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.