6]Such experiences surely contributed to a sense of shared identity.

We must be wary, of course, of overplaying the idea of four-nations solidarity in rugby. There is an undoubted, often fierce sporting rivalry between nations, particularly between the three Celtic nations and England (a quick look at the footage ofEngland’s game with Wales in 1987will demonstrate as much). Overall, though, rugby’s keenly felt self-image of a sport which promotes fraternity amongst competitors seems to extend to an overarching sense of togetherness among nations – particularly in the sport’s pre-1995 amateur era.

More broadly, this seems to reflect the sport’s position in the social make-up of the countries that play it. Rugby has always – on the whole – been a sport played by the middle classes, and one situated at the more conservative end of society.[7]Its attitudes to national identity can perhaps therefore be seen as the sporting expression of a conservative and patriotic section of British society; one which tends to believe strongly in the idea of the Union (where it once it believed strongly in the idea of the Empire). To take Scotland as an example, a majority of Conservative Party supporters – a rough analogue for such a societal group – voted against devolution in both 1979 and 1997, swimming against a significant tide of opinion in the latter case.[8]

Staying with Scotland, a more recent example serves as an apt final thought. At the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, among the ‘No’ supporters were 95 per cent of Conservative voters, and 56 per cent of what could broadly be termed the middle classes.[9]Also among those backing the Union were a vocal group of ex-Scotland international rugby players. David Sole, a former captain famed for vanquishing the English in 1990, perhaps summed up rugby’s attitude to four-nations identity when he put his feelings thus: ‘I am Scottish and a very proud Scot but equally I am a very proud Briton’.[10]


[1]. Adrian Smith and Dilwyn Porter, eds., Sport and National Identity in the Post-War World (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), 2.

[2]. The first international rugby fixture took place between England and Scotland on 27 March 1871 at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh. Using a now defunct scoring system, Scotland won by one goal to nil, scoring two tries and one goal to England’s one try.

[3]. The competition is now known as the Six Nations Championship. France were first included in 1910, and Italy in 2000.

[4]. Phil Judd, interview with the author, 12 February 2015; David Duckham, interview with the author, 18 March 2015.

[5]. Duckham, interview; Malcolm Phillips, interview with the author, 30 April 2015.

[6]. Colin McFadyean, interview with the author, 28 January 2015. McFadyean played for England between 1966 and 1968, and also played for the British Lions on their 1966 tour of Australia and New Zealand.

[7]. This is not so clear cut when it comes to Wales, where rugby has traditionally enjoyed more cross-class popularity than in England, Ireland and Scotland.

[8]. Paula Surridge and David McCrone, ‘The 1997 Scottish Referendum Vote’, in Scotland and Wales: Nations Again?, ed. Bridget Taylor and Katarina Thomson (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), 43.

[9]. Lord Ashcroft, ‘Scottish Referendum Poll’, http://lordashcroftpolls.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/LORD-ASHCROFT-POLLS-Post-referendum-poll-tables-Sept-2014.pdf. The 56 per cent figure refers to the percentage of ‘No’ voters polled who were classified as ‘AB’ or ‘C1’.

[10]. Gavin Mairs, ‘Scotland Rugby Legend Reveals Abuse over Scottish Independence “No” Statement’, accessed 18 August 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/rugbyunion/11099705/Scotland-rugby-legend-reveals-abuse-over-Scottish-independence-No-statement.html.

Joe Hall is a PhD student at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University. His research uses oral history interviews with former England rugby union internationals to survey the post-war social history of England and the place of rugby union within it. As part of an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, he is working in conjunction with the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham. Joe previously studied Modern History at the University of Oxford, and lives in London. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeEdwardHall.


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