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Rugby and the Love of the Underdog

The Rugby World Cup is now well underway in England and Wales, and rugby fans have possibly already seen one of its most surprising results and entertaining games. On the second day of the tournament, Japan defied the odds to earn a narrow 34-32 victory over South Africa. The result stunned the rugby world – prior to the result, South Africa had been hailed as possible tournament winners, having been already been crowned world cup champions in 1995 and 2007, whilst few outside the Japanese camp gave them a serious chance of success, with bookmakers classing them as 80-1 underdogs. It truly was a victory of Goliath-slaying proportions.

The game raised an interesting aspect about sport fandom – the almost universal support for the complete underdog. Throughout the game, many neutrals became ardent supporters of the Japanese team – there are fantastic videos of wild celebrations of Japan’s game-sealing try amongst legions of Irish rugby fans who were watching the game outside the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff before watching their own team. Furthermore, the underdog effect has been strong and long-lasting. In their next game, Japan took on one of the home nations, Scotland. Although Scotland are not deemed to be as strong a team as South Africa, before the tournament they would have been expected to beat the Japanese team with relative ease. This is in fact what happened – they ran out 45-10 winners. Again though, many neutrals watching that game supported Japan. What is interesting here though is that although many Irish, Welsh and English fans might typically tend to support another home nation team in this sort of game, this was not the case here. Amongst these newly-minted fans of Japan, the love of the underdog trumped any feeling of shared ties they may have felt with their Northern neighbours in Scotland.

A philosophical analysis of sports fandom suggests one reason why the Japanese team have enjoyed this sort of support. In an influential paper,[i] Nicholas Dixon draws a distinction between two types of sports fan: the purist and the partisan. The purist, he suggests, supports the team who she believes best exhibits the virtues of the sport in question; however his allegiance is flexible. In contrast, the partisan is a loyal supporter of a team that she has some sort of personal connection to.

Rugby is an interesting sport to apply Dixon’s theory of sport fandom to because it is a game in which teams and individuals can display a number of different virtues. For instance, the purist might support the New Zealand team in recognition of their superior handling skills, their exciting attacking play, and ruthless work in defence. Whilst these are certainly virtues to praise in rugby, the purist might also support a team that is less skilled in these areas, but that excels in the skills that are necessary to win the physical and tactical contests in scrums, lineouts, and mauls. Indeed, purists might praise different individual players who have played for the same team in the same position for very different reasons. For instance, they might find much to admire about the current Welsh winger, George North, who, at 6’4 and 110kg, is able to run through, if not around, most players in the modern game; yet they might still claim that one of the best wingers in the modern game was his predecessor Shane Williams who stood at 5’7 and 77kg. Whilst the purist might admire North’s physical prowess, they might similarly acknowledge Williams pace and ability to outwit his opponents with deceptive dummies and steps.

In rugby then, there are many different virtues that might undergird the purist’s support for a particular team or player. Clearly, underdog teams may lack the skills that are necessary to exhibit the same virtues as teams such as New Zealand. However, they can still exhibit virtues that may impress the purist; the underdog team will often have to defend for a large part of the game, which requires great physical strength, bravery, organization, and trust in one’s team-mates. These are certainly virtues that the Japanese team exhibited in their victory over South Africa. They also won accolades for the spirit in which they played the game; in the last minute, with the score at 32-29 to South Africa, Japan had to choose between taking a near-certain 3 points to draw the game, or to gamble by opting for a strategy that would lead to them scoring 5 points to win the game, but which was far more risky. Their decision to choose the latter not only paid off, but was also widely praised for its daring.

As such, whilst the purist will clearly have reasons to support strong teams such as South Africa and New Zealand, they will often have reasons to support underdog teams who exhibit a different set of virtues.

Accordingly, purists can love an underdog. Interestingly though, it seems that a case can be made for claiming that amateur fans at least may often have grounds for being partisan fans of underdog teams in Dixon’s sense.

When we consider elite teams or individual sportsmen and sportswomen, it is difficult for the amateur to imagine what it must be like to play on a similar level. The top player in a local tennis club would be knocked off the court by Serena Williams, whilst an amateur boxer would be risking his life if he went into the ring with Floyd Mayweather. In the case of the complete underdog however, amateur fans may feel some sense of personal connection to the players in so far as they can imagine what it might be like to play at the sort of level that the underdog usually plays at. Indeed, in the rugby world cup, the Namibian team is comprised mainly of part timers, who are dentists and farmers (no philosophers, alas) amongst other things when they are not playing rugby. Of course, this sort of thing does not quite ring true in the case of the Japanese; in contrast to Namibia, the Japanese team are all fully professional. However, it seems fair to say that amateur fans do not place the current players in the Japanese team on the same pedestal that they place the elite players playing in the South African team.

We tend to put elite players on a pedestal that many of us dare not aspire to given the years of intense training and dedication that it takes to get to that level. However, the amateur may be a partisan supporter of the underdog, regarding them as ‘one of us’. Indeed, they may feel enlarged by the victory of the underdog in the same way that a supporter of one’s own national team might feel similarly enlarged by the victory of their own team. It is the closest they can get to imagining what it would be like to line up against the elite players and win. Furthermore, it is proof that all the high-tech training that elite players now undergo can be defeated by the sort of grit that successful underdogs exhibit, and that the amateur can imagine herself displaying.

As such, there is a reason why the underdog team or player is so popular, at least in rugby; they are sufficiently skilled to exhibit at least some virtues that will impress the purist, but they may also be perceived as sufficiently unskilled that the amateur fan can feel a tenuous sense of personal connection to them.

[i] Nicholas Dixon, “The Ethics of Supporting Sports Teams,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 18, no. 2 (2001): 149–58.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. This was very enjoyable. I just question one small point of usage.

    ” a case can be made for claiming that amateur fans at least may often have grounds for being partisan fans of underdog teams”

    I’m not sure that there is anything here that merits making a “case”. It seems like an important point to me that we distinguish those things with need to be justified – moral acts – from those things which do not. So you can’t read these ideas as a philosophical defence, rather they should be seen as a sociological explanation. That’s all good, but slightly different rules apply, specifically the ideas must ring true empirically. And I think in this case they do.

  2. At this time it sounds like Drupal is the preferred blogging platform available right now.
    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on your blog?

  3. I agree with this blog completely. I to believe that the love we have for the underdog stems from a connection we feel towards them because they are not put on as high of a pedestal as those who are more known for their incomparable skill. We feel they are more relatable to us in the sense that they are more “normal” and unlike the athletes who are incomparable they also don’t have the ego and cocky attitude to go with their skill. Some amazing athletes are humble but their success does get to their head quite a bit. Athletes and other stars have come out and said that they are better than us and i feel that this is one reason we love a great underdog story. Another would be the fact that it’s way more exciting to see someone who is suppose to lose overcome the odds and be daring enough to defeat someone who they shouldn’t even be remotely on the same level with rather than watch a team that’s supposed to win crush its opponent. it’s just more entertaining to see someone overcome the odds and prove anyone can do anything even when the odds are stacked against you.

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