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FEATURE Is Luther Burrell the best thing to have happened to English rugby?

Is Luther Burrell the best thing to have happened to English rugby?
1 year ago

Luther Burrell? He is the best thing to have happened to English rugby in years. Better than any World Cup final placing. Better than any Exeter Chiefs’ double. Or Ellis Genge on a big upfield clatter. Or… you get the picture. Those events are splendid in their own right, joyful memories of good times. But it is the bad times from which we learn the most.

Burrell showed the courage of a Martin Johnson in the heat of a toe-to-toe slugfest when he spoke out about the racism he had experienced in rugby. It was a bold call, a cry from the heart, a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back moment, a had-enough declaration from a spirited individual who had taken one tongue-lashing too many.

Now, here’s the thing. My initial reaction when the Mail on Sunday broke the story with its back page splash in mid-2022 revealing ‘The Shame of the Game,’ was to think  – ‘Really’? In hindsight that was a lamentable, self-incriminating view to take. But I doubt I would have been alone in thinking that this can’t be true, that such a strong, decisive character as Burrell who had always seemed so sure of himself, so out-front and articulate, in short, such a good guy, could really have been subjected to such foul degradations. After all, wasn’t rugby supposed to be ‘ultimate team sport,’ in which the doctor and the docker locked arms in the front-row to do battle and then supped ale together in the clubhouse afterwards, dissimilar by trade, equals at play? And, hang on, wasn’t the England team that did get to that World Cup final in Japan in 2019 the most racially diverse side to have worn the Red Rose with its Genges and Sincklers and Itojes?

Luther Burrell
Now 35, Luther Burrell last played rugby in November for the Barbarians (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

So, yes, it was a surprise and, yes, you did wonder if the story was overblown. But it wasn’t. Not a bit of it. And that is why Burrell’s outspokenness is one of the most significant acts of the last decade in rugby union. No more pretence. No more sweeping stuff under the carpet. No more turning a blind eye. And, glory be, no more casual racism masquerading as banter.

In a nutshell, the dreaded ‘bantz’ is the crux of the matter.  What some bone-headed pillocks consider to be fun, the highest form of wit in their short-sighted world, is so often little more than a form of verbal bullying. It’s a put-down, a snide remark designed to belittle the butt of the joke. It may not always come across as that but that is its effect. Try being on the other end of such off-the-cuff remarks and see how you feel, particularly as those type of comments take root, pass by without critical response and therefore accumulate. What might start out as a barbed observation, a distortion of the truth for the supposed purpose of humour, becomes the norm.

To let it pass is no longer acceptable. Burrell did that for years, even when a few of his so-called teammates were speaking of him as a ‘slave’ or making references to ‘fried chicken,’ or ‘bananas’.

Burrell experienced all this for years, as did so many players of a different make-up, be it through colour, creed or upbringing.

To let it pass is no longer acceptable. Burrell did that for years, even when a few of his so-called teammates were speaking of him as a ‘slave’ or making references to ‘fried chicken,’ or ‘bananas’.

All that is the thin end of the wedge. If it is not called out, it is legitimised. Finally, Burrell found his voice. His candour was admirable.

Luther Burrell
Burrell won 15 caps for England between 2014 and 2016 (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

There will still be many who feel that this is some sort  of over-reaction. There are the dolts who will reach for the cliché of ‘wokeism’ to decry it, to say that things are not that bad.

That attitude must be given short-shift. This is the chance for the game to show that it is serious about the issue. This should be an opportunity to get its house in order. And, yes, there are other pressing matters in the sport’s in-tray, particularly at Twickenham, but it would be negligent if they were to believe that they have done their bit in endorsing Burrell’s stance and that everything will look after itself from hereon in. It would be a calamity if that were to become the case.

Swing Low’s origins are those of a slave song. It’s as simple as that. It is no longer a right and proper fit.

Burrell praised the backing he had received from RFU chief executive, Bill Sweeney, with the union conducting its own review of matters to sit alongside the damning evidence unearthed by KC Joseph O’Brien who wholly endorsed Burrell’s initial complaint of his experiences during his two years at Newcastle.

At one level the RFU could back up its own reservations about the singing of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot.’ Oh, it’s only a song and how can you stop people singing? You can’t. But it is a question of what is right and appropriate. Swing Low’s origins are those of a slave song. It’s as simple as that. It is no longer a right and proper fit. That 95% of those belting it out at Twickenham might be oblivious to its connotations is not the point. See bantz and where that leads to. It’s the same thing. Let the little things go and pretty soon you are toppling down from that moral high ground.

Bill Sweeney
Burrell has praised the support of RFU Chief Executive, Bill Sweeney in backing the report (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Money is tight at Twickenham. We all know that. But this is the potential trigger for a nationwide publicity follow-up to acclaim the necessity of respect and inclusivity at all levels. Given that Burrell was reluctant for a long time about going public, and was at pains not to turn the project into a witch-hunt, it’s probably too much to expect him to want to front a Black Lives Matter sort of campaign. He is wary of becoming a poster boy. However, he would be a magnificent ambassador for such a venture.

This is a potential ‘take-the-knee’ moment. There are those who would object to such postures at kick-off. But it would be a start, an overt recognition that racism exists

Burrell felt let down when he was dropped from England’s 2015 World Cup squad at the last minute, essentially making way for Sam Burgess. The then-Northampton centre was wounded by that selection decision. But that was an entirely normal part of the sporting business, ordinary and trivial in its way no matter the depth of Burrell’s hurt and perceived sense of injustice.

This is of an entirely different order. These slights are real and profound. This is a potential ‘take-the-knee’ moment. There are those who would object to such postures at kick-off. But it would be a start, an overt recognition that racism exists and it would be a sign that the RFU backs Burrell all the way. It is the very least he deserves.

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