Six Nations rugby tournament reveals multiple national identities

The evergreen annual RBS Six Nations rugby tournament is underway and so it’s time for large numbers of Londoners to reveal themselves as Scottish, Welsh or Irish.

That is hardly surprising, considering that London draws people in from all over – there are many thousands of French and Italian people in the city as well. What is curious is that the identity of so many Scottish, Welsh and Irish fans is revealed only by the colour of their rugby shirt. In the absence of a distinguishing accent, name or home town, there may be no obvious clue. In fact, it’s quite common to meet rugby fans whose loyalty is to the land where their grandparents were born.

An article in the Daily Telegraph rather unkindly groups together these fans as “plastic Celts”: people who have probably lived all their lives in England and who, in many cases, will happily support the England football team.

It may seem inconsistent to support one national team in rugby and another in football but that doesn’t make the allegiance any less real. It is of course common in the UK for people to have relatives from different places so multiple identities are to be expected. And it can be very complicated. A fan who simultaneously supports the Welsh rugby team and the England football team may well root for Scotland when they play against England at rugby.

As international mobility increases, more and more people are likely to identify themselves with multiple countries and athletes also become eligible for more than one national team. Following controversies about eligibility in previous years, the International Rugby Board now only permits players to represent one country at senior level during their career.

Cynicism about the tenuous links that some fans (and athletes) have to their national teams is not going to disappear but their allegiance should be respected. One of the enriching aspects of  sport is the way in which it enables people to express their multiple identities.

Although I don’t claim any allegiance to Wales, I was reminded again on 4 February that the singing of the Welsh national anthem before Wales v England  in Cardiff is one of the great spectacles of world sport.

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