The Rugby Column

By Charlie Richardson

Rugby supporters’ haughty self-righteousness in its relationship with football has become embarrassing, pathetic and false in equal measure. The so-called “Beautiful Game” is so-called for a reason; it was – at one time or another – beautiful. Whether you like it or not.

But now look at it; a capitalist jungle of prima donnas, superficial supporters and television executives. Fans of Oxford, Accrington, Exeter et al will be seething in their punditry armchairs at this unfair, sweeping generalisation. But I don’t think any self-respecting football fan can say that English football, as a concept, is anywhere near what it was.

I do not like football, I admit. But isolated as a sport, it can be mesmeric. As can rugby. Out-of-touch, self-righteous and arrogant rugby followers love to loquaciously lambast football supporters with the following adage; “Football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentleman”. Whenever I hear it, my reaction is always the same; to shrivel into a big ball of cringeworthy nothingness. It’s just utter drivel.

It was once, perhaps, correct. But now the unstoppable juggernaut of professionalism is in full swing and there’s no way the core values of rugby are what they once were. We are in the early stages of where football once was; inter-union rows, too heavy a playing schedule, players played like marionettes by Machiavellian agents and, worst of all, a decline in on-field conduct.

“The answer is no, my job is here and I love it here.”, were the words of Harlequins Director of Rugby Conor O’ Shea when asked in April 2015 if he was interested in the vacant Italy head coach job. When quizzed on the same topic in December 2015 he stated, “It’s very flattering, but my job is here, full stop.” A pretty emphatic denial, wouldn’t you agree? In January 2016, it was announced he would take up the Italy role at the end of the current season. It’s a sad state of affairs when that announcement didn’t surprise me in the slightest.

We are in the midst of a free-for-all barbarian period for rugby union. Attracting new fans is obviously vital and gratifying in equal measure, but they must remember the famous words of rugby’s new hottest prospect, Nigel Owens – “this is not soccer”. And if we’re not careful, Nigel, it will be soon. There were calls for rugby brainbox and clearly outstanding rugby coach Mike Ford to be dismissed from his post at Bath after a string of bad results, yet the exact same group of players were the most fluid and organised team in the league last season. So where does the blame lie in that situation? Those isolated Bath ‘fans’ clearly believe that it was with Ford. So he must have just become a bad coach in the off-season, then? Too many piña coladas perhaps? Perhaps not.

In a January Aviva Premiership fixture, the Saracens Welsh loosehead prop, Rhys Gill, was yellow-carded for a clumsy yet nasty tip-tackle on Harlequins centre George Lowe. Craig Maxwell-Keys – who was the man with the whistle for the afternoon – and his TMO agreed that the incident was worth reviewing on the big screen. After umpteen replays and several “sitting-on-the-fence” sort of conversations, the two of them eventually came to the concurrence of opinion that the offence deserved upgrading to a red card. Mike Brown, the Harlequins and England full-back (and role-model), stood ten metres away from Maxwell-Keys and, as he wielded the red card, he stood and clapped. And many so-called ‘journalists’ wanted him to captain his country.

And if that is what rugby union is destined for, I want no more part in it.

And Another Thing…

Elsewhere in the rugby world, perennial party-pooper Allyson Pollock has struck again with her vociferous army of watery fun sponges. From the team of ‘dedicated researchers’ that brought such headlines as “ban rugby scrums in schools” comes the dreary and unnecessary sequel, “ban rugby tackling in schools”. The next in the series will inevitable be “ban rugby”, then perhaps “ban schools” and when these insufferable nanny-state fetisher have nowhere else to go they’ll hopefully just ban themselves.

The supposed findings of Allyson Pollock and her team are nothing but scaremongering twaddle. In the first instance, the physical benefits of a high contact sport such as rugby always heavily outweigh the potential risks. This theory is not even solely applicable to rugby. Every sport has a risk of danger, from darts to dancing, but it’s the thrill of the competition and the development of skills and physique which provides enjoyment – for children and adults. The need for danger and competition in a controlled environment is vital for the holistic benefits of sport to thrive. For those that are unable to express themselves in a school environment, sport is the only way to achieve that self-expression. It’s often the only distraction for the talented, driven child who would thrive on the rugby field but not in the classroom. The character-building, discipline and friendships that are built through a sport like rugby far outweigh the potential side-effects. What Pollock doesn’t understand is when you remove physical toughness, you reduce mental toughness also.

Regardless of whether Pollock is able to drum up support for her campaign or not, and whether she truly believes banning contact in rugby would make it a more popular sport, it seems that she has fallen at the first hurdle. An online British Medical Journal blog has looked into her results, and quite frankly, torn the empirical evidence to shreds. Not just rhetorically, but the blog suggests that the statistics that she has provided are completely false, which is rather alarming considering the amount of national press coverage that this non-story has received.

Besides, if Pollock and her team don’t enjoy watching people tackling each, they could always watch Super Rugby? They’ve been trialling it for years.


Photograph: Liam O’Neill

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