Sideline Cut: Guinness risk leaving bitter taste with rugby ads

Gareth Thomas, Ashwin Willemse stories don’t sit well in sleek world of advertisement

Rugby fever – and, with it, autumn – is about to sweep through the Old World and, with immaculate timing, Guinness have unveiled two riveting and beautiful short films about two of the most powerful life stories imaginable. The first, Never Alone, chronicles the demons faced down by Welsh rugby icon Gareth Thomas in coming out as gay. The other, The Right Path, portrays the exceptional journey of Ashwin Willemse in somehow escaping a drug-dealing adolescence in Cape Flats – a Cape Town address to which nobody aspired – to find a life through rugby and ultimately winning 25 caps for the Springboks. So why is it that watching both adverts left me with such a hollow feeling?

When you ask anyone what their favourite Guinness ad is, they usually have to think for a few minutes. The surfy one with the wild horses? The guys going back from the first sip of a pint to the edge of the swamps at the outset of life on earth ("Good things come to those who wait")? The Italian one where the brother has to swim out to the buoy and back before the bar man can pull his pint? The ancient, jazzy, big wave one? Tom Crean, ice-dusted and dreaming of home?

All of these adverts were and remain wonderful pieces of escapism, with cinematic values and they were so good it didn’t really matter the main point was to make people think: “Jaysus I’d love an auld pint.” So it goes.

The wit and imagination Guinness brought to its sponsorship of the All-Ireland hurling championship was such a triumph that the brewery and its brain-stormers were all but credited with saving the old stick and ball game from terminal decline. If Guinness’s timing – hopping on board just as hurling was about to enjoy its most radical and unpredictable decade – was serendipitous, then they made it work with a series of images and and words that captured an entire era.


But their latest ventures bring them into new territory. Gareth Thomas smashed a taboo when he came out, initially to his team-mates and then to society in general. As it happened, in addition to being one of the prototype backs of the professional rugby era, Thomas is an uncommonly brilliant communicator who was able to tell his harrowing story in a way that commands attention and empathy. He paved the way for other gay athletes to feel sufficiently emboldened to also come out.

Thomas has spoken about the extraordinary loneliness he felt while keeping his sexuality a secret. Here he was: a revered rugby international accustomed to the applause of thousands and a macho rugby culture. Except. Except. Later, he would speak about how close he came to suicide and about the drinking for numbness – “world class, gold-plated drinking”, as he termed it. He realised that by speaking out he could possibly help gay people to come to terms with any conflicted emotions they may be feeling. He has appeared on many talk shows, including Ellen DeGeneres’s, which doesn’t usually feature rugby heroes.

Brave step

His life story was published in his biography, Proud. He featured in a lengthy piece in Sports Illustrated in which he cheerfully told the writer, Gary Smith, how he and his rugby mates termed American football: "rugby for pussies." A play – Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage – has been staged in England. Thomas's story has been broadcast in all but verse since he took what was an important and brave step in late 2009.

Willemse's time playing for South Africa predates the time when Thomas almost changed the perception of rugby culture overnight. The South African won his caps between 2003 and 2007. He was 14 years old when he watched South Africa win the 1995 World Cup on a television powered by batteries. By then, his life had already begun to narrow along a path that seemed certain to end in violence: by the age of 16 he had encountered scenes so bleak that he tried to end his life. His talent for rugby offered an unexpected escape route and when he began to play for his club side Boland in 2000, he decided against removing the gang tattoos. Rather than try to ignore the past, he took it with him. He became an advocate for improvement – he agreed to take a HIV test, live and on African television, during a period when the virus was rampant in his country despite the protestations of then president Thabo Mbeki, who denied not just its cause but its existence. Willemse, like Thomas, transformed a challenging and potentially ruinous personal situation into something that could help to educate or comfort or support people experiencing similar lows. Willemse, like Thomas, was fearless.

Status and power

But Willemse was not, as the Guinness tag line goes, “Born into A Gang: Grew Into A Springbok”. He was born in 1981 into apartheid South Africa, into a home and to a mother who tried to use faith and discipline to keep him from falling under the influence of the only attainable manifestation of status and power available. Willemse made it out of gang life by a minor miracle and through a talent for rugby that saw him come of age when the Springboks team, once the very symbol of apartheid, was making conscious efforts to distance itself from that past.

It is easy to see why both stories must have appealed to the ad folk. The Gareth Thomas advert harks back to the amateur values of rugby and reminds us that the game is, in this part of the world anyhow, the essence of wintertime. With the images and the Welsh accent and an affecting piano score from Ludovico Einaudi, they were always going to create gold. The same was true of Willemse's film. Both Thomas and Willemse are active participants and clearly saw the adverts as an opportunity to reach a wider audience with their message. Both adverts are designed to still; to silence chatter in the living room and leave its audience with shivers down the spine. And they do that: no question. It is part of the genius of advertising and they will become part of the narrative of this World Cup.

Guinness holds a peculiar place in Irish culture: part cliche, part cultural institution. Most of the time, it leads rival brands in the ha'penny place in the way it presents itself. But for all that, the manipulation shines through here. These stories are too real and important to be used in what is, when stripped down, just another advert for booze. Don Draper says it all about advertising in the very first episode of Mad Men: "what you call love was invented by guys like me – to sell nylons".

And that’s all well and fine in the hollow world of illusion and consumer sorcery. But when Guinness drags big and life-changing stories into their world of sleekness and effect, it just doesn’t settle well.