Friday 22 November 2019

Peter Bills: Game still a far cry from professional

Peter Bills

And so to Cardiff for the climax of the northern hemisphere season in professional rugby. With all due respect to the Magners League, French Top 14 and English Premiership, this has to be the peak of the northern hemisphere players' year.

But I suggest caution in too readily attaching the word 'professional' to the sport. Rugby might like to think it is up among the big boys of professional world sport but, in truth, it still retains far too many of its silly, amateurish idiosyncrasies.

Take Northampton, Leinster's opponents in the Heineken Cup final on Saturday. Still hanging over the English club is a suspicion that all kinds of nefarious activities and crafty goings-on are regularly enacted by their front-row. The Saints' scrum, with New Zealand-born England international Dylan Hartley at hooker and Zimbabwe-born South Africa international Brian Mujati at tight-head, is seen as one of their great strengths. But others have watched the tapes and talk darkly of their antics.

One observer said: "Their hooker stands up so much in the scrum, which means it is very hard to keep the pressure on. As a result, Mujati ends up under the opposition hooker, driving up at him. The whole scrum comes up as a result. You can see those things happening time and again with their scrummage."

Ulster's former South African captain Johann Muller told me: "You would never get away with those sort of tricks the whole season back home, as Northampton have done. Of course they scrummage illegally."

It would have been nice to hear Mujati's side of the argument. For the fact is, the South African has made huge strides since he joined the English club. So much so that even the Springboks have suggested he might yet make their World Cup squad.

So a nice positive story for Northampton to promote. Well, you would have thought so. But the club's PR police, who may not know one end of a rugby ball from the other, did not see it like that. Northampton protect Mujati like crazed guard dogs.

A press officer snapped in answer to my request to reach him: "Brian, at his own request, does not do interviews and I am not going to upset the apple cart in the run-up to our two biggest matches of the season.

"So no, I'm not going to give you Brian's details and he will not be available for interview. He doesn't do interviews. Hasn't done one since he has been here, not even with the club's official media channels. There's a reason for it that I have respected."

Now isn't all that a bit of a mystery? You would wonder what Mujati might be trying to hide. Certainly, Mujati and Northampton seem to be going to extraordinary lengths to make sure he doesn't have to undergo media questioning. But could the Springboks possibly choose him for a World Cup campaign amid such a background? Maybe not.

But the real point is this. If you took that sort of attitude across the North Atlantic into the world of REAL professional sports like American Football and baseball, they would be dumbfounded. Over there, they understand implicitly the value of the media to their business. Players are told to make themselves available at a time suitable for the media guy. It is seen as a vital part of their contract.

Pass

In professional golf, even when you attend a blue riband event like the Masters at Augusta, the media are given a pass that enables them to stroll into the players' locker room at any time. I've been there and done it, needing some quotes from someone like Ernie Els or Graeme McDowell.

At Augusta earlier this year, I missed McDowell's 18th-green media chat one day because of other commitments. Yet when I tracked down the Portrush native as he hurried away, the current US Open champion stopped and answered every single question I posed. The personification of class and professionalism. Even Tiger Woods, after his controversial marital implosion, had to front up at an Augusta press conference.

Most so-called professional rugby players, clubs and unions don't understand any of this. The players understand the need for agents to extract vast salaries from their employers. But they have no inkling that in a truly professional sport, those riches come with certain responsibilities attached. Talking to the media is just one of them.

Rugby likes to think itself a big player on the professional sports scene. Alas, too often, it is childishly amateur in its thinking. Until that changes, it does not deserve to be put alongside true professional sports of our world.

Irish Independent

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