There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a timely dose of artful impertinence. Indeed, a little vinegar and peppered sauce can serve either as a curative or a stimulant and enliven even the dullest of dinner parties, particularly when directed at the pompous or the pissed. Impolite society might almost consider it the varnish of a complete man.
Ideally, though, the best slaps in the face need to be laced with a measure of wit, so while Shane Warne watching the South African, Darryl Cullinan, walking out to bat and reportedly telling him: ‘I’ve waited two years to get another crack at you, you useless *&%*’ doesn’t quite cut the mustard, Cullinan’s reply: ‘Looks like you spent both of them eating, mate,’ is exactly what we’re after.
Certainly, in an era when haymakers have long since given way to handbags, the darker arts of rugby oneupmanship are now almost exclusively confined to sledging, shithousery and what Courtney Lawes deliciously refers to as ‘smack’. Mind you, the word ‘oneupmanship’ is doing some heavy lifting here: needle the other bloke to a point where he completely loses his marbles would be closer to the mark as England emphatically proved in the First Test of their Summer Tour against Australia.
Indeed, perhaps the more interesting question is to what extent all this is premeditated. Daft as he was to lose his head – and, worse still, drop it on top of Jonny Hill’s – was Darcy Swain targeted in Perth? ‘Not to my knowledge,’ said the England Head Coach, a deft yet opaque reply which bore more than a faint whiff of a non-denial denial. Certainly, the one-time Wallaby, Justin Harrison, was in no doubt he could spot familiar fingerprints. ‘I’ve been given the task by Eddie Jones to draw my opposite number into exactly what Darcy Swain got drawn into,’ he said. ‘I know exactly how that’s been scripted.’
Australia, clearly, weren’t happy. Swain aside, the Wallaby scrum- half, Nic White, publicly pointed an accusing finger and said he was surprised by England’s wind-up tactics and their ‘off-the-ball stuff’. Charged with a second, broader count of incitement, a rather punchier Eddie Jones opted to ignore the ball and play the man. ‘That does make me laugh; the boy who niggles everyone complaining about niggle,’ he snorted. ‘He’s the biggest niggler of all time, isn’t he?’ No question, this was a spikier, more pertinent response but, again, not exactly a cast-iron rebuttal.
Look, whether it’s scripted or ad-libbed, sledging, shithousery and smack – the perfect name for a firm of brash, barrack-room lawyers – are clearly endemic in the game and understandably so given rugby, for all its frills and thrills, is essentially a scrap. ‘It’s the nature of the contest,’ said the England forwards’ coach, Matt Proudfoot. ‘Just watching the Ashes series and the amount of sledging that goes off in that, these guys are competing … you never want to take that intensity away from a player … [but they] … need to understand and grow and know where the line is.’
Which begs the most obvious and pertinent question of all; namely, what’s acceptable and what isn’t? A professional or a cynic would doubtless argue that if poking the opposition flicks your switch, blows his fuse and doesn’t prompt the referee to reach for his whistle or delve into his pocket, then you’re absolutely on point. It’s all part and parcel of a tough, confrontational sport.
But, then again, if you’re coaching the U13s at Little Snodbury RFC on a Sunday morning and two of your forwards start pulling each other’s hair, shoving each other in the face or taunting each other when tries are scored or penalties awarded, then you might well be tempted to rip up your copy of The Core Values of the Game and lob them into the nearest skip. To put it politely, we’re in danger of getting lost in a pot of glue.
Where do you stand on ‘The Hand of Back’ in the 2002 Heineken Cup Final, assuming, of course, you’re not from the East Midlands or the South-West of Ireland? Was that top- flight shithousery or weapons-grade cheating?
Test yourself for a moment with a dip into the rugby archive. Where, for example, do you stand on ‘The Hand of Back’ in the 2002 Heineken Cup Final, assuming, of course, you’re not from the East Midlands or the South-West of Ireland? Was that top- flight shithousery or weapons-grade cheating?
Or, if you prefer, how about Danny Grewcock snatching Mark Conners’ scrum-cap from his head during a Bath/Northampton game in 2003 and ripping it to shreds with his bare hands? Riotously funny or borderline bonkers? For the record, Back was judged by nothing more than the court of public opinion; Grewcock was fined £500 for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Essentially, it comes down to how much Tabasco sauce you prefer with your steak; in other words, chacon a son gout. Coaches taunting each other ahead of Test matches are another case in point; it’s either edgy, compulsive theatre that spices up the game or it’s a media-confected crap-fest that demeans each and every participant. Again, judge for yourself; this is Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika in the week leading up to the England/Australia game at Twickenham in December 2016. A skirmish of wits it was not.
JONES: ‘They’ve got some issues with the way they scrum so we need to have a meeting with the referee.’
CHEIKA: ‘He should look at his own players; Dan Cole’s been infringing the law since his career started.’
JONES: ‘Mate, the only person who hasn’t spoken about Dan Cole this week is Bob Dwyer; I don’t know if Bob is in the country but we’ve still got one day to go.’
CHEIKA: ‘Does he think the refs are that naive that if he has a go at our scrum, they’ll forget about his guy?’
JONES: ’Cheika has had a lot to say this week; I’m disappointed he’s upset but I don’t control his emotions.’
CHEIKA: ‘He’s always operated with a chip on his shoulder and now there isn’t one, he’s looking for one.’
Jones has a mind full of razor blades and, when he so chooses, a whiplash wit. Cheika himself is no mutt; an agile brain and an exchequer of opinions.
From a journalistic perspective, it looks a bit churlish to be given free sixpences and then moan about being impoverished but, frankly, this was all a little jejune. Jones has a mind full of razor blades and, when he so chooses, a whiplash wit. Cheika himself is no mutt; an agile brain and an exchequer of opinions. Yet here they were – two fast friends, moreover – squawking at each other like Billingsgate fishwives.
Opinion afterwards, though, was almost equally divided; those disappointed to be listening to a personal shouting match which ‘disfigured the game’ and those who delighted in coaches ‘throwing a few hand-grenades’ and saying what they were really thinking. And, in fairness, neither view was completely untenable.
The Godfather of sledging, shithousery and smack in the sporting arena was, of course, Mohammad Ali; indeed, if we’re talking about poking bears, the epitome of the art – the literal epitome – was his merciless taunting of Sonny ‘Big Bear’ Liston ahead of their unforgettable fight in Miami Beach in 1964. Ali – ‘a God with a custard pie up his sleeve’ – kicked off with a poem which contained the line; ‘Here I predict Sonny Liston’s dismemberment/I’m gonna hit him so hard, he’ll forget where November went.’ Compared to the verse of Ali, Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is mere doggerel.
Better even than this, Ali actually hired a bus, had ‘Liston Must Go In Eight’ painted on the side and drove it from Chicago to the champion’s home in Denver at three in the morning where he stood in the street shouting: ‘Come out of there; I’m gonna whup you right now’. (To be honest, when I first read about this, I didn’t believe a word of it but, apparently, it’s true.)
He then turned up at Liston’s training camp in Florida where he continued hurling insults. ‘After the fight, I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug,’ he told a drooling media corps. ‘Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him.’ Ali, an 8/1 underdog, finished the fight in six rounds.
Mind you, Ali’s braggadocio wasn’t always a thing of beauty. His relentless bullying of ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier during their brutal trilogy of fights in the early seventies was mean-spirited, shameless and spiteful; arguably, the cruelest beating Frazier ever took. But as with Joe, so with George in Ali’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with Foreman in 1974; poke the other guy with a big enough stick and he’ll get so angry he won’t know whether it’s Canada or Christmas.
‘You don’t really psych people out, you don’t put fear into them,’ Ali once said of his fight with Foreman. ‘You just make them fight harder and that’s the thing; they fight too hard, they gotta get you. It’s like I told George; I said, okay, sucker, I’m backing up on the ropes and I want you to take your best shots. And I just stood there and I said, show me something, kid; you’re not doing nothing, you ain’t got nothing and that made him so angry he just beat himself out. He was so tired he was just falling on the ropes and I said, man, this is the wrong place to get tired.’
World Rugby says in its Code of Conduct, the sport owes much of its appeal ‘to the fact that it is played both to the letter and within the spirit of the laws.
The point being that what sport – and especially physical, confrontational sport – continues to prove, even fifty years on, is that whoever loses his temper generally loses the argument. It’s not a hard and fast rule – John McEnroe would be the obvious exception – but if you’ve a sharp enough needle, the odds are generally in your favour. Put it this way, if they weren’t, why is it still such a common practice?
It’d be tempting to say, look, leave all this skullduggery to the officials but that’s not just a cop-out but an inequity. As World Rugby says in its Code of Conduct, the sport owes much of its appeal ‘to the fact that it is played both to the letter and within the spirit of the laws. The responsibility for ensuring this happens lies not with one individual – it involves coaches, captains, players and referees’, which is all very laudable in theory but, in practice, a tacit admission that jungle rules apply.
But it’s all about degrees, isn’t it? Peter O’Mahony – some summer he had in New Zealand – telling Sam Cane he’s ‘a shit Richie McCaw’ wasn’t perhaps the perfect sledge but it was certainly a signature statement. Ireland weren’t for backing down. However, Wales’ Dafydd Jenkins shoplifting a water bottle from the Springbok team huddle in an U20s match the other week definitely tickled the fancy, as did Vincent Rattez tossing away Maro Itoje’s scrum-cap as he was crawling across the turf to retrieve it in Paris a year or two ago. That one felt almost poetic.
A rugby rule of thumb would probably be that if it makes you smile then it’s probably within the bounds of common decency, although that depends largely on how warped a sense of humour you’ve got
But you fancy the sport can probably rub along without witless abuse, cheap shots and charmless goading: let’s be honest, we can get all that and more from a Tory leadership crisis. A rugby rule of thumb would probably be that if it makes you smile then it’s probably within the bounds of common decency, although that depends largely on how warped a sense of humour you’ve got. A sprinkling of attic salt is what’s required; the likes of Nigel Owens pulling up a dodgy line out throw and telling the aggrieved hooker: ‘Mate, even I’m straighter than that one.’
Look, maybe we shouldn’t get too prissy here. If I’m playing backgammon with The Boy and I open up with lame, 6/3 dice, then wherever I eventually move, I can expect a scratch of his salt and pepper scruff, a roguish smirk and a muttered, ‘that’s suicide, you loser’. I’ve no idea where he gets this from but, understandably, who wants to come second to a decrepit, deadbeat parent? Or, let’s be honest, to a malingering student who still hasn’t worked out where we keep the dishwasher? Hey, love the guy to bits, but it’s all part of the fun.