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Why Europe’s populists love rugby

La France profonde: Jean Dujardin at the opening ceremony of the Rugby World Cup. Franck Fife/Getty

Rugby’s reputation as a sport for private school kids once limited its appeal among Europe’s populists, says Charlemagne in The Economist. Not any more. Italy’s Giorgia Meloni says the oval-ball game “represents true values, pride and commitment”. In France, where the World Cup is currently being played, the far-right press lauds “La France rugby” as an idyllic land where “fans are polite, men are manly and players patriotic”. The opening ceremony harked back to the supposed glory days of the 1950s. “This is the France we love”, gushed one writer, “where young ladies didn’t wear abayas [Muslim robes], where you didn’t have riots.” Rugby has become a haven for people who think things used to be better and are anxious about losing their place in the world. “That is a powerful sentiment in Europe these days.”

Another big attraction for populists is that rugby is “the un-football”. Whereas effete footballers feign injury and howl at the referee, rugby players are “burly men” who politely address the ref as “sir”. Top rugby players earn a pittance compared to their footballing counterparts, making them “more down-to-earth role models”. And while football is often about individual brilliance, rugby is all about collective effort – the players usually don’t even have their names on their shirts. It doesn’t matter that most rugby fans “want nothing to do with the populist right”. For Meloni and co, the sport is a glorious reminder of “a supposedly more gentlemanly past”.