Sunday 16 June 2019

'Here was a high-profile athlete urinating, in public, on a man he never met before' - How drink is the curse of athletic classes

If players are going to go on end of season blow-outs, is it time they were chaperoned?

'How can Leinster, or any other side in the same scenario, let their lads off the leash in public without designated security staff to intervene before things get out of hand?' Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
'How can Leinster, or any other side in the same scenario, let their lads off the leash in public without designated security staff to intervene before things get out of hand?' Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The extended press box in Celtic Park last weekend brought us cheek by jowl with the seating reserved for various shades of dignitaries.

From Lisbon Lion Jim Craig to Scotland rugby coach Gregor Townsend, there was an array of past talent on view across the codes. Included in the group was former Scotland flanker, and current World Rugby executive committee member, John Jeffrey. The White Shark as he was known in his playing days.

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In the way that it's hard not to think of the Lone Ranger any time you hear the 'William Tell Overture' it's impossible to separate Jeffrey from the Calcutta Cup. Specifically, the aftermath of the 1988 game in Edinburgh, a turgid affair that England won 9-6.

As was standard in those days the dinner that night was a mix of long-winded speeches and increasingly bawdy behaviour, driven by vast quantities of alcohol. When it was over, Jeffrey and England's Dean Richards made their way through the streets of the city, using the trophy - a valuable antique made from melted down silver rupees - as a rugby ball.

In the aftermath the two players had the book thrown at them. Well, in the case of Richards - a serving police officer - it was more a pamphlet: he was suspended for one game by the (English) RFU. Jeffreys on the other hand was hammered by the SRU with a five-month suspension.

At the time it was a big story, perhaps the first occasion for a spotlight to be shone on the behaviour in public of international players in what was still an amateur game. It popped into our heads when we saw the White Shark in Celtic Park. By the time last weekend was over the innocence of Jeffrey's and Richards' escapade, which cost £1,500 to fix, looked like what it was: boorish, thoughtless, but small beer.

Leinster would soon be dealing with a more explosive cocktail.

As is standard policy, the team flew back on the night of the game. It was the early hours when they got back to a Dublin hotel to round the night off. Most were so wrecked by the scale of the day they didn't stay too long, but already the night had taken a turn for the worse. One of the younger Leinster players, not involved in the match-day squad, had a brief altercation with a former player whose main reason for being around was the reunion midweek of the 2009 side who had made the European breakthrough.

Whatever was said exactly is unclear, but the young fella was decked with a punch. It's understood he was out cold. Fortunately there was a Leinster medic on hand so the player was looked after at the scene, and then taken to St Vincent's Hospital where he was released later that day. Currently he is following the return to train protocols for concussion victims. No charges were pressed.

Given the perpetrator has long since ceased to be an employee of Leinster Rugby there was no scope for internal disciplinary action. Nevertheless, the man who threw the dig stayed in town until both legs of the reunion had been complete: the official gig in the RDS on the Tuesday night, and the unofficial follow up in a bar in town the next day. Seemingly they were incident free.

Before the 2009 crew had their get together, however, the class of 2019 had their blow out on the Sunday. This is standard across the board from amateur to professional team sport in Ireland: Part 1 is the night itself, when many are exhausted and don't push on too long; Part 2 is the day after when, for most, the real crack is to be had. The value of the win has sunk in; everyone is in great form; nobody is paying any heed to their intake.

As half the country has seen from WhatsApp footage over the last week, the Leinster lads were giving it welly. Then one of them, instead of making his way to the jacks, relieved himself, catching a random stranger in the crossfire. It is understood this wasn't something he considered performance art, rather he wasn't in control of his faculties. So here was a high-profile international athlete pissing, in public, on a man he had never met before. Other players intervened before the situation escalated; the player was bundled into a cab and sent away. Naturally enough the IRFU got to hear of it as social media talk of the incident went viral.

"The IRFU is aware of alleged incidents involving two Leinster based players," a spokesman said to the Sunday Independent last week. "While we are unable to comment specifically on these allegations we can confirm that we are liaising with Leinster Rugby to ascertain the facts around the incidents."

If you struggle to understand how an adult could end up in such a storm then consider the effects of horsing drink down your neck over the course of a few hours. If you are a high-performing athlete then it's certain your opportunities for this kind of blow-out are few and far between. So, being unused to alcohol means your system struggles to deal with it. Factor in the quantities, that you will likely be starting the session already fatigued and dehydrated, and you're half way there.

If drink is at the heart of Irish culture then when it comes to sport it is the lifeblood. If you win big you drink big; if you lose big you drink big. Read the biography of any GAA player and you'll get chapter and verse on the role drink plays, from avoiding it as an illustration of your commitment to the cause to climbing into it when eventually the final whistle blows and the campaign ends. Rugby is the same.

If most of us struggle to make good decisions when we drink too much then multiply that for athletes on the lash. Ordinary Joes are not feted, so the sense of superiority and entitlement is not comparable. When those athletes are physically developed to the state of most GAA inter-county players, and all professional rugby players - Division 1A of the All Ireland League wouldn't be far off either - then the potential is significant for serious damage to be done.

We've already seen that with the case of the young Leinster player hit with a knock-out punch. What if he develops issues with further concussion as the new season kicks off in a couple of months?

And what of the man who was publicly humiliated by being pissed on by one of rugby's poster boys? Had he reacted more aggressively at the time - which would have been fair, if unwise - how would that have worked out?

You think about this and wonder about the rules of engagement. If it is inescapable that professional players on the loose, on the piss, is a risky business, then why are they not chaperoned? Why for example can an Irish tour end on a Saturday night in Sydney but there be no checks and balances on players' drinking between then and many of them getting on the flight home the following night? And how can Leinster, or any other side in the same scenario, let their lads off the leash in public without designated security staff to intervene before things get out of hand? Should that not be part of the annual budget?

We don't know if Bank of Ireland boss Francesca McDonagh gave Leinster CEO Mick Dawson a ring to ask how the events of the last week are benefitting the partnership. Indeed, Dawson might wonder about the effect of the workshop his players underwent, in the wake of the Belfast case last year, to enhance behavioural attitudes.

"The IRFU condemns, and is committed to eliminating, any anti-social behaviour within the game, at all levels, and continues to work closely with our colleagues in Rugby Players Ireland on education and awareness programmes for our players," the IRFU spokesman added.

Back in John Jeffrey's day sponsors were not yet at every table, looking to build their brands in conjunction with high profile rugby teams. Times have changed lads. The fat salaries come with responsibilities, some of them fairly basic. For starters, you could dial the co-ordinates for Planet Twink: Zip up your mickeys.

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