Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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The Development of Rugby in the River Plate Region
Irish Influences

By Hugh FitzGerald Ryan


Rugby School, Rugby, Warwickshire
(Rugby School online prospectus)

Origins of the game

Two years before the irascible Duke of Wellington [1] scored his final victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium, young Matthew Bloxam entered Rugby School. It is a cliché that Waterloo was in fact won on the playing fields of Eton, England, attesting to the vigorous and barely contained mayhem practised at the time on the sports fields of the English public schools. Sixty-four years later Bloxam wrote his recollections of the game of football as played at Rugby in his times. These games consisted of selected teams of twenty or so, to which others might attach themselves as they saw fit, not dissimilar to a form of football known as caid quite common in Ireland at that time. He remembered William Webb Ellis, a boy ‘with no lack of assurance,’ whose time at Rugby overlapped with his. It was this boy who allegedly broke the rule on handling the ball. According to Bloxham, on one occasion in 1823, on catching the ball, Ellis did not retire to take his kick, but rather, ‘with a fine disregard for the rules of football,’ ran forward with the ball in his hands, towards the opposite goal. If a junior boy had done this, wrote Bloxam, ‘he would probably have received more kicks than commendations’. This in time was to become the apocryphal account of the origin of the game. ‘It is an attractively subversive story, impossible to prove beyond doubt’ (Richards 2007: 24).  

The game was adopted by other public schools as ‘Rugby football with some exceptions’ and inevitably, as the British Empire spread to many parts of the world, its administrators and army officers brought the game with them. In 1871 the English Rugby Football Union was formed, and the laws were codified as they were to apply wherever the game was played. Scotland, Ireland and Wales followed suit in 1873, 1874 [2] and 1880 respectively. For almost a century the game was strictly an amateur game.

The schism which led to the creation of the Northern Rugby Football Union (NRFU) in Yorkshire, England (later to become rugby league) in 1895 was deep and bitter. The kernel of the dispute was that some believed that working men should be compensated for the loss of a day’s or a half-day’s pay, while others regarded rugby as exclusively a game for ‘gentlemen’, presumably with private means. It took ninety-nine years and 364 days for the International Rugby Board to concede the principal of payment for playing, due in a large degree to the vast amounts of money flowing into the game from advertising and television, as well as a drain of players to rugby league. 

Introduction to the River Plate

British games arrived to the River Plate with British citizens who were involved in trade, rather than with imperial administration and conquest. Sports clubs served a valuable social function for immigrants who had little affinity with bull-fighting or other sports of Spanish origin.

Rodeo, the pre-eminent sport of the gauchos, is still popular and attracts thousands to the spectacle of the domador (the horse breaker / tamer) in the Prado Park in Montevideo during Holy Week. A visitor from Ireland would have been struck by the similarities to the Royal Dublin Society’s Horse Show, [3] even in the design of the exhibition buildings. However, the differences were more striking. This is a week of wild horses, broken bones and gauchos in flamboyant costume, with facóns (long knives) tucked into their belts.

(The Georgian Index)

As in Ireland and Britain during the early nineteenth century, cock-fighting was prevalent at the time, as a focus for gambling. Legend has it that many a man gambled his wife’s honour at these events, certainly not the action of a gentleman!

Despite its ancient origin, - it was played at Troy by Achilles and Patroclus - the gaucho gambling game taba was frowned upon by the civil authorities and eventually outlawed. Not dissimilar in concept to ‘Pitch and Toss’, [4] it is played with the knuckle bone of a cow and attracted extravagant bets on how the bones might fall. It remains illegal in Uruguay, except on election-day. The newly arrived inglés, despite the emphasis on the Classics in his or her public school education, would most probably have regarded it as they would have regarded Pitch and Toss home, a pursuit for corner boys and wastrels.

The largest bull-ring in South America was completed at Colonia del Sacramento in southern Uruguay in 1912, the same year that bull-fighting was made illegal in the country, attesting to the decline of the old amusements in favour of the imported European games and to some spectacularly bad timing on the part of the promoters.

The Montevideo Cricket Club (MVCC) illustrates the situation of the new immigrants well and may serve as a paradigm for developments in Argentina also. Founded by an inglés involved in the meat trade as the Victoria Cricket Club in 1842, it withered almost immediately due to the siege of Montevideo, which began the following year and lasted until 1851. General Rivera and the Colorado party declared themselves to be the defenders of liberty and with the help of Britain and France, fortified the city against General Manuel Oribe, the Blanco party and their ally, the dictator Juan Manuel Rosas of Argentina. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian national hero, was among the foreign volunteers who came to defend this ‘New Troy’. Most of the inhabitants of Montevideo were European at that time, though there was a substantial community of Afro-Uruguayans. It is doubtful if there was any space for field games within the walls during those years. Presumably the traditional games went on as before. The government was obliged to impose severe duties on imports, which may explain why the Cricket Club was unable to import bats, balls and stumps until 1862.

Paradoxically during two decades of war and political upheaval, British influence and commercial activity increased in Uruguay. The production of wool expanded rapidly, in inverse proportion to the decline of cotton production during the American Civil War. British investors such as the Drabble Brothers and MacIntyre developed new production techniques, notably the enclosure of pastures with barbed wire and the introduction of British breeds of sheep and cattle. In 1862 the firm founded by German chemist Justus von Liebig in London, The Liebig Extract of Meat Company (Lemco) began to produce their famous meat extract at Fray Bentos.

The government of Bernardo Berro, from 1860 to 1864, introduced many liberal reforms, set up a new and strong currency using the gold standard, and separated the Catholic Church from state institutions, especially education.

The MVCC reappeared under its present name at a meeting in 1861 of the original founders, at the fashionable Confitería Oriental in Montevideo. Its objective was to foster all sports, including rugby, athletics, rowing and football. Tennis and the use of the velocipede were also later introduced.

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

FitzGerald Ryan, Hugh, 'The Development of Rugby in the River Plate Region: Irish Influences' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 29-37. Available online (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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