Gougers, biters and f**king cheats - but thank God it’s not soccer
Rugby’s old cultural assumptions are fading fast in reality of professional sport
England captain Dylan Hartley in action against Scotland in Murrayfield. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters
It’s hardly a high bar but perhaps the most notable part of the weekend was how Dylan Hartley managed to simultaneously captain England and not bite anyone. Good job, Dylan. And good job, Rugby, for making it through the weekend without succumbing to the vapours.
It’s fascinating how Hartley’s appointment has created pan-national harrumphing at this supposed slash to the game’s gentlemanly ideals, as much in Ireland as anywhere, possibly even more so here.
Now that might have something to do with how the New Zealand-born hooker has what might be euphemistically called ‘history’ with Irish players.
Hartley once bit Stephen Ferris during a Six Nations game, punched Rory Best, and eye-gouged Johnny O’Connor, all of which resulted in bans. He also lost his place on the last Lions tour on the back of calling a referee a “f**king cheat”. Clearly he is as Wildean as he is combustible.
He is also, by general consent, the best hooker available to England, which is why Eddie Jones picked him, the Australian coach clearly dismissive of any baggage Hartley brings since he has also handed him the armband. It’s a major, and presumably very deliberate, change from the previous England coach, Stuart Lancaster, who was very hot on the culture he wanted to inculcate in the team; honesty, integrity and other very admirable traits embodied by the notably admirable Chris Robshaw, whose notorious World Cup brain-freeze against Wales put England out of the tournament.
Since Hartley’s cognitive history includes half a dozen separate suspensions there’s no knowing what he might have chosen to do with that penalty if he’d been captain: he might have bit the ball. But the fact he is now captain is a reflection of rugby’s professional reality and how old cultural assumptions are fading fast.
Because professional sport is about winning: not at all costs, but most costs, and if one of those costs is that rugby’s superiority complex gets kicked to touch, then too bad.
You can see why Lancaster’s roundhead regime appealed. It associated success with some personal probity, an admirable idea in many ways, and one enthusiastically sold by many clubs and schools, but which ignores a vast book of evidence that indicates winning isn’t the preserve of the pure and righteous.
Hartley might be as personally welcome at your front door as a couple of feet of flood water, but that’s got nothing to do with his ability to play rugby or indeed set the sort of combative tone that Jones clearly desires.
Picking Hartley gives Jones, and England, the best chance of winning – so he’s in: that’s professional reality and no amount of seething across the sea will alter it.
Now where that reality fits into rugby’s future will be interesting for some time to come since it is so at odds with much of the game’s self-image.
That idea of itself is obviously wide open to a lot of stereotypes that are hardly total fiction for all they are cartoonish sometimes, and when parsed right down is basically self-congratulation on not being soccer.
It’s like the old self-righteous Fine Gael definition of not being Fianna Fail, but probably with more relevance, something that struck home when stumbling across a list of citing complaints during a single weekend of Champions Cup action last month.
A Castres player was cited for a dangerous tackle; a Clermont player for pushing the referee; one Glasgow player for punching an opponent and another for grabbing someone’s testicles; a Saracens player was cited for making contact with “eye, eyes or eye area”; and a Newport player was cited for biting an opponent.
That’s one weekend, in one competition. Imagine if the Premier League yielded such a media-friendly catalogue: throw in a tree and a roast and it would be Condemnation Christmas, although, obviously, rugby players wouldn’t lower themselves to roasting.
Seriously, how excoriating would the analysis be if that was soccer? If Premier League worthies bared their gnashers or got to grips with their brains? Or if some unfortunate GAA referee found himself locked into a boot in Aughrim?
Except this was rugby, the game for thugs played by gentlemen; the game easily dismissive of chippy types resentful of its self-conscious sniffiness, the game still whirring around half-baked semi-caste assumptions about which school you went to, and, more seriously, the game struggling to properly acknowledge a doping threat it appears particularly vulnerable to.
It is also becoming increasingly vulnerable to charges that its prized culture is braying hypocrisy, which professionalism leaves looking more and more like a dated affectation.
The truth is that the prized rugby ethos so avowedly proclaimed in the clubhouse has plenty that is admirable in principle but the practise of which has always been as prone to accusations of bullshit as any other sport, something the Hartley case vividly highlights.
He’s not there to be some paragon. He’s not there to assault people either. But he’s done the time and in principle at least starts again with a clean slate. In practise, he is likely to remain a controversial appointment for some time to come.
However, it is a throwaway remark Lancaster uttered after dropping Hartley from his World Cup squad on the back of another stupid indiscretion which probably gets to the heart of all this high dudgeon at the imputation to rugby values.
Referring to how cameras now pick up everything that happens on a field, English rugby’s sacked cultural ambassador sadly shook his head and said: “You can’t get away with things you did a while ago.”
So Hartley’s real problem was he got caught. How very boardroom. How very professional. How very rugby.