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Rugby Union and playing in the armed forces

As well as the ideological conflict between amateurism and professionalism, the split between Rugby League and Rugby Union has also been seen to represent other social and cultural divisions in British life, such as the north/south divide and prevailing distinctions between the social classes.

Like many other aspects of life in Britain, these issues came to the surface as people from all backgrounds mixed together during military service in both world wars. For the servicemen who played Rugby, perhaps the most telling distinction was that Union remained the only code to be played in the Armed Forces.

But, ironically this provided Rugby League players with an opportunity to fly the flag for their sport in a unique and significant way. Many Rugby players with a League background played Union with distinction in the services and provided the foundation for a series of successful sides. The first of these was the Army Services Team (Motor Transport) at Grove Park in south London, which included Harold Wagstaff, Ben Gronow, Douglas Clarke and Albert Rosenfeld from the all conquering Huddersfield ‘Team of All Talents’, along with Rochdale’s Joe Corsi, international Earnest Jones and Oldham’s Frank Holbrook. The side won 25 of its 26 matches in the 1916/17 season, only losing to the United Services team which included 8 Rugby Union Internationals and two leading Rugby League players.

However, for Rugby League players and supporters, perhaps the most significant matches to be played in the Armed Forces came during the course of the Second World War. In 1943 and 1944 opposing teams made up of Rugby Union and Rugby League players played against each other twice under Rugby Union rules. The first match was played at Headingley, between a Northern Command Rugby League XV and Northern Command Rugby Union XV, and the second at Odsal, when the Combined Services Rugby League XV met the Combined Services Rugby Union XV. Both matches were won by the teams of Rugby League players which, despite the inclusion of a handful of former Welsh Rugby Union internationals, were mostly made up of players who had little experience of the fifteen a side game.

As Len’s memories of playing the sport in the armed forces show, key social and cultural differences between Rugby League and Rugby Union became apparent when players from the two sports came together in these circumstances. Both codes had clearly developed contrasting approaches to playing rugby and differences between the two styles were highlighted in the Northern Command Rugby League XV’s 1943 victory, which saw them score 6 tries to 1. Distinct contrasts also existed in the social background of the players and the Rugby Union sides which took part in the 1943 and 1944 matches contained nine and ten officers respectfully, whilst neither of the Rugby League sides included a single officer.