Tackling rugby union’s superiority complex

From Bloodgate to cocaine abuse, the sport of posh boys and coppers can no longer claim the moral high ground.

David Bowden

Topics Politics

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Last week, I wrote about how Australia’s Ashes defeat in cricket bore a resemblance to the structures of classical tragedy. As for that other great middle-class British sport – rugby union – I must say it comes across all Commedia dell’Arte.

The sport has been enveloped in scandal since it emerged that young Harlequins wing Tom Williams faked a blood injury in the dying seconds of a Heineken Cup quarter-final so that a specialist kicker could replace him. Harlequins not only lost the match, but after an investigation Williams was banned for a year, before revealing he had been ordered to feign injury by coach and former police constable Dean Richards and physio Steph Brennan. They, too, have been suspended – Brennan for at least three years. Meanwhile, Harlequins chairman Charles Jillings has resigned in disgrace.

Sordid as well as tragic-comical allegations have emerged almost daily. The club has been accused of trying to cover up the incident in various ways; the club doctor allegedly cut Williams’ mouth with a scalpel after the opposition got suspicious about the injury (1). The club has also been accused of bribing the young Williams into taking all the blame and it has emerged that the fake blood capsule was purchased in a joke shop in Clapham, south London. Jillings, Richards and Brennan come across as a Dickensian firm of jolly lawyers.

The whole incident comes at a particularly inconvenient time as rugby’s reputation was already on shaky grounds. Earlier in August, details emerged of Bath’s debauched end-of-season party that resulted in the resignations of three key players amid claims of Class-A drug abuse and violence. That came only 10 weeks after England international and X-Factor finalist Matt Stevens was banned for two years after tearfully admitting cocaine addiction.

Within the sport, the response has been a shrug of chinless heads. Richards’ mistake, according to former England forward Jeff Probyn, ‘was using an idiot like Tom Williams’ as his stooge. Former England captain and Quins star Will Carling has also been supportive. ‘Great guy, great player, great coach’, said the bum-chinned Carling, a player more widely known for shagging the Queen of Hearts than for his on-field exploits.

Sports commentators outside the sport have generally been frothing at the mouth without (one hopes) the aid of soap suds. ‘An odious confection of barrack-room legalese and slippery evasion’, wrote Patrick Collins, making it sound like some other activity for which rugby players are famed (2). Simon Barnes called Richards ‘an unsavoury bully’ (3).

Matthew Syed was almost biblical in indignation. ‘All it has taken is 15 years of professionalism’, he thundered, ‘and a few pieces of silver dangled in the wind for rugby to plumb depths that will leave other sports shaking their heads in disbelief’ (4). For years, rugby fans have boasted that, unlike football, rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen. ‘Never again’, affirmed Syed.

Great news, I think. As has been argued consistently on spiked, rugby union has always been the way that the English ruling classes have lorded it over those uncouth, working-class games (5). ‘A bomb under the west car park at Twickenham on an international day would end fascism in England for a generation’, as Philip Toynbee once memorably put it.

By far the most significant way in which this snobbery was maintained was by keeping its amateur status. It took until 1995 for union to become a professional sport – a century earlier, its refusal to pay its players led to a split and the creation of rugby league (6). Ever since, the two codes were divided as much by class as by their rules and numbers of players. Union was full of public-school solicitors, army officers and policemen (like Richards) giving each other a kicking and going out on the lash together after games. League was a physical, exciting and highly skilled sport played by working men from industrial northern towns.

Rugby league is the major theme of David Storey’s classic Angry Young Man novel of 1960, This Sporting Life. Appropriately enough, the book begins with its protagonist, Arthur Machin, being helped off a rugby pitch, his mouth streaming with blood. But his is no faked injury. ‘“Christ man”’, he [the trainer] says, ‘you’ve broke your front teeth”’ (7). Two paragraphs later, and shot full of Benzedrine, Machin is back on the pitch, despite his team winning comfortably, ‘to show just how much I care’. Machin, coincidentally, still works at the chairman’s factory, because he knows he can’t rely on such a violent game for a living.

Without question, since 1995, rugby union has been a better sport. Whereas before it seemed little more than fat blokes kicking lumps out of each other, and skinny ones kicking the odd penalty, today’s players are fearsome athletes: huge, strong and very fit, as well as being incredibly skilful.

Indeed, rugby’s summer of shame started with the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa: as I have argued previously on spiked, an incredible three-match series of ferocious intensity and drama. Afterwards, Lions physio James Robson – a man with 20 years of experience – expressed serious concerns about the injuries modern players were suffering (8). Far from being drug-fuelled louts, today’s top players – not nearly men like Stevens – are putting their bodies on the line in the pursuit of being faster, better and stronger.

It is symbolic that the club that has defined the first scandal of the professional era is Harlequins. As Collins writes: ‘For almost 150 years, Quins have revelled in their status as the Establishment’s club of choice; the club most deeply rooted in Oxbridge and the City, in Parliament and the higher professions.’ The debauched Bath rugby players, of course, are simply engaging in what everyone knows rugger buggers do. They just can’t get away with it when they’re professional athletes as opposed to toffs larking about. Dean Richards may have been a great player in his day, but he wouldn’t even be a blood replacement by today’s standards.

The rugby world of Arthur Machin is an ugly, violent game played by tough men; he gets his contract partly by punching a rival team mate in the face. It’s worth noting that it is League, with its focus on professionalism and intensity, which pioneered the use of video technology, sin binning and the rest which football still wavers over and union tries to claim as its noble birthright. While people squirm with horror over the ‘vulnerable’ (9) Williams having his lip cut, remember Machin’s smashed teeth. That’s what a real professional calls an ‘occupational hazard’. It’s taken a century, but rugby union’s finally grown up. It’s the cheats who are still only amateurs.

David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

Read on: spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Harlequins’ Tom Williams: ‘It seemed to me the only solution was to cut my lip, The Times (London), 26 August 2009

(4) Defenders of the faith have a bloody cheek, The Times (London), 19 August 2009

(5) A dirty tackle on the working classes, spiked, 19 October 2007

(6) Groeneveld, Margaret (2007). Matters of the heart: The business of English rugby league Berghahn Books

(7) Storey, David, This Sporting Life (London: Vintage, 2000)

(8) Long injury list dominates Lions tour, The Times (London), 6 July 2009

(9) Defenders of the faith have a bloody cheek, The Times (London), 19 August 2009

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