18 September 2023
From The Vaults
By Sean Fagan
Rudyard Kipling - originator of the "muddied oaf" tag
One of the most common epithets applied to a Rugby player is that of being a "muddied oaf". Though usually given in a light-hearted manner, and even worn with pride, it nevertheless reinforces a stereotype portraying Rugby footballers as lacking intelligence or manners, and often both. So where did the "muddied oafs" appellation originate? This story begins in what is today South Africa. By the first week of 1902 the Boer War had been raging for three years. In that time less than 100,000 Afrikaners were continuing to prove themselves too thorny for 500,000 British and colonial troops. Dismayed at this apparent flagging in the Empire's military power and expertise, English poet Rudyard Kipling composed a new poem, first published in The Times (London) and The New York Tribune. Entitled "The Islanders", Kipling's purport was that his words would primarily serve to the people of Britain a denunciation of not only the nation's now obvious unpreparedness for war, but the accompanying negative impact of the nation's undue devotion to sport. It was meant to strike the nation into action (primarily through military training and conscription). Within two months the poem had been reproduced in most major newspapers and journals throughout the English speaking world. Initially, at least, Kipling's poem missed its mark. Intended as a thrilling trumpet call to duty, to fire the Empire's military ardour, it instead raised a howl of disapproval - especially from the sporting world. At the centre of the controversy were two lines, and a now well-familiar phrase…
"Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals."
Kipling was arguing that England was indifferent to the war effort. That the Empire had successfully called on its colonies to provide the necessary man-power, and that, taking comfort from this, England returned to indulging itself in what appeared to be its primary concern - sport. English author and journalist George Orwell wrote (in 1942):
"Few people who have criticised England from the inside have said bitterer things about her than this gutter patriot…That phrase about 'the flannelled fools at the wicket and the muddied oafs at the goal' sticks like an arrow to this day."
In the weeks after "The Islanders" first appeared, many commentators and letter-writers took Kipling to task:
"His attack upon the juggernaut of athleticism is not without a measure of justification. The interest displayed by the public in the result of an Australian [v England cricket] test match, or an international football [Rugby] contest, is certainly out of all proportion to the importance of the matter at stake [the war]. A second Majuba, such as we experienced at Tweefontein, is dismissed in the bill of contents of leading metropolitan newspapers with a line in small type merely referring to 'a British reverse in South Africa,' but the streets are filled with placards about athletic contests, in the largest possible head-lines. Nevertheless, the general verdict is that Mr. Kipling was not only ill-advised, but unjust when he scornfully referred to 'the flannelled fools at the wicket, or the muddied oafs at the goals."
"Cricketers, footballers, and the athletic world in general are righteously indignant at the unwarranted sneer which in his latest poem, 'The Islanders,' Rudyard Kipling has indulged in at their expense. Whilst it may be asserted that the attention given to sport is out of proportion to its real value, yet for Rudyard Kipling to write of cricketers as 'the flannelled fools at the wicket' and describe footballers as 'the muddied oafs at the goals' is a shocking misuse of invective, and altogether unworthy of one who has many claims to being crowned Poet Laureate of the Empire. … it is worse than foolishness for Rudyard Kipling to seek to find in the Englishman's well-known love of sport the reason of the nation's lack of preparedness for war."
The famous cricketer and soccer player CB Fry (who also played Rugby for Oxford University, Blackheath and the Barbarians) wrote in London's Daily Express at the time:
"Cricketers may be flannelled but they are not fools. Footballers are often muddied but they are decidedly not oafs. It is an hallucination of Mr Kipling's heated mind that games and the public interest in them have anything to do with the civil military short comings of the nation."
Kipling himself soon arrived in South Africa, where he encountered many military men who were also proud footballers and cricketers. It was there that he contended that the poem's target was not the players, but the spectators. Speaking in Capetown, Kipling said:
"Seriously, I know how many athletes have shown themselves rattling good soldiers during the present war. As a matter of fact I never meant to refer to actual athletes at all, but merely to the large number of people who spend all their spare time looking at other men playing. However, I felt that if I did not exaggerate my protest would pass unheeded, and the very fact that I made so many people angry shows there was truth in what I said."
Surrey Rugby Club's JH Kipling - a cousin of Rudyard, he was a prominent player of the late 1890s, declining a place in the 1899 Lions that visited Australia. Kipling's target was not the men who played the game, but the raucous-voiced individual on the terraces and grandstands who had never handled a 'live' football in his life. It was a poetical taunt of souls content with gazing at "the flannelled fools at the wicket and the muddied oafs at the goal". However, nothing Kipling could say or write could ever "un-ring the bell" as it were. Whether intentional or not, the disparaging connotation that footballers - especially Rugby footballers - are all oafs, stuck. Walter Camp - the father of American football - spoke in 1908 at a dinner at the New York Athletic Club:
"That poem hit the English 'footers' hard. One of the English 'footers'…told me how he was walking one day to his club in football clothes when a newspaper boy hailed him. "Paper, sir?" The footballer walked on, whereupon the boy yelled out after him: "Yah, ye muddied oaf; Like as not ye can't even read!""
Today's Rugby players, old and young alike, wear the "muddied oaf" as a badge of honour. Now you "muddied oafs" are armed with new-found knowledge of Kipling, poetry and war, go forth and regale the world - prove Kipling wrong!
About the Author - Sean Fagan is a sports historian and writer based in Australia. He has written several books including 'The Life and Times of Dally Messenger' and 'The First Lions of Rugby', details of which can be found on www.SaintsAndHeathens.com
The World Rugby Museum would like to thank Sean for contributing this article.
24 March 2023