Friday, November 18, 2005

All black

Simon Barnes in The Times:

RUGBY is a game of violence. It is supposed to be. Both codes. It is a game of brutal physical confrontations: individual against individual, group against group. That is, if you like, the point. All the territorial ball games are mimic battles and rugby is the closest sport gets to the real thing. All the more reason, then, for it not to go over the edge.

Without violence, rugby is nothing. Would the streets of London have been lined for the winners of the Touch-Rugby World Cup? I think not. But violence is not the whole of the game. Rugby is not 15-man or 13-man boxing. Violence is the setting, the context. Without violence there is no courage, without mayhem there is no grace, without pain there is no exalted relief in victory.


Both codes of rugby are now professional. In the Eighties, I spoke to many rugby players on the hot issue of the time and one thing united them, at least in their public utterances. Whatever happens, no one must ever, ever be paid money for playing rugby union. To trade violence with another human in the way of pleasure was one thing; to do so in the way of business quite another.

But now both codes are played for money. That is to say, they are played to amuse those of us who watch. It is time, then, to wonder what we spectators want of such activities.

We must do so in the light of a weekend of violence in both codes of the game. Paul Deacon, playing league for Great Britain against New Zealand last Saturday, received life-threatening injuries after an illegal tackle from Nigel Vagana. And as New Zealand played Ireland at rugby union the same day, Ma’a Nonu executed a spear tackle on Gordon D’Arcy. In other words, he slammed him head first into the ground from a great height.

This reignited the case of the infamous spear tackle on Brian O’Driscoll, the Lions captain, in the opening moments of the first international of the tour to New Zealand, an incident from which O’Driscoll is still recovering. Such a tackle is illegal, career-threatening, potentially disabling and potentially lethal.

The New Zealanders throw a fit of righteous indignation every time the O’Driscoll tackle is mentioned. Vagana said of his own tackle: “Unfortunately, we’re not playing netball.” In other words, there is a school that thinks violence of this nature is part of the game.

But in all these cases, the violence was illegal and therefore not part of the game. The question, then, is whether or not illegal violence is acceptable. […]

It is rum that these three violent incidents have all been perpetrated by people playing for New Zealand. Before engaging in violent sports, it is the New Zealanders’ custom to stoke themselves up with an eye-popping, vein-bulging war dance. If ever anything were designed to give its performers a feeling that they were part of a group with unique privileges in the world of violence — special people for whom the normal constraints do not apply — it is the haka.


Slice it which way you will, a war dance is no sane precursor to an afternoon of wholesome amusement […]

Let us accept, then, that rugby that involves unrestrained violence is unwatchable and therefore uncommercial. Rugby needs to maintain its violence at precisely the optimum level and last weekend this failed to happen. What does rugby do about it?

The New Zealanders have demonstrated fairly unequivocally and unrepentantly that players themselves are not to be trusted. There is too much at stake. The officials have demonstrated, equally clearly, that they are not prepared to take the matter on. Certainly that was the case with the O’Driscoll business, which was one of the most disgraceful bits of home-town decision-making sport has seen for a long time. Vagana got a one-match ban and a £500 fine.

We won’t all walk away from rugby because someone thumped somebody. But we might lose our enthusiasm for rugby if premeditated acts of violence compromise the narrative of the game.

Victory may be everything to the players. But this is not the case for even the most fanatical followers. Courage is grace under pressure. Violence is one of rugby’s key areas of pressure. But without the grace, rugby is just a punch-up. Where’s the beauty, where’s the satisfaction, where’s the poem, where’s the epic in that?

Memo to all who run both codes of the game: rugby is a mimic war. When we want real war, we turn to the front of the newspaper.

On Saturday 25 of June, the Lions’ captain Brian O’Driscoll, having consulted with Maori elders for the correct response, faced the haka alone and at its conclusion, plucked a blade of grass and tossed it high in the air - to terrific cheers.

A few minutes later he was spear-tackled out of the tour.

With hindsight we can now see the incident for what it was: a cynical, pre-planned action that ruined what should have been a high point in the history of the sport of rugby.

The All-Blacks involved showed that they had no regard or respect for their opponents, the spectators or the game, and the only thing more disgraceful than the tackle was the clumsy, half-arsed cover-up by the Kiwi rugby authorities.

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