Rugby on a slippery slope from moral high ground
Indiscipline is on the rise in the “gentleman’s” game
Mathieu Bastareaud was caught calling an opponent a “f***ing faggot” during Toulon’s win over Treviso.
The moral high ground has long been a dangerous place to call home. Rugby union, particularly in the amateur era, used to pitch its tent there regularly and still occasionally lectures its football brethren on class and integrity. The old cliche about rugby being a game for hooligans played by gentlemen is still casually recycled on a regular basis.
Today’s footballers, frankly, should sue next time anyone with an oval-ball background seeks to use a superior tone. The weekend delivered more fresh ammunition: Toulon’s Mathieu Bastareaud has issued an apology for the homophobic abuse he appeared to direct at the Benetton lock Sebastien Negri but the reputational damage has been done, both to him and his sport. So much for noblesse oblige and sportsmanlike conduct.
Rugby’s noble image has, in truth, always been a subjective issue. Few who played in the south-west of France or in south Wales on a wet Wednesday night in the amateur era ever came across much in the way of soft play or kindly advice. “Do that again and you’ll live up to your name,” was the threat famously directed at Dai Young, the great Lions and Wales prop, only partly in jest. Part of rugby’s appeal used to be its twilight world, to borrow from AC/DC’s back catalogue, of dirty deeds done dirt cheap.
Plenty of people, in short, behaved badly but few beyond the participants ever heard about it, save for a few ribald after-dinner speeches a quarter of a century later. Now, with microphones and TV cameras practically inserted up the players’ nostrils there is no hiding place. A big Frenchman abuses a Zimbabwean-born Italian in the last minute of a relatively low-profile pool game and thousands have already passed judgement on social media before the pair reach the dressing-rooms.
Bastareaud now finds himself staring down the barrel of a lengthy ban and rightly so. The only small consolation to which he can cling is that rugby’s sanctions are consistent only in their unpredictability. Last week Joe Marler received a six-week suspension for a shoulder to the head of TJ Ioane; some argued he should not even have received a red card. This week it is James Haskell’s turn in the dock following his sending-off for clattering high into Harlequins’ Jamie Roberts. Those insisting he was unlucky must have forgotten all the World Rugby directives last year specifically instructing referees to show zero tolerance towards players who, deliberately or not, catch opponents on the head.
Roll up, roll up: welcome to modern rugby’s moral maze. Bastareaud aside, the definition of serious naughtiness has never been more confusing. Catch a leaping player a split-second early in the air and you could receive anything from a penalty to a lengthy ban; clear out a ruck even a fraction too high and the same uneasy game of disciplinary roulette applies. You need the judgement of a Nasa scientist to be absolutely spot-on every time; either way an opponent will probably try and convince the referee otherwise.
The Bastareaud case, whether he was provoked or not, clearly belongs in a different category but imagine you are a member of rugby’s judiciary. Is abusing someone verbally a worse sin than attempting to gouge their eyes out? Is swearing at the referee a significantly more serious crime against the game’s core values than, say, faking injury or attempting to get an opponent sent off? Maybe the answer is a new catch-all offence, beyond mere unsportsmanlike conduct, carrying an entry-level punishment of six weeks for anyone guilty of tarnishing rugby’s good name, whether by word or deed.
The worsening picture is not all about money’s corrupting influence, either. Only last November the Scottish Rugby Union dished out a record 347 weeks of suspensions to 14 players, a coach and an official from Howe of Fife RFC following a grim initiation ceremony on a team bus which reportedly left one player with internal injuries. In September an 18-year-old Australian received a 10-year ban after striking the referee in the face during a local under-19s final.
No sport can ever be immune to bad publicity but rugby, given its physical nature, treads a more precarious line than most. The game’s traditional code of respect between players, coaches and officials - “Scrum please, sir” - has certainly never felt more frayed. To castigate everyone for the bigoted language of one individual might feel unfair but, when they look themselves in the mirror, rugby’s guardians should be honest enough to admit there is a growing problem. Never mind the moral high ground; rugby is on an increasingly slippery behavioural slope. - Guardian Service