Monday 19 February 2018

Modern stars keeping rock and roll scene alive

Adrenaline on the field still being topped up with alcohol off it, writes Eddie Butler

R ugby is, it seems, bingeing its way into the headlines, and not just through the well-oiled conduit of booze.

We have had a politico-poetic bust-up between Wales's defence coach, Shaun Edwards, and their sports scientist, Fergus Connolly, over an Irish folk song sung in Paris. We have had Delon Armitage rough-handling a doping officer after a London Irish game. Music and drugs; rugby is rock and roll.

The demon drink though is the regular purveyor of scandal: England's Ben Foden in an altercation in a London cab; Bradley Davies, second-row for Cardiff and Wales, arrested after a much bigger ruck at a pub in Saundersfoot.

Others are not so new to the paparazzi. Danny Cipriani, who left England to start afresh with the Melbourne Rebels in the Super 15, was "reminded of his responsibilities" after being banned from a nightclub.

The Welsh No 8 Andy Powell is in trouble with Cipriani's old club, Wasps, not so much apparently for being beaten up by a gang of QPR fans and having 10 stitches inserted in his head, as for revealing all to the media first, rather than to his club. Perhaps the player, whose form included his 2010 drive in a golf buggy down the hard shoulder of the M4 to a service station for breakfast, couldn't resist his Glasgow kiss and tell.

Nobody, however, compares with Gavin Henson. The Welsh exile is making his own attempt to start afresh, in France, but has been banned for allegedly scrapping with his Toulon team-mate Matt Henjak, an Australian scrumhalf with a bit of previous himself. He was fired in 2008 by Western Force, the Perth-based Super 15 franchise, for breaking the jaw of a team-mate.

What made Henson's latest lapse utterly despicable wasn't the fight, but the taunts he aimed at Jonny Wilkinson, which would turn a Buddhist bellicose. To be heard picking on Jonny is like being caught nailing Bambi into a veal crate. Where has it all come from, this descent into alcoholic abusiveness? The tendency probably never went away. As long as you have a sport fuelled by adrenaline on the field, the temptation to top up with alcohol off it will be there.

There was a time, in the puritanism of early professionalism, when all traces of the ancient regime's amateurism had to be expurgated. Having a few pints as a social networking tool gave way to the tying together of logs on corporate away days. The trouble with such activities is that they didn't necessarily work.

The tours on which science was placed before tradition -- Graham Henry's 2001 Lions tour to Australia and Clive Woodward's in 2005 to New Zealand -- have gone down as fractured adventures. The 2009 tour, coached by Ian McGeechan, was loved by the players and they went within a whisker of beating South Africa, the world champions. Beer was their glue.

The danger is that little can be kept behind closed doors. And Lions tours are the most carefully monitored, with a media pack numbering three figures. In 1971, the one and only Lions tour to win in New Zealand, there was no live TV coverage of games, either there or here.

The story of the tour was delivered first by newspaper, from a contingent of eight journalists from overseas and seven from NZ. They were all, according to their own writing, far too busy packing their own picnic hampers with fine fare and lashings of fizz to worry about what the players got up to off the field. If they knew, they never said.

The All Blacks of that time learned just how unruly the Lions could be. When New Zealanders were invited to South Africa to play for a world team in 1976 they were surprised to find their hotels had almost no furniture. They were told that the Lions had wrecked so much on the tour of '74 that it was deemed wiser to remove temptation.

By way of contrast, All Blacks who transgressed in those days did not merely have their decor confiscated. When Keith Murdoch, giant prop of Otago and known to be a handful in drink, punched a security guard who tried to put a stop to his late-night raid on the kitchen of the Angel Hotel in Cardiff after Wales v New Zealand in 1972, he landed himself in deep trouble. The other All Blacks, led by Ian Kirkpatrick, vowed that any disciplining should be an internal matter, but the wheels of the blazers' establishment had begun to turn and Murdoch was soon heading home. He jumped ship in Singapore and disappeared into the Australian outback.

It is hard to see Cipriani or Henson ever ending up as neighbours to Murdoch. But if they step out of line they step into a glare of exposure. Perhaps they should follow the example of Sonny Bill Williams, the All Black centre whose physique makes Murdoch look flimsy and who once had alcohol-related incidents of his own, including being caught in flagrante with the Australian model/ironwoman, Candice Falzon. He converted to Islam.

There, easy. We should raise a glass to Gavin and Danny and Bradley and Ben and Sonny Bill in a new caliphate of rugby.


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