A few weeks back I spoke about what I loved about rugby and why I was drawn to game. I waxed lyrical about the honour and courage in standing next to your brothers, the pride in playing for them and protecting them, and the respect you show to your opposition. In short, I gave the game such an outstanding review that the IRB should pay me for a sponsorship deal.
Therefore whenever anyone criticises that rosy view I have of the greatest sport in the world, it’s like a red rag to a bull. I should have warned Bo Dighe of that before he wrote his article which has just been posted on here called ‘Traditional rugby culture and values should not die’.
However, what I thought was going to be a criticism of the entirety of the modern game from someone whose armchair was particularly comfortable turned out to be a fair article about the dangers that lurk in the world of professionalism just beyond the shadows of the IRB.
The article, in short, was a cogent and funny reminder of the perils that face rugby union as it reaches the adolescence of it’s foray into professionalism. The game must be protected, Dighe said, lest it become the sport of big men running into other big men for fun (rugby league). A fair assessment and one I all too happily agree with. However, my take on the situation is skewed somewhat differently.
I play for a regional club in Perth. It’s a popular club, and one that’s proud of it’s ‘battler’ image. The home club of James ‘Chucky’ Stannard (scrum-hal,f and soon to be fly-half, for the Western Force), Palmyra Rugby Club is one that is supremely proud of holding on tightly and without relent to the very values and morals that Dighe spoke about. I believe the heartland of those values lies in clubs exactly like Pally all around the world. We’ll highlight a few members of the rogue’s gallery first though before I speak about my club.
There will be players the world over who don’t adhere to the values of a sport, no matter how honourable the sport may be. I’m sure even chess had it’s renegades (“You moved the queen there? Oh, you rebellious chap!”). However, rugby has some disappointing offenders. I’ll give you a short list:
- Quade Cooper, for going all league on Richie McCaw during the 2011 Tri-Nations, and also being thrown out of a pub in December (although I’d probably have a bender if Stephanie Rice broke up with me too),
- Schalk Burger, for eye-gouging and thuggery,
- Aurelian Rougerie, for eye-gouging,
- Every single member of the 1974 Lions team touring South Africa.
Keep in mind that it is a short list of the players I can come up with off the top of my head, and in doing some research France and South Africa have some serial offenders who need a break from the game in my opinion. If you search ‘dangerous play in rugby union’ on Wikipedia there is an entire page reserved for notable incidences.
However, we have no evidence to show that that type of play is rising or falling. All we can assume is that we hear about it more often and with more priority nowadays due to the pervasiveness of the 24-hour media cycle and the relentless search for content by rugby television program producers. The kind of behaviour shown by those players mentioned earlier though is exceptional. It only exemplifies the game as much as Tiger Woods’ playing in the rough typifies the sedate sport of golf.
In my opinion, the sport and culture surrounding it is made by the players. If the players of a certain sport give that sport a bad name, so the culture surrounding it will change as well. Can I hear an “Amen!” from the bleachers as I say “English Premier League” anyway? How about cricket in Australia, where we’ve gone from a team of mates having a few overs on Boxing Day to sledging and racial taunts led by the anti-social Clarke himself. I would say “AFL” as another example, but you’d probably all rush towards me to carry me on your shoulders!
In coming back to the values and culture of the game under threat from professionalism, I would safely guarantee that we are the very least sport in the world to worry about a loss of identity and culture. Rugby breeds honest people. You won’t see characters like certain Collingwood or Real Madrid players diving after a soft tackle on our fields. With the respect for the opposition the game breeds you may see cheap shots in rugby, but you won’t see them done out of any malice or shitbloke-ery.
For every smart-alecky Cooper, under-handed Burger or Botha, and even for every dance-around-the-line player like Mealamu, you have heroes of the game and champions of the culture rugby was and is:
- Nathan Sharpe, for being a mentor and big-brother figure to the youngsters at the Western Force,
- David Pocock, who would be well-known for his charity work if he wasn’t such a devastating openside flanker,
- Kurtley Beale, for being a singular, quiet, modest achiever while also supporting indigenous charities and winning Player of the Year awards.
Those are only the Australian players I can name off the top of my head, and only because they are personal heroes of mine. Three players in 30 seconds. Even though I have those favourites, it shouldn’t distract from the fact that every international team is full of players just like Sharpe, or Pocock, or Beale. Special mentions should go too to the Pacific Islands teams who manage to stay out of the negative headlines more than any sporting teams I’ve heard so far!
When it comes to unions as well, while it seems that some unions may be taking lesser roles in restructuring while others play larger ones, each club remembers the game as it should be and instils that into it’s younger players. While the loss of a club that produced a great All Black should not be forgotten, it carries it’s legacy back with it to the competition it now competes in. Perhaps it is unkind to place it in an amateur competition, but competition balance and popularity of the team with it’s supporter base also must have had their parts to play in the relegation.
At the end of the day, while it seems rugby union is in theoretical peril from the evils that come with professionalism, we’ve seen nothing less than a superb birth from the early years of professionalism by the code. More countries play rugby union every year. Nearly every country in the world has it’s own union (even Afghanistan). To my knowledge, the sport is even played actively in Denmark of all countries!
In each of those small unions, you find what rugby inherently breeds: respect, courage, passion and honesty. The relegation of one club and the misbehaviour by a few players every couple of years cannot even begin to touch the gargantuan amount of positive role-models that exist in the game as well. Nor will you find that rugby union ever approaches the depths of imbecility and blatant cash-mongering as what the AFL here in Australia has done and is still doing.
I can agree with Bo Dighe in that there are threats to our game and that they must be warded off as soon as possible with due discipline, but we cannot let those threats grow unnecessarily large in our minds and allow us to forget the oft-forgotten side of rugby: the old blokes having a run for their side on a Saturday, the young players setting examples of respect and humility, the grassroots clubs themselves being a base for the culture that rugby IS.
Sorry to say it Bo, but I don’t feel worried for the game at all. I do agree that the threats are there, but I am so heartened by the players I see and hear about, by the club I spent much of my time at, and by the gents that are there at the club adding to that spirit that I can’t in good faith say that union is in any real danger. The grassroots clubs like Palmyra help keep the game honest, and it’s in those hotbeds of talent and mateship that union’s true heart resides.
“League is a gentleman’s game played by bastards, but union is a bastard’s game played by gentlemen”.
*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.