RUGBY WORLD CUP – The athleticism of the players has impressed in this tournament, but is there a whiff of unsportsmanlike behaviour in the air? Brian Stoddart of La Trobe University investigates.
A few days before the present Rugby World Cup began Mark Reason, a British-born but now New Zealand-domiciled sports writer produced an extraordinary piece.
He wrote straightforwardly that the New Zealand All Blacks deliberately set out to cheat – and he used that word - led shamelessly by their captain, flanker Richie McCaw.
Reason argued that most New Zealand tries in the recent Tri Nations series were tainted in that they resulted from cheating, with McCaw invariably offside by several metres.
This followed an earlier piece by another British rugby writer, Peter Bills, who did not use the “cheat” word but euphemistically referred to the All Blacks’ “spoil on the ground” approach to play.
Fierce rivalry has always stalked the rugby world as it does most sports, but arguably in recent years this tribal instinct has developed a much sharper edge.
It is hard to think of another sport where journalists would so openly label an entire team or prominent players as “cheats”, and for that attribution to remain effectively unchallenged by the sport’s ruling body.
In cricket, for example, “Bodyline”, “chucking” and “underarm bowling” were rare examples when the cheat word was used, and the ruling body moved to deal with the rules flaws that produced the incidents. Yet in rugby, “cheating” is used lightly as a serial criticism, and the ruling body seemingly does not care.
There was the predictable response to Bills and Reason in New Zealand, now long used to these accusations especially but not exclusively from the northern hemisphere.
During the Super XV finals, for example, a former Australian captain and now its television cheer squad director (rather than commentator in the accepted sense of the word), on air directly tagged the Auckland Blues as “cheats”, linking that further to the All Blacks and, inevitably, McCaw.
That speaks, incidentally, to the corrosion of contemporary sports commentary, especially in Australia: partisanship and commercialist spruiking replace dispassionate analysis.
A further matter involving Peter Bills reveals something of what lies deeper beneath all this.
Now in New Zealand to cover the Cup, he publicly advised Kiwis to treat their guests well because that was how people should behave and they would be thanked for it.
The New Zealand public responded to this penetrating insight into the obvious by construing it as yet another imperious Pom come to the colonies to instruct the locals, and they would have nothing of it.
Some respondents pointed out that a couple of years ago, Bills had publicly regretted the changing nature of the crowd at “Twickers” (Twickenham, home of English rugby out in leafy Richmond near Wimbledon) because that meant behaviour standards had declined. It was no longer a refined clientele that appreciated fine play, but a raucous and partisan mob.
The origins of rugby
The structure and function of most sports reflect strongly the cultural practices of the communities and cultures that produce them: the specialised nature of American football is sometimes said to reflect the Henry Ford-type approach to industrial production; cricket had its roots in the later nineteenth century’s reordering of British society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.
Rugby grew out of the Great Public Schools (that is, private schools like, well, Rugby) and was marked as a game for the class that supported those schools, hallmarking the “amateur” ethos that then infused sport.
That is why rugby league appeared later, paying working class men for their efforts especially when needing time off to recover from injuries. While some Australians still deny it, that structure of rugby transferred strongly to Australia and took a time to break down although distinct traces of that element remain.
New Zealand produced a very different settler society and that flowed directly into the way in which rugby was socially organised and interpreted. By 1900, for example, Kaikorai, the most successful club in Dunedin was full of players employed at the local woollen mills. At the risk of too great a generalisation, it was a more egalitarian game than in either England or Australia.
Rugby became the stick with which to beat the Mother country, as did cricket in Australia. South African rugby began its real rise after the Boer War when it was seen as a vehicle by which to reunite the Afrikaaner - and English -speaking communities, then became a massive symbol for the former under people like leading player and later administrator Danie Craven.
A game of two halves
Despite variations (like Wales in the United Kingdom and Australia in the south) something of a divide appeared between the northern and southern hemisphere approaches, and if anything that has been exacerbated by rugby’s inexorable move into the “professional” domain and away from the “amateur” one. That has led directly to one of the potent sources for the “cheating” name calling.
Put simply, one of the major disputes between north and south in recent years has been over refereeing decisions. More precisely, it is around referees’ interpretations of the laws in both hemispheres, because they have been different in some respects, especially around the highly technical areas of the rucks and mauls – where players pack together from broken play to contest ball possession.
Rules of the game
Like most sports rules those covering rucks and mauls are simple, as a visit to the International Rugby Board’s website demonstrates.
A moment’s reading, though, illustrates the wide gap between rule and reality. For example, in rucks and mauls players are to remain on their feet while contesting the ball, but with their heads and shoulders to be no lower than their hips.
Watch one of the upcoming games and observe how effective is that rule. Then, at said rucks and mauls, any player not involved must be either positioned behind the feet of the teammate at the back of the pack, or enter into the ruck/maul from behind those feet (that is, not from the side). Otherwise that player is offside. Again, observe and ponder, because the referees have an awful job trying to police all this, but the IRB seems content with the situation.
That is an important point, because the All Blacks and McCaw are constantly accused of breaking those rules and, of course, that immediately suggests that all referees in the world are biased because they allow the All Blacks to get away with it. That is, the IRB effectively allows its referees to be seen as influenced, which cuts at the heart of the integrity of any sport.
The tribalist instinct is hard at work here, as revealed in the course of a recent Twitter war around this subject. One Wallaby supporter argued that McCaw is a cheat, but that the Australian counterpart flanker David Pocock simply played “to the limit of the law”.
As anyone who watched Wales’ stirring effort against South Africa last weekend would attest, South African Schalk Burger was offside at most rucks and mauls but was not called, while his backline compatriot Butch James was penalised just once for similar behaviour. Yet they are not called “cheats”.
The IRB is the premier world rugby body, and as with most like federations it is marked as much by politics as by sport. In recent years its handling of issues like the allocation of World Cup hostings, international player eligibility, media rights and, yes, rules, has been consistently controversial.
It is now in a position, however, where it is effectively allowing the integrity of its refereeing officials to be biased, one of its premier teams and players to be labelled as cheats, and all because the laws it oversees have not kept pace with the modern game.
The natural conclusion to be drawn here is that the IRB’s governance has not kept pace with modern change either, the major curse of most international federations as both IOC and FIFA have found to their cost in recent years.
Players like David Pocock have come out and said they play exactly like McCaw, and in fact use him as a model because that is how the modern game can be played under the rules as they stand.
Now, of course there is keen rivalry in any international sports contest, especially involving Australia and New Zealand. And in some of the name calling there is an odd sort of humour.
However, when journalists and spruikers write and pronounce players and teams to be cheats it “trashes the brand”, as the marketers would say, at the very time support for rugby is under pressure, even its heartland centres like New Zealand.
The obvious question, then, is how long the IRB can or should stand aside and watch the reputation of its game disappear.
This is the fourth part of our Rugby World Cup series. To read the other parts, follow these links:
- Part three: Art or science? Decision making in rugby
- Part four: Rugby World Cup: Are cheats prospering?
- Part five: Rugby World Cup: The Australian situation
- Part six: Selling the Rugby World Cup
- Part seven: Rugby World Cup injuries: That’s gotta hurt
- Part eight: Rugby World Cup a lottery amid refereeing chaos