Just a matter of trust

This is going to be break from the just-laid-down regularity in this series. It’s not going to be about a rugby topic that will make you laugh, nor will it be something light-hearted that will leave you feeling jovial about the game. I intend to make you think not just about the way the punishment system is employed in rugby union but also about how we the public deal with players who transgress.

Willie Ripia at Western Force training

Willie Ripia in happier times Photo: Western Force Facebook page

As you probably know, and is probably old news by now, southern hemisphere rugby community was rocked last week by the sacking of former Hurricane and current Western Force fly-half Willie Ripia. Ripia was confronted by allegations of theft by club management after he was apparently presented with video evidence showing him in the act. The 26-year-old has since returned to New Zealand to face his gambling addiction.

This being last week’s news aside, it’s worth analysing from a player’s perspective. This kind of behaviour, especially at a rugby club, is inexcusable. Harking back to the article I wrote two weeks ago, rugby union players have a bond between them as tight as brotherhood. Because of the nature of the game we play and the tactics by which we play it, we need to trust explicitly that the man next to us is going to perform not just in his best interests, but in ours.

We want to know he will crawl through the mud and grass with us. If that man does not know his task or does not allow us to trust him, we or him can get hurt. Hooker’s necks can be broken. Winger’s ribs can be cracked. Flanker’s shoulders can be dislocated. We have to be able to trust the man next to us not only with the game, but with our health possibly the greatest thing of all.

As one sports journalist put it so eloquently: “All businesses and organisation preach the virtues of teamwork and trust, but a rugby club must live them or die”. It seems both cliché and wildly melodramatic to state it in such a way, but it really is true. You won’t see me enjoying lining up beside anyone who steals from me, or has a penchant for throwing me hospital passes, or who is a gossip on the team, or who refuses to follow advice from anyone. Players like that are a liability, the risk of injury during a game being too great and the emotional and mental damage unmeasurable in terms of how it can affect a team on the field in the moment.

But stealing carries another, deeper facet. Not only can you not trust that person on the field because you feel they do not have your back, but you do not trust them because of very personal abuse of your property that this person is taking part in. Brothers do not steal from one another. That person ceases to be your brother. Brothers also do not lie to one another, and Ripia lied to the coaching staff, the club administration, and, most importantly of all, he lied to his brothers in blue.

The punishment that was handed out both by to Ripia himself and by the club was adequate. You cannot have a thief and a liar around the club. But there comes with this another penalty, one which Ripia was all too aware of, seeing as he denied the charges of theft against him to begin with. There is nothing wrong with the way justice was meted out by the Western Force, nor in the lack of action by the ARU.

The real punishment has come from the public. The backlash by the fans of both the Force and the game itself has been enormous. It was angry, it was aggressive in it’s judgement of Ripia, and it reserved very little for a man on whom the shoulders of the Force were going to partially rest in 2012. So much so that this author may have for a short while used the hashtag #damnyouripia.

But after discovering the cause of the resignation and the disgrace in which Ripia left, I began to have sympathy for him. Wait wait wait Force fans, I’d like you all to put down your weapons and hear me out.

Ripia, by his own and the club’s admission, has a gambling addiction. I would make a joke about the fly-half position involving enough gambles, but it’s not the time for jokes. He has sought help for addiction. It has not worked. Psychologists and counsellors both at and provided by the club have not been able to penetrate and break down this issue. It is solid and it is impervious to short sessions of therapy.

I know addiction and mental illness better than most people. As stated in a previous article, I have and still suffer from depression, and I have more than one or two traces of hereditary obsessive-compulsive disorder in me. You do not stop behaviour like that just because you want to. You do not just stop being upset, or wanting everything just perfect, or needing to feel the rush of a win in a bet. There is absolutely NO WAY that it just ceases to be by thought alone on the very first try. It will probably not even work on the thousandth try.

Ripia cannot just NOT gamble. To say he can just not go to casinos, clubs or pubs to gamble anymore is to misunderstand both the nature of addiction and mental illness and to show disrespect to someone who is battling with such problems. Ripia’s aunts and grandmother have said it themselves when they say they have no idea how he could have done it. One even goes so far as to suggest a conspiracy at the Force to oust Ripia. That is the extent to which this addiction has changed him! He goes from an obvious family man to someone that not even his family or teammates know.

I in no way condone the nature of what he did. It’s inexcusable to lie and steal from your brothers in arms. But to publicly crucify him is not warranted. The man is suffering, and he will suffer for years to come. His chance in international rugby is over. He will never play professionally again. No club will have him due to his record, and he just isn’t prodigiously talented enough to allow a trip back into the ranks of a Super Rugby side. He knows exactly what he’s done, and he will live with it forever. He will tell his nieces, nephews, sons, daughters, grandkids and all other young people he encounters personally his story.

And that is the saddest thing. That a young man in the prime of his life playing a game that he loves has to suddenly both stop playing the game AND deal with the burden of an addiction at the same time. I feel nothing but sorrow for him in now having to pick up the pieces and move on with his life. Far from giving him support in his illness yet anger at his actions to his brothers, we treat him as the pariah du jour and give him the punching bag treatment for a week until another sporting issue comes along.

Overall, the image of the game was not tarnished. If fans can still turn up to Manly Sea Eagles and West Coast Eagles and St Kilda games in both the NRL and AFL then Super Rugby, which is a game untarnished by public misbehaviour such as exists in the latter clubs, will be fine. Ripia’s actions and resignation come as no more than a blip on the sporting radar for the year. There is every chance a bigger issue will eclipse this one in the coming weeks.

However, we should not forgot what a human being has lost due to something which has beaten him for now. Given a choice, there no way Ripia would be back in New Zealand, not playing rugby, and having to find a life outside of the game. That is the nature of addiction: it forces you outside what you dream of, what you truly want, and perverts your person to someone that no-one else around you knows.

I say we don’t treat him like a brute who was a brazen thief and had no remorse. Here is a man beaten by a lowly compulsion to a fool’s errand, and who has lost every chance in a sport that he loved on a team that was going to remember him very fondly. Hate the actions of the addict, but don’t hate the addict themselves. They are not their true self, because their true self is inside that fake personality, screaming for some relief.

I for one will be a proud supporter of Willie Ripia through his recovery process, and I urge everyone to show that same support. He is, after all, one of us.


*Heading into his second year as a player for Palmyra Rugby Union Club in Perth, this weekly blog series is an insight into a young, and new, player’s mind. Names have been omitted for writer’s own safety during tackling drills.

Next week: Grassroots rugby (and why your kids should play).

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