Team spirit must extend to more sobering realities
Published 08/01/2012 | 05:00
Danny Care's troubles are symptomatic of rugby's wider culture, says Eddie Butler
In the light of what a few England players got up to in the bars and harbours of New Zealand at the World Cup, not a lot of sympathy came Danny Care's way when he had a fixed-penalty fine slapped on him for drunk and disorderly behaviour before Christmas. And even less when he failed a drink-driving test on New Year's Day.
The Harlequins scrumhalf may have missed the World Cup through injury and thereby avoided seeing with his own eyes the misadventures of England, but he must have been in a state of total oblivion not to recognise that what happened out there has had an effect in England. After the binge came the hangover of all those reviews and leaked questionnaires and the resignations and the sackings. And now has come the taking of the pledge, with the new coach Stuart Lancaster promising a fresh approach on the field and a reappraisal of the culture of England rugby.
"I'll drink to that," seems to have been the response of Care. "Here'sh to you, me old mucker." And that's one of the little twists to the Care double of trouble, that he goes back such a long way with Lancaster, to the early days at West Park Rugby Club near Leeds, where England will now begin their rehab. Minus a contender for the scrumhalf shirt, of course.
It's almost as if -- and this is a conspiracy theory to which you, however drunk, must pay no heed -- the new coach was overheard as he mused: "I need to make a statement here. Time is not on my side. I need to start with a bang."
And Danny said: "I'll help you. Save you the bother of having to tell me down the road that I'm still behind Ben Youngs. Here, kick my pissed arse . . . it's my way of saying ta for getting me through my A-levels."
And off he goes, into his exclusion, his shame the example to others that drunkenness will not be tolerated.
This image of the self-flaying volunteer came through Zac Guildford, the All Black wing, who sat before the media in New Zealand during the World Cup and confessed to a drink problem. Which was okay -- refreshingly candid and all that -- except you couldn't avoid the impression that Zac, 22, had not absolutely insisted on going public with this and that he was there because the story was going to break anyway. "Volunteer, Zac, or else."
And does this baring of a personal problem before all really work? In Guildford's case, it was barely three weeks after the end of the World Cup that he was in trouble again, staggering naked and bleeding into Trader Jacks bar on the island of Rarotonga and starting to throw punches.
You would have to stretch the laws of medicine to find a case for the espousal of heavy drinking as a portal to improved athletic performance.
But you would also have to say that Guildford -- and Israel Dagg and Cory Jane, other All Blacks who had a night on the tiles in the World Cup -- suffered no after-effects on the field. It's debatable whether Mike Tindall, or any of the other players who were rolling around in Queenstown, played worse after their sojourn in the mountains, but they did not seem to play any more woefully than some of the England players who remained determinedly sober at the World Cup.
Rugby union was a peculiar enough activity in the days when it was a pastime, and it is even stranger now that it offers full-time employment.
All that hormone-fuelled, enzyme-swilling activity seems to lure players in periods of relaxation towards the bottle. And if you say that some players are so professional that they can sidestep temptation, well, if it came to a choice between being Jonny or Danny I'm afraid I'd be reaching for the absinthe.
So, what can be done? Well, you can cut down these dangerous periods of doing nothing and keep the players too busy to drink. In general, professional rugby's pastoral care, with its courses and downtime programmes, is sound. But danger lurks: the threat of career-ending injury or the never-ending management of existing strains.
And, more important, boredom is in-built. Players need to be dulled of spirit for large parts of
their time, so they can be supercharged at kick-off once a week and give their all for 80 minutes. Give them mental stimulation all through the week, and they will be floppy and sweet at the weekend. Even the evangelical Welsh can only have so many hours of choir practice.
Besides, there is always that zone of post-match chemical uncertainty, when the natural juices of excitement are still swirling and the alcohol is tantalisingly close. You can't police the players all the time.
But they can police themselves. I'd like to think that if Stuart Lancaster found out that there were members of the England squad who did not restrain Care at his first incident or take the car keys from him at his second, he would drop them too. You take it as a given on the field that team-mates do some pretty brave things for each other. That should extend off the field too.
If Care was drinking solo, then he needs help, and his treatment should be administered with as much respect for his privacy as if it were for any other serious disease. The driving offence is another matter, but the problem of drink is not the drinker's alone. Rugby players have a tendency to imbibe to excess because of the way they work and play, and the coach is as responsible for that as anyone.
Sunday Indo Sport