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Rugby can be a force for good in this world... but let's be real

By Daniel Gallan
(Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Do you hear that? The faint moan from the attic, the rattle of chains from the cupboard, the creak on the wooden staircase. Can you feel the hairs on your arm stand on end? Have you noticed a sudden drop in the air temperature? That can only mean one thing. The soul of rugby has taken a break from haunting liquidated clubs and has entered the wider discourse.

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Can a sport have a soul? John Smit, the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks captain, is certain that it can. What’s more, he believes it can be eroded by a single act on the field and took to Twitter to make his position clear.

“Yellow 9 just killed a little piece of rugby’s soul today,” tweeted Smit, a 111-cap Test veteran, on Saturday. “Yellow 9” referred to the Australian scrum-half, Nic White. The act in question was the way the Wallaby treated a Faf de Klerk flick on his face as if it were a Mike Tyson hook.

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White, a player adept at getting under the skins of the opposition, milked the contact, sank to his knees and gave referee Paul Williams little choice but to show de Klerk a yellow card for dangerous play.

Cue pandemonium. Memes of White in a hospital bed or collecting an Academy award for best actor were soon widely shared. Traditionalists who steadfastly endorse the sport’s integrity saw White’s playacting as a blight on all that is holy and sacred. “This isn’t soccer” was a ubiquitous cry on social media, referring to the perennial diving and histrionics that plague the world’s most popular pastime.

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That White tried to con the referee by exacerbating what had transpired wasn’t itself a problem for fans and former players. Rather, it was the way that he did it. Deceit and skullduggery are commonplace on a rugby field. Richie McCaw made a career out of pushing the laws to their limits. Schalk Burger and Bakkies Botha routinely committed acts that would land them in prison if they were performed in a pub. Antoine Dupont must be doing something illegal every time he touches the ball. No one can be that good.

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No, instead what irked so many and caused untold pearl clutching was that White’s histrionics were perceived to be weak, unmanly even. Rugby values are founded on a sense of toughness and hardship. This is a sport that celebrates the beauty in its brutality.

It’s why older barflies in club bars bemoan the lack of punch-ups in the modern game. There is an entire sub-genre of t-shirts that emphasises this message and for £18.97 you can have this sexist number.

Does that seem ridiculous? Is it any more ridiculous that the notion of ‘rugby values’? Competitive sport was established with noble traits at its core. Attributes such as honesty, fair play, camaraderie and personal development remain sticking points for lifelong fans and those taking their first steps in the game. But at the elite level, those Corinthian ideals are now folded in a batter that includes some less romantic flavours.

Let’s start with modern rugby’s obsession with money. Like every other sport, the oval ball bounces because of the funds that are funnelled into the game from sponsors, broadcasters and consumers who spend £10 on a pint at a stadium and continue to buy a club’s new kit every season.

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Players are wealthier than they have ever been and ply their trade with a corporation’s logo on their chest, a logo that dwarfs the crest of the club or country they are actually representing. Yet, at the same time, clubs around the world are battling for survival.

Not just at the grassroots but at the top of the pyramid too. Worcester are not the first club to stare into the abyss of insolvency and they won’t be the last. How do we square the potential demise of a 151-year-old organisation with rugby values?

Then there is the assumption that playing rugby somehow endows its participants with a moral code, but we all know this is a fallacy. The game is filled with known domestic abusers, steroid users and habitual drug takers – and that’s just at the professional level.

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I’m not here to judge. Violence aside, past transgressions should not wholly tarnish a player’s reputation. I have conducted interviews with players who have made misogynistic comments but are champions of gender equality and use their platforms to support victims of domestic abuse.

I know of a few who have battled with drug and alcohol addiction and they openly speak of their struggles to serve as a beacon for others in need. To err is human. Possessing skill on a rugby field is not divine. On the Lions’ tour of Australia in 2001, Duncan McRae assaulted Ronan O’Gara on the floor. Eight years later Tom Williams bit down on a blood capsule to circumnavigate the laws of the game. Last year Rassie Erasmus produced an hour-long video admonishing referee Nic Berry.

English fans continue to sing a song that harks back to slavery in the American south despite calls to stop from one of the team’s black players. Trans-athletes are now banned from competing altogether as female players continue to fight for equal pay and recognition.

I love this sport. As a South African, I don’t need convincing that rugby can be a force for good in this world. I wholly buy into the magic that emanates from the field and touches millions of people around the world.

But let’s be real. Rugby is no more or no less noble than any other sport. It has elements worth celebrating and it has elements that need reform. It is damaging to propagate the myth that rugby’s soul is pure. That sort of elitism hinders the game’s wider appeal. If rugby does have a soul, it is at once muddied with sin and illuminated by its virtues.

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