Crunch time for sport’s ‘family feud’

Prepare to engage: British and Australian players eyeball one another in a scrum © Getty Images

Britain and Australia have craved one another’s sporting humiliation for over a century. Now a one-two punch of cricket and rugby showdowns display this ferocious enmity at its peak.

Here comes the crunch: over the coming days, two very different sports will play host to one of the oldest and bitterest rivalries in sport. Britain and Australia may be divided by almost 10,000 miles of land and sea, but they are united in a mutual desire to crush one another on the field of play.

On Saturday the British and Irish Lions rugby team clash with Australia in the final match of their tightly poised tour. The first game was gifted to the Lions in the dying moments when Australia missed a late kick; in the second roles were reversed, the Wallabies pinching a 16-15 victory after their British opponents missed a penalty with the final kick of the game.

Just four days later the stage is set for the first day of test cricket’s crowning event: The Ashes. Bookmakers confidently tip England to retain the famous trophy, awarded to the winner of the latest English-Australian tie; but the Aussies will not go down without a fight.

These sporting set pieces have a long and colourful history. The tradition of Lions tours – when the five nations of the British Isles unite to take on the Southern Hemisphere’s finest sides – stretches back 125 years. In 1888 the Northerners humiliated provincial Australian teams, but much has changed since then.

The Ashes have an even more venerable history: they originated in 1882, when Australia subjected England to their first cricket defeat on home soil. A satirical magazine notice pronounced English cricket dead: ‘The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.’ The next time England crossed the equator it was branded as a quest to ‘reclaim the ashes’.

The two countries’ ancient enmity is rooted partly in their cultural similarities and social ties. But for Australia it is also about beating the country that once ruled from afar.

And while both nations relish the rivalry, it hasn’t always been friendly. In the infamous ‘Bodyline’ affair of 1933, Australian fans became so enraged at England’s aggressive bowling tactics that the English players feared for their safety. Diplomatic relations even became strained.

Best of enemies?

To some pundits, incidents like these reveal an uncomfortable undertone to sporting rivalry. It might all seem like fun and games, they say, but the joshing is rooted in genuine hostility and tribalism. Such dangerous emotions are best left unindulged.

‘Bah Humbug,’ say fans: every great rivalry needs a bit of an edge. That’s where the delicious tension comes from, and as long as things stay within the bounds of sportsmanship there is no cause for concern. Just brace yourself and enjoy the hair-raising ride.

You Decide

  1. Most sports fans have teams they particularly want to lose as well as teams they support. Is there anything problematic about that?
  2. ‘Sport is war without the bloodshed.’ Do you agree?


  1. Write a news report on a (real or imaginary) sports rivalry.
  2. Pick a sporting rivalry and write a short explanation of its historical background. Are social, political, religious or cultural differences involved?

Some People Say...

“A sworn enemy is almost as good as a sworn friend.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Ancient rivalry or no, I couldn’t care less about either of these sports.
How about other sports? Golf has the Ryder Cup, which pits the whole of Europe against America, while tennis coughs up endless great clashes – Murray vs Djokovic and Federer vs Nadal are just the most recent examples. Football is littered with great derbies: Rangers and Celtic, Real Madrid and Barcelona, England and Germany...
But is any of that relevant beyond sport?
Occasionally these rivalries spread beyond the field – El Salvador and Honduras even fought a brief war over a football match. And sports fandom is just one outlet for feelings in which we almost all indulge in some part of our life: thrill-seeking, competitiveness and a desire for shared glory.

Word Watch

An old heraldic symbol of both England and Britain.
Not actually one species but several, all of them native to Australia and surrounding islands – hence the nickname for Australia’s national teams. Wallabies are marsupials, along with kangaroos, wombats and koalas.
Test cricket
A long match (usually five days) in which each team bowls and bats twice. The Ashes consists of five such matches. Other forms, such as one-day cricket, aim to make the game shorter and more accessible.
A small urn which is said to contain the ashes of an incinerated cricket ball.
Five nations
England, Scotland and Wales, which are all part of the United Kingdom, plus the independent Republic of Ireland. Northern Irish players are also eligible for Lions matches, but none has ever taken part.
Southern Hemisphere
The half of the Earth which falls to the south of the equator.
Ruled from afar
Australia was part of the British Empire, and remains a Commonwealth country to this day, with the British monarch as its head of state. But Australians have been largely self-governing for roughly 150 years.
Faced with a formidable Australian batting team, England used the controversial tactic of bowling directly at their opponents. This resulted in bruises and bitterness, with the Australian captain saying: ‘There are two teams out there. One of them is trying to play cricket.’


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