Johannesburg - Years ago, while I was a pupil at Dale College, I witnessed an incident during a rugby match that I felt – at the time – taught me as much about rugby as it did about life.
The seventh team was up against their Uitenhage counterparts from Daniel Pienaar in King William’s Town and, from the very first scrum, one of the visiting kids thought it was a good idea to call his opposite number the k-word.
He was warned by the black kid’s white team-mate, but didn’t listen. This resulted in the game descending into a free-for-all brawl. The referee felt he had no choice but to end the game just 10 minutes into the fixture.
While being sent off was obviously frowned upon, the Dale youngsters felt proud of themselves for fighting the common evil that is racism. Imagine their surprise on the Monday morning when the headmaster called all of them into his office and caned the lot for representing the school badly.
The lesson hidden in that caning was an interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s quote about rugby being a barbarian’s sport played by gentlemen, and football being a gentleman’s game played by barbarians.
Watching this week’s events, I couldn’t help but think back to that game in 1994.
In the week that New Zealand sevens legend DJ Forbes – rugby’s ultimate warrior and gentleman – grew tired of handing off father time and called it quits, two disgraceful incidents by kids starting out their rugby careers brought into sharp focus just how the sport is becoming more like soccer.
The rivalry between Dale College and Queen’s College, which has always been as close as it has been contentious in nature, finally spilled over into a pitch invasion reportedly accompanied by a brawl by parents from the opposing schools.
Then Mark Meafua (18) got himself a 10-year ban for – and there’s no better word for this – bitch-slapping a young referee during an Australian Under-19 club game. This was after the referee had the temerity to red-card him for striking an opponent with an elbow in an off-the-ball incident.
A massive reason I’ve always liked rugby more than soccer was how, despite the constant threat of violence, the game seldom spilt over into all-out war out of respect for the officials.
But more and more rugby players are copying their football cousins in being, as they say in the East Rand, “rof en onbeskof”.
Besides being a sign of the times, one of the main reasons for this behaviour is the money that has found its way into rugby. France, the UK and Japan contracts may not quite be up to Neymar’s £500 000 (R8.4 million) a week, but this hasn’t left the rugger buggers feeling any less entitled.
A great sign of this is how New Zealand rugby found itself committing to implementing recommendations made in a “respect and responsibility” report into their rugby this week. This was after the sport found a culture of alcoholism and sexism among players.
This is just a few years after James Kerr’s book Legacy lectured about how the All Blacks were conquering all before them because of their team values, which included the seniors cleaning up after themselves and such other acts that show they are not “windgat”.
As it turns out, winning constantly leads to entitlement. But how can players not be entitled when a court of law lets a rugby player off an assault charge pretty much because he’s a rugby player?
This was the case with Wellington rugby player Losi Filipo, who assaulted four people, including two women, one drunken night last year.
Instead of being imprisoned and having his contract cancelled, Filipo got a character reference from Upper Hutt mayor Wayne Guppy. The judge in the case was quoted as saying: “I have to ask myself ... are the courts in the business of destroying people’s career prospects?”
It happens here, too. The other day in Port Elizabeth, I saw a grown man fawn over one of the Du Preez twins in a manner that would embarrass a teenager, let alone a middle-aged man.
With that kind of hero-worship, what chance do referees – who are being targeted for beatings after games – stand of enforcing the law?
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