Sport Rugby

Saturday 16 December 2017

Cynicism is now normal as game heads down the toilet

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Gonzalo Tiesi of Argentina lies on the ground injured during the IRB 2011 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between Argentina and England at Otago Stadium on September 10, 2011 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Gonzalo Tiesi of Argentina lies on the ground injured during the IRB 2011 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between Argentina and England at Otago Stadium on September 10, 2011 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Rugby has slipped into the gutter in the professional era, writes Neil Francis

Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow -- the shadow is what we think of it, the tree is the real thing
Abraham Lincoln

What we are about here is charting the slow, imperceptible erosion of standards, the unambiguous degeneracy of the game. Not the game itself but the people who play it.

When money comes, empirical evidence suggests that the constitutional standards enjoyed and employed by players deteriorate.

I was quite happy to endure the slow death of a thousand cuts. Events from the 2007 RWC to the one just past suggest that we will be lucky to get 100.

On balance, most of the players we have seen in that period have been men of character, integrity and honesty possessed of compassion, a grounded conscience and a working moral compass -- all inherently decent men.

My problem is that the rotten one per cent has grown from a tiny minority to an uncomfortably prominent subsection and show no signs of disappearing any time soon.

Before you challenge me with the notion that I felt the game was in a far better place when well-educated, middle-class Corinthians populated the playing fields -- file that under B.

Some of the doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers that played the game up to 1995 were the greatest scumbags and lowlifes on and off the park.

It is not your profession that dictates your standing on the field or your sporting honour but something much, much deeper.

Generally, a rugby player can make the distinction between what is socially acceptable on and off the park.

This distinction has been blurred over the last four years. It is one thing to know what is permissible and what is not and then make a decision to cross that line.

Where rugby is at at the moment is that quite a few players have no idea where the bar (standard) is and consequently have no idea that they have crossed a line.

On the park, there are simple things that have crept into the game which I find objectionable, whether performed by the individual or the collective.

Sledging is the thing that really gets my goat -- it is almost institutionalised in the game. A penalty is given away by a player in critical circumstances.

The opposition player comes in, pats him on the head, taps him on the shoulder or verbally reinforces the point that he is an idiot.

It did happen 10, 20, 30 years ago -- it's just more prevalent now and ten times more annoying for everyone concerned.

A consistent yellow card for the perpetrator would sort it out straight away but referees seem to be immune to the rancour that it causes. Seems to be part of the game now so players indulge themselves.

Institutional cheating is another problem which demonstrates the slide. As a team you can play within the rules or you can play to the fullest extent of the rules or you can cheat.

In every facet of play you can choose to cheat -- far from being frowned upon it is actually encouraged; quite often the term street wisdom is used -- which street?

This cheating is seen as a badge of honour -- where there is a certain form of gravitas that emanates from individuals or collectives spending more time in training on cheating than actually actively concentrating on playing the game the way it should be played and getting really good at it.

It is a wide-boy culture -- the short cut, the easy buck, the weasel's paradise. That is the direction the game is going in.

Foul play is another area which is depressingly getting worse. There were always axe murderers on teams -- dating all the way back to William Webb Ellis -- guys with the conscience of a rattlesnake who wouldn't think twice about taking your head off.

These people have always existed -- you would think that with the huge number of cameras and the presence of citing commissioners that foul play would have been eradicated.

In my ten years of international rugby, I don't think I met one international Test player who graduated from a Swiss finishing school.

We were all rough boys, there were always punch-ups including lots of bad stuff -- but it's the appearance that too many players are prepared to go a step further that disturbs me now about the game.

To illustrate this point, look back at the England v Argentina game a month ago. Courtney Lawes -- a serious physical specimen -- has in his short career so far done a huge amount of physical damage to people late and off the ball.

In that match, Gonzalo Tiesi, behind play, played a lovely diagonal ball to press England back into their 22. The Argentine centre had got his kick away and had relaxed his body because he was no longer in possession as Lawes came in from the blind and smashed him.

The Argentine never saw him coming and there was never any sense of Lawes pulling out of the tackle to try and minimise the effect -- possibly because he suspected that he could continue to follow through and get away with it.

The code of the cheap shot -- they can't see you coming.

Lawes hit him at full tilt and Tiesi left the field with a catastrophic knee injury which will require a full knee reconstruction -- his career is under threat.

Minutes later, Lawes came in late again down the touchline as he led with the knee and connected with Mario Ledesma's temple even though the player had been tackled into touch.

Blunt force trauma can in night club brawls be fatal -- a knee to the temple with serious force applied is extremely dangerous.

Lawes will continue to hit players late and do so dangerously because in my view he cannot distinguish between what constitutes a tackle within and without the law -- not just within the IRB rule book but within the law of the land and those governed by the laws of basic human decency.

There seems to be too many players whose conscience does not prohibit them from inflicting far more damage than is necessary on an opponent with no demonstration of remorse. This is a dangerous departure.

Another person who has not distinguished himself in his short career is Quade Cooper.

He failed at this World Cup and could not demonstrate the sort of form that his undoubted talent can conjure up from time to time.

But for somebody who is pinioned by the encumbrances of fame, he has shown a blatant disregard for the culture of the game. Surly and unctuous, both on and off the field. His rap sheet suggests that his career may have a similar lifespan as a car-chasing mongrel.

While I admire his god-given talent, I have to doubt his character. It might be a crass generalisation on my part -- but every time I see tattoos emblazoned on an individual my mental ticket machine punches out a second-class card. There were far too many tattoos at this World Cup.

Cooper's off-field antics have brought him to the attention of the police on several occasions, but who is anyone to say "you don't fit into our culture, Quade" -- it's how he comports himself that I have a difficulty with.

I do have sympathy for him in the sense that he sustained a serious knee injury in the third-place play-off. I also found the sustained booing of him to be deeply troubling.

The reason, apart from the fact that he was born in New Zealand and went to live in Australia, was that he very clumsily and, it appeared to me, deliberately kneed Richie McCaw in the head during the Tri Nations series.

The fact that Richie McCaw was cheating by lying on the wrong side of the ruck, killing the ball, had nothing to do with it.

The video of the incident makes disturbing viewing and although Cooper was cleared of foul play, I remain sceptical about his intentions.

It was done in much the same way as . . . well, the same way that Ritchie McCaw kneed Morgan Parra in the face in the first half of the final last week -- for all the world it looked like an accident.

If you watch the final again you might pick up some of the really cynical dirty play that took place. In the interim, as the character of the people playing the game comes in for sustained questioning, we look to the moral guardians for some direction.

We find that Bernard Lapasset and Bill Beaumont are Sepp Blatter-like engaged in some bitter town hall politics for the placement of plum jobs.

The game is going down the toilet and Snowball and Napoleon are squabbling to see who gets his snout into the trough.

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