Thursday, 6 June 2013

Rugby's Teething Problem

Rugby Union has been professional since the mid-1990s and has had a lot to contend with during the intervening near two decades of changing landscape for the sport. However, the sport is seemingly going through an unseemly change on the field, the like of which we did not expect to happen in the ugly sport played by gentleman.

In the last two weeks of rugby action there have been three incidents of note, all with a direct impact upon the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia - the last bastion of amateur ethos in this professional age, where you get a combined sense of four nations coming together for a shared purpose away from the glare of homeland media.

Rugby Union is finally becoming undone by the age of professionalism, as the grind of continual play and the need of victory anyway possible over the style or substance of the play; a type of feature more prevalent to the round ball game is now infesting the oval ball game.

It all started in late May during the Premiership Final at Twickenham between eventual champions Leicester and finalists Northampton, with the comical antics just before half-time.  Dylan Hartley, the Saints captain, allegedly called elite referee Wayne Barnes, a f***ing cheat, the sort of coarse, industrial language which is apparent in everyday culture but not the sort of thing you ever say to someone in a position of authority, the final result - Hartley is sent off, the first player to be sent off in a Premiership final. His resultant ban of 12 weeks meant he was not available for the tour of Australia.

The first game of the Lions tour was held in Hong Kong versus the Barbarians, as capitalist a statement in honour of tour sponsor, HSBC, as ever seen with the players competing in near 90% humidity all in the name of a quick buck.  The stadium was not even sold out because the ticket prices were far too high for the casual fan.  The match descended into a one-sided contest as expected.

During the game, Owen Farrell was given the chance to stake a claim for the No. 10 fly half position ahead of Jonathan Sexton.  Yet Farrell's play was overshadowed by his altercation with Saracens team-mate Schalk Brits (playing for the Baa-Baas) who punched Farrell and prompted a heated response, which was warranted.  Yet the fall out of the incident has focused more on Farrell's reaction rather than the malicious nature of Brits' original act which caused the reaction - has Brits been cited and banned, whereas Farrell's chance of starting a test has been blindsided before it has started owing to his natural reaction.

Thuggery has always been a part of rugby union, yet sometimes the players police matters themselves yet the unsavoury scenes last year involving Chris Ashton and Manu Tulagi in a Premiership match led to many citations and bans.  However, no sportsman should act like Brits did and you wonder why he chose to have an altercation with a club team-mate in Hong Kong, why did he not wait until pre-season to make a statement.

Warren Gatland has reiterated that the Lions need to maintain their composure for the tour as they face the wily Wallabies who will needle and upset the tourists at every opportunity they can get.  Gatland would not have been pleased by the actions of prop forward, Cian Healy.

Healy has been cited for allegedly biting Brett Sheehan on the finger during the breakdown. Sheehan complained to the match referee, and the video referee stated that Healy had a case to answer after seeing alternative viewing angles.  The angle most legible shows Healy was in possession of the ball when he bit Sheehan, prompting the question, why bite someone to ward them off, why not just recycle the ball?  Healy faces a 12 week ban, which is of little relevance following the ankle injury he sustained, his tour is over one way or another.

Biting is barbaric, as we have seen with the incident in football involving Luis Suarez and Branislav Ivanovic at Anfield in April that prompted to a multiple match ban for the controversial Uruguayan.  Whilst Suarez has previous in this action, for Healy it is most unusual and not what Gatland would have wanted.

You can imagine the Australian coverage focusing again on the unsavoury nature in a Lions win, rather than the dominant victory helped by Brian O'Driscoll being his influential self at centre and the exceptional kicking of Leigh Halfpenny whose kicking may be the difference between a series win or defeat.

Rugby has a problem with this ever increasing professionalism happening in their ranks from grass roots up; you have youngsters starting at 17 and 18 who are getting good money far too early and feel they have made it, whereas professionals like Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter (neither who made the Lions squad) still live by the code and for the glory of the game.  What glory is their in a game when you can make good money being pretty average?

The old adage is that football is gentleman's game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentleman.  Yet too often, rugby is making the news for the wrong incidents. When you are told about a specific incident about a game, before the scoreline is mentioned, then something is not right. Luckily rugby union is smart enough to turn this around - and at least they are quick to dish out punishment for illegal actions, in stark contrast to association football which takes forever to throw the book at people, probably because they are still reading it.

Unfortunately, and much like everything in life, once you throw money at anything it all becomes ugly and that class distinction from the outside looking in is getting smaller to differentiate.

Follow me @JamieGarwood

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