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There is no rugby without beer

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There is no rugby without beer

At the end of a rugby match, very often the two teams come together for the so-called third half, a convivial moment in which opposing players socialize, eating and above all drinking something together: mainly wine in Mediterranean countries, beer in Anglo-Saxon ones. It is a widespread practice both at an amateur level and in the most important professional matches such as those of the Six Nations, the prestigious rugby tournament in which the six best European national teams (France, Wales, England, Ireland, Italy and Scotland) compete and which is playing these days.

The third half is organized by the home team and has existed since the beginning of rugby, therefore since the nineteenth century. The British origins of rugby and this tradition immediately linked the sport closely to the consumption of beer and the union has remained strong to this day. Today the players and especially the fans usually drink beer during matches (the players clearly only after the end of the matches), sometimes so much beer, and such a close relationship with an alcoholic drink is for obvious reasons also rather controversial.

During the last World Cup, played in France in the autumn of 2023 and won by South Africa, sales in English pubs have increased by 16 per cent on the days when England were playing, with beer clearly first among the most chosen drinks. During the match between South Africa and Scotland, played in Marseille, they have been sold 90 thousand glasses of beer, a record also for the Rugby World Cup. Beer companies have always sponsored rugby teams, national teams and tournaments. Just to give two examples: in Italy, Peroni Nastro Azzurro beer is a partner of the Federation, while Guinness is the main sponsor of the men’s and women’s Six Nations (the official names of the competitions are in fact Guinness Men’s Six Nations and Guinness Women’s Six Nations).

In short, in rugby, beer is everywhere. In addition to being part of a collective custom, it is also a business, both at the highest levels, due to the money brought in by sponsors, and for amateur clubs, who often support themselves financially with the earnings from bar sales on match days.

A toast with two bottles of beer in the dressing room between England’s Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi after a match against Samoa at the 2023 World Cup (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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However, this relationship also has negative implications, especially in terms of health and public order. In 2022 the Welsh Rugby Union, the Welsh rugby federation, he decided to close the bars during the second half of the national team’s home matches, played at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, and to lower the alcohol content of the beers served. In previous matches, in fact, there had been several disturbances caused by drunken fans, including two pitch invasions. At that time the Institute of Alcohol Studies, an independent body that examines the effects of alcohol on British society, churches to end the ‘intimate relationship’ between alcohol and rugby.

“The normalization of excessive alcohol consumption related to sport contrasts with the health benefits that derive from participation in sport itself,” said the head of research at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, Sadie Boniface, on that occasion. Although there is evidence that drinking a glass of beer after physical activity is not excessively harmful, and indeed helps to replenish certain substances consumed during exercise, drinking alcohol in the long term is harmful for everyone and there are no real benefits for people sportsmen.

Rugby players have been inclined to drink beer since they were young because it is part of the collective liturgy of this sport, in which they must take part in order not to feel excluded. Among athletes then they are usually those who have more problems with alcohol abuse after retiring. In 2021 a study on the relationship between rugby and alcoholic beverage sponsors in New Zealand, a country that has one of the best national rugby teams in the world, he estimated that two in five New Zealand players were “problem drinkers” by World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

In the book A Whole New Ball Game by Paul Thomas, former national team doctor John Mayhew and former manager Andrew Martin they said that New Zealand national team players drank heavily. Many of them responded to the accusations by defending the right to drink a beer after a game, and saying that drinking with teammates is no different from what one does in other work contexts with colleagues after a week of work.

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A fan in the stands during the match between Fiji and Georgia at the 2023 World Cup (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

The third half remains unique in sport: the contrast between the toughness with which rugby players face each other during the match and the conviviality with which they come together afterwards is one of the things most appreciated by those who follow it. Drinking a beer at the end of a training session or a match, with teammates or opponents, can be a tool for socialization and relaxation, especially for a very physically and mentally demanding sport like rugby. At the same time, however, the growing awareness of the problems that this relationship can cause has never been accompanied by rugby federations and clubs with proposals and solutions to promote a more conscious consumption of beer, especially linked to rugby matches. The reasons are largely commercial: excluding beer from rugby would be a huge economic loss, and perhaps even a problem for its livelihood.

Even at an institutional level there does not seem to be great awareness of the problem. At the World Cup played last autumn, for example, the English fans who arrived in France to follow their national team complained a lot about the poor organisation, citing the fact that one game ran out of beer: it was talked about in newspapers all over the world and with a certain amount of fanfare, to the point that the institutions involved felt obliged to justify what had happened. However, no one went so far as to point out the health problem that emerged from that news, namely the excessive consumption of beer by fans.

The French Minister of Sport, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, I speak col Financial Times to publicly assure the English, among other things, that beer would no longer be lacking. The managing director of the organization of those World Cups, Julien Collette, he recognized that the fans had “drunk much more” than expected, even setting a new record for the number of glasses sold in a single match (90,000 against the previous record’s 50,000, although the exceptional heat also had something to do with it), but his conclusion was: “The fan experience is at the center of our concerns and we understand their disappointment.” In short, it seemed that institutions and organizers felt more pressure to continue making people drink than to maintain public order or protect their health.

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A drunken fan in the stands during a rugby match, and his friends stacking empty glasses on his head (EPA/JEROME FAVRE)

In June, however, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, was highly criticized for a video in which he downed a bottle of beer in one gulp in 17 seconds, encouraged by the players and staff of the Toulouse rugby team whom he met to congratulate the their victory of the French championship.

The series was recently released on the streaming platform Netflix Six Nations: Full Contact, which tells the story behind the scenes of the 2023 Six Nations, alternating exclusive interviews with players and coaches with images of the game, in a style now consolidated for these sports docu-series (but for some perhaps more boring than for others). Talking about the goals of the series in an interview with the site On Rugby, producer James Gay-Rees had cited the effort to go beyond stereotypes: «I think there are some misconceptions about rugby: there are still those who think that rugby players are big boys who drink a lot of beer and things like that . This is why we wanted to propose a wide range of characters and make this sport more recognizable and understandable.”

The series actually tries to talk about the emotional complexity of rugby players and their daily difficulties, talking among other things about their mental health (with Irishman Andrew Porter or with Italy’s number 9, Stephen Varney). The theme remains rather superficial and marginal in the balance of the series, while the problem of alcohol and beer abuse is not addressed at all. Instead, there are several images of players celebrating match victories by drinking in the changing rooms, in a way that risks further strengthening the controversial link between rugby and beer in the common imagination.

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