Rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen, so the old adage goes. For the most part, it remains true. The majority of players still treat officials as though they have received a knighthood; rival supporters still cheer, laugh, and sometimes cry beside each other; when the full-time whistle sounds we still recognise it’s only a game and go home to celebrate or commiserate in a relatively light-hearted manner. Unfortunately, as the sport has matured from a lanky teenager to a confident, professional adult it has acquired some unsavoury characteristics. Here’s a look at some of the bad habits that have crept into rugby union.
At the end of March we had the quarter-finals of the European Champions and Challenge Cups, with one incident in particular coming under intense scrutiny. On a bright day in Edinburgh we witnessed some of the dark arts of rugby. Pierre Schoeman somewhat foolishly blocked off Tadhg Beirne, the 18 stone Munster lock responding with a balletic spring skyward before crashing to the floor, earning his side a penalty-reversal in the process. Yes, the South African’s decision was ill-judged, but the latter’s actions were pathetic.
Such play-acting has become all too prominent in the game, despite the fact that it’s actually rarely seen; there should be no acts of the sort. Nigel Owens’ quip to Stuart Hogg at the 2015 World Cup following the fullback’s dive gained considerable notoriety – ‘This is not soccer,’ he stated. However, this is not football’s fault, the rugby world should not be tolerating such deceitful doings. Ugo Monye offered a measured view of the Beirne-Schoeman episode; reverse the penalty against Edinburgh for the prop’s obstruction, reverse it once more for the reaction. That way, the referee is condemning both players’ behaviour, helping to stamp it out.
On the same weekend there was the third meeting between Saracens and Glasgow Warriors this campaign. In the first of their encounters, Maro Itoje infamously taunted his opponents who had been under the impression they had scored a crucial try. His mocking celebration with the Warriors cohort was highly unnecessary and, as Mick Cleary of The Telegraph put it, crossed the line between being a competitor and a wind-up merchant. Of course, elite sport is an adrenaline-fuelled, cut-throat environment, but Itoje’s conduct was senseless and obnoxious. In simpler words, it was unsporting.
The British and Irish Lions fandom widely condemned the whistles and jeers reverberating around Eden Park when the best of the Home Nations collided with the All Blacks. Kickers from the touring party were afforded zero silent moments to compose themselves for shots at goal, supporters in the Northern Hemisphere being left irate at the disrespectful noises emanating from the stands. So, why were similar hisses present during this year’s Six Nations? And the year before that? And, also, the year before that, ad nauseam. The ‘win at all costs’ mentality is somewhat boorish anyway, let alone when those off the pitch take up the gauntlet.
An additional point to the preceding paragraph is that the officials are too readily scapegoated. They are invariably going to make mistakes; they only have so many eyes to keep a watch of the myriad infringements that occur over the eighty-minutes. It’s sensory overload and incidents will, whether we like it or not, be missed. It is always worth remembering that the referee is not biased, no matter how things may seem. We are all guilty of wearing rose-tinted spectacles, more likely to recall the unpunished hands-in-the-ruck of the opposition flanker than the blatant offside our darling hooker has gotten away with. These things, within reason, even out over the course of a contest; losing is the team’s fault, not the officials’.
We finish with arguably the most shameful habit rugby has acquired – the marginalisation and exploitation of the Pacific Island nations. The financially-mighty clubs of Europe are known to harvest the best young talents in Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, eventually pressurising them in attempts to prevent them representing their nations during international windows.
Moreover, the trio had been left out of World Rugby’s plans for the Nations Championship in favour of countries that can generate greater income. Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi – who is both the Prime Minister of Samoa and the chairman of their rugby union – has insisted the decision will mean the Pacific Islands sides will remain as mere ‘breeding farms’ for elite rugby nations. These are places that live and breathe rugby, yet they are being treated like some sporting backwater unworthy of a place at the top table. Bluntly, it is a disgrace.
Having endured me moaning and droning, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Am I just being a pessimistic bore? Being a London Irish fan will do that to you! Or do I have a point in some cases?
What are your pet hates in Rugby?
By Ed Alexander