Rugby died a little on Saturday night, for me – and I wanted to share here, the reasons why.
The level of expectation won’t have helped. Toulon v Clermont, the two richest teams in the NH. Both very different, both festooned with superstars and a worthy back story.
As a neutral I truly believed that Clermont were going to have the edge. Nigel Owens refereeing, Barnes running the line and a neutral venue just to make absolutely sure. Yes I thought, today rugby would decide and surely that meant Clermont.
How wrong I was.
There were lots of practical shortcomings that aided Clermont’s demise and I am sure they will have acknowledged them all in the last 48 hours, particularly their failure to cope with almost every restart. But that isn’t what I want to talk about here, I want to talk about the almost tangible erosion of rugby values in the modern, professional game to the point that it appears to me like a different sport altogether.
Incidentally, I watched one of the best displays of rugby I have seen in a long time just 2 weeks ago at Taunton RFC when a South West Invitational side played the Royal Navy in what I guess, must have been 30 guys about as high up the ‘amateur’ ladder as you can get. All of rugby’s values were on show, you know the ones the RFU & Celebrity Professionals keep telling our kids to adhere to… I prefer actions to words.
Bryan Habana, the man who bought the professional kissballer-esque swan dive to rugby in such a grotesque fashion that he had to publicly apologise was probably the worst offender as a player. Early on he took out Morgan Parra so far off the ball it was laughable, we can only guess as to why Owens didn’t send him to the bin. And then his response at the death to Owens telling him time was up was not to kick the ball off, but just walk off the pitch arrogantly with it in his hands to salute the crowd as if he owned the occasion.
But neither of those touched on his demands for a penalty in the 48th minute, screaming at Nigel Owens like a petulant footballer and demanding the penalty because Nakaitaci had thrown the ball away having carried it in to touch. There was no malice, Toulon were not lookng to go quickly and you could see that Nakaitaci was just angry at himself. We’ve all done it. That penalty from Halfpenny took the score to 19-11 … making the gap more than a converted try, a massive turning point in the game, particularly for a team that are most comfortable building a lead and then defending it.
Now, I am aware that I am a romantic and I do understand the concept of professional sport but what’s happening to rugby? Is it Habana’s celebrity that stopped Nigel from telling him to button it and reversing the penalty, like he would have any other week in the Aviva Premiership? Are Toulon ‘too big to penalise’? Is that where we are? Like the Football premiership where the referee’s are on first name terms with the ‘stars’?
I watched Habana play for Toulon at Exeter and he was woeful, he is past it. But so high is his level of cynicism and so corrupt is his moral compass that in this modern game he is a potential match winner. How messed up is that?
So I’m on my feet shouting at the screen at this abhorrent act (venting one handed through my facebook status so the kids can’t hear) when … Barnes chimes in:
“Well, I’m glad he’s given that and well done to Habana for pointing it out – too many of those aren’t given these days”
I’m sorry, did you just applaud that behaviour? Yes, yes you did and the entire Sky team chimed in behind him! I’m praying that the group gush for Toulon was due to Jonny’s presence and that Scott Quinnell wouldn’t have spent the entire day trying to dismantle Clermont via his TMO replays had the King not been in residence.
But Barnesy’s lowest moment was still to come and it was pure chip-on-the-shoulder, cynical Barnes Gold.
Twas the 62nd minute and it looked like the entire Toulon team turned to stone for an instant as Abendanon conjured a deft kick and chase that no-one in Toulon would ever be capable of and walked through the Toulon defence. It was sublime. It was the ultimate 10’s try … by a 15.
As he dotted down, so static and muted were the Toulon players and fans that for a second, I’m sure he thought the whistle had already gone for something else. But no. It was a try. A beautiful, individual try that once converted, put Clermont back in the game at 19-18.
So what did Barnes think? A 10 himself and pretty well placed to appreciate what he’d just seen… sadly, he launched into a bizarre attack on the Toulon defence for their lack of cynacism?!
“1, 2, 3, 4 – there are 4 players there and one of them needs to be taking a step to the left, or the right to take Abendanon out. I’m sorry, but cynicism was needed there!”
Really Barnesy? Is that how desperately angry at the world you have become? So twisted that your gut instinct isn’t to stand up and applaud an act of sheer audacity and skill we mortals cannot comprehend, to smile and salute this shining diamond in the rough of an attritional battle of grunt and muscle? But in fact to think ooh, – I wish someone had just dropped their shoulder there and taken him out.
Is that what this ‘professional’ game is all about then?
I tell you what, had Habana been back there he’d have taken one for the team and gone to the bin – should Nigel have dared to show it.
So where do we go from here? Rugby Union was invented for the purpose of teaching young men essential life skills and values that could not be taught in the classroom, they had to be shown on the sports field. These values aren’t just an important part of the sport, they are the reason it was created. Rugby is the vehicle for learning, the medium in which these values are taught, they run through rugby like DNA and are passed on by example. Do as I do. Watch and learn.
Courage, Honesty, Integrity, Trust. Accepting victory gracefully and defeat with dignity.
Professional Rugby (League) was invented as a different sport so that it could be that. Professional.
How long is it until we see our kids imitating their heroes like those vile little Shits at Sunday football up and down the country? They’ll be running up to the ref drawing little TMO squares with their fingers a la Fernandez or pretending to be unable to get a ball out of a ruck due to an offside player in a Laidlaw stylee.
In Football one can ‘earn’ a penalty by being so quick that a stray leg can be left out there for you to jump over … or dive over. The choice is yours and now maybe 1 in 1000,000 does the former only to receive the hair-dryer form his coach no doubt.
As much as I despise Habana’s actions, and worse still: Owen’s reaction to them and Barnes’s applause for them … they probably won Toulon the game and that is why this, needs to be addressed before everything that matters is lost.
In my opinion these professional sportsmen have a responsibility to behave like rugby players, but more importantly our officials have a responsibility to police that and our pundits have a responsibility to applaud that policing, not the ‘streetwise’ art of getting away with it … leave that to the share holders.
I want to finish by saying thank you to Nick Abendanon. The try was beautiful and there are some things that a team full of cynical old men just can’t stop, and I’m going to hold on to that as tightly as I can. I hope he does it again in their penultimate Top 14 match as the 2 teams meet again on May 15th … in Clermont!