Updated 28 September 2015

Is rugby ‘a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen’?

CyberShrink explores why rugby fans are less prone to public displays of violence than the notorious football hooligans.


The nature of the rugby fan has been studied much less than the competing species, the football fan.

I searched diligently, but couldn’t find any studies or even essays that had anything interesting to say about rugby fans, which is probably a compliment to them. While there are regular riots caused by football hooligans, not a single crisis involving rugby hooliganism springs to mind.

Rioting and assaults

Rugby fans are by no means gentle souls, but it may be that their aggression and territorialism are more thoroughly satisfied by the aggression of the game itself than in the case of football/soccer, and therefore less likely to be acted out outside the stadium. 

For some years, as rioting and assaults continued, football authorities despaired about the problem of football hooliganism as they tried every remedy they could think of. Then, suddenly, the crisis seemed to be over, and the number of incidents dropped dramatically.

This a good illustration of a puzzle often encountered in medicine: when you grow alarmed at someone’s condition, and throw everything you can think of at the problem all at once, then, if they improve, you don’t know which part of the bundle worked and what did not – and you don’t know exactly how to proceed next time.

Recently I reported on a new study of rugby supporters on their way in and out of the Cardiff Stadium, which found that those who won or drew the match felt more aggressive than those who lost – and the more aggressive they were, the more they planned on drinking afterwards.

Read: Causes of alcohol-related aggression

We already know that people are more likely to drink more, and to be more aggressive, if they tend to ignore future consequences and demand immediate satisfaction. Maybe they identify with their teams to the point of feeling invincible, and besides the urge to drink want to add a personal victory over anyone else who might be handy when their team wins. This might explain why being on the winning side causes them to be more aggressive than when losing.  

Spoilt and vulgar

Football stars are hugely over-paid and often spoilt and vulgar. Rugby players tend to be nicer and not so overburdened with excessive cash and bling. Football has become infested with prima donnas diving and faking injuries. Rugby has genuine injuries and players who don’t dramatize them. Football fans seem more tribal in the way they support and identify with their teams. Rugby fans are rather more dignified and less needy.

Read: Pro footballers are prone to depression

There’s an old saying, with a lot of truth in it: “Football is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen." 

Read more:

Why rugby fans drink

Football analysed

Crippled by school rugby

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.




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