Monday 21 May 2018

Neil Francis: Bug infestation shows rugby has been colonised by lower forms of life

The depressing thing about the Kiwi listening device scandal is that it wasn't even a surprise

'There is a long roll call of shame when it comes to rivals spying on each other in rugby.' Stock photo: Getty
'There is a long roll call of shame when it comes to rivals spying on each other in rugby.' Stock photo: Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

'So Frano, tell me about the team room." "Which one?" "Well all of them - you know the World Cups, the international championships and when you toured." "Well it's a large room provided by the hotel - are you sure you want to know all of this?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"Sometimes the team eat there, we meet up for logistics and scheduling before training and matches. We watch opposition matches on the screen. We plan strategy, tactics and calls. Sometimes the forwards just meet up and discuss what we do in tight play, off tight play and in loose situations. The backs do their own stuff, we go through all our calls and variations."

"Wow, that's really interesting - keep going."

"Well there is always food there. We can watch movies together, play cards and there are signing sessions where you have got to sign thousands of jerseys, balls, cards etc."

"Amazing, keep going."

"Well every now and again the dirt trackers might be out late for a few beers and meet a girl and the bedroom might be occupied - sorry, sorry, tour rules, can't really say any more there."

"Yeah, you almost had me going there! Does that mean the team room stays open for 24 hours?"

"Yeah pretty much, except for when those former FBI guys come in to do the security sweep."

"Yeh what?"

"Yeah, normally they do it twice during the week. Freddy and his mate who were with the Feds 10 years ago, the IRFU hire them to sweep the room. They bring in scanners and bug detectors, check for video cameras with infra-red detectors. Give the room the once over and then we are all allowed back in."

"You are fucking kidding me."

"Ha-haa! Ten-nil! I got you there. Who in their right mind would want to bug a rugby team room for the love of Mike (not Cheika)?"

On Saturday, August 20 the All Blacks played Australia in ANZ Stadium in Sydney. The Wallabies came second by such a distance that you could have sworn that the lasagne they all ate the night before the game was dicky doo. The previous Monday a sophisticated and viable listening device was discovered in the All Black team room. Despite theories to the contrary, there is no question in my mind that somebody wanted to find out what the All Blacks were planning on doing the following Saturday. In my opinion a gambling syndicate or a red top or a prankster or the All Blacks themselves had no input into the planting of this device.

Professional sport as we all know is a results-driven business. Coming second is bad for business and professional sporting entities are now willing to do almost anything to win.

In the NFL, my favourite team, the New England Patriots have regrettably been involved in quite a number of unsavoury cheating scandals. The most recent one was the infamous 'Deflate-gate' incident. Prior to that it was 'Spy-gate' where the Patriots videotaped opposition coaches' signals.

It has also come to light now that the Kansas City Chiefs, the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets, among others have claimed that their dressing rooms have been bugged in Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. These teams have brought, or asked to bring, security people in to sweep the away dressing rooms for bugs and listening devices. The Patriots have countered in a tangled pitch of bluff and double bluff that the dressing rooms be swept by an NFL independent team so that opposition teams don't plant their own bugs and point a finger at the Patriots.

If the Yanks are doing it, then it is not beyond the bounds of reason that others are at it.

The first thing that struck me when I read about this story was the almost throwaway line "during a routine security sweep." Routine? Since when has it been routine for a rugby team's team room to be swept for bugs? My first thought was that rugby had entered a new domain. Then I thought, silly me. Sporting espionage has been with us since the Second World War. Spying and cheating? Well even I would have been aware of it in my playing days.

There is a long roll call of shame when it comes to rivals spying on each other in rugby but before we begin, just a little nota bene: in Alan Carter's book (he was a Welsh rugby video analyst - even the video analysts are now writing books) he alleges that Steve Hansen, when he was coach of Wales, had installed a VT camera overlooking John Mitchell's All Black side training at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff - just thought that was interesting.

Most of you are familiar with the story but the reactions and the continuing storyline are primed with intrigue. When the Kiwis found the bug, they did not report it to the police for five days. Hansen stated that they wanted to hold off and report directly to CEO Steve Tew, who happened to be in Rio. They also wanted to report it to Hans Christian Andersen as well. Maybe I'm mistaken, but there is a possibility that some of those six-star hotels in Rio may have had a video conferencing suite in their business rooms; maybe not! Tew arrives on a magic carpet with Aladdin and the genie five days later and is briefed by Hansen on what has happened. I think ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers and an act of contrition. Why on earth would you wait five days so that you could report in person?

Hansen was a police officer before he took up coaching. Then there's the security team who did the security sweep: what did they find out in the five days before the New South Wales police got involved?

In 2009 in New Zealand Mathieu Bastareaud disgraced himself when he claimed that he had been beaten up on a night out after a Test match. A quick check on the hotel CCTV confirmed he was lying, and a humbling personal apology precipitated a state apology from the French. CCTV, the bane of the ordinary decent criminal, will tell all. The NSW police have been sifting through CCTV footage since August 28. What's keeping you, lads?

I suspect the Kiwis know who planted the bug and worked that out in the five days before the police got involved. When the story broke, legally they had all the angles covered and never accused anyone of anything. The only thing everybody knew was that a viable listening device had been found in the All Blacks' team room.

On the basis that there were no accusations made, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika stated: "I don't think anyone accused us of putting it there, did they? It's got nothing to do with us."

Bill Pulver, CEO of the Australian union, said: "Of course the ARU are not involved. I just think it's a ludicrous concept that there are listening devices being placed in team rooms. I don't know how it could happen."

Well that's that then. Everything cleared up so. There were no accusations and no real denials either. Can't say I agree with Bill about it being a "ludicrous concept". If Hansen was suspicious enough to have his team room swept for bugs and then they actually find one and the All Blacks have been sweeping for over a decade, maybe it was more than just paranoia.

The bit about not knowing how it could happen is the classic well-prepared PR statement non sequitur. Pulver knows quite well how it could happen. A firm of independent security contractors went to the room and very skilfully put the device in there. They obviously didn't think they would be caught and are hoping that they have not been found by CCTV or hotel staff placing the bug there. There is no question in my mind that it was there to spy on the All Blacks. I am not accusing anyone either.

This is a wonderful game of poker and it all hinges on what the Kiwis found out in those five days. I would be confident that they found out a lot. There are huge consequences here if the people responsible for planting the bug are rumbled. Jail time and life-time bans. There are huge reputational issues at stake: the hotel, the police, both unions, the people who planted the bug and the people who told them to plant it.

The potential for a shit-storm and the lingering fall-out would be just too great here. But as it always does in rugby, this episode will simply disappear. There will be no conclusive proof or substantial evidence and it will disappear into the ether.

I'd say the FBI would have nailed the case in a day or two but this is a case where nobody directly involved wants to get a resolution. Pity! I'd love to write a follow-up piece on this one.

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