Defiant snarl of a threatened species

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RUMOURS that the fearsome American boxing promoter Don King is keen to get involved in next year's Rugby World Cup in South Africa can be discounted - but only just. The turbulence created by the past few weeks of England's tour has attracted the sort of attention usually devoted to a leg of lamb by a shoal of piranha. The frothing waters may temporarily obscure the view of what has really been the story of the tour - Jack Rowell's return of England to the 15-man game - but a few of the under-currents are identifiable enough for comment.

In the first instance, there has been the wild neuroses displayed by many of the South African players whose faces have been caught by the touchline cameras. There was more than just the adrenalin-fuelled surge or the beat of the locker-room war-dances in their eyes. In victory or defeat, you saw something akin to the last defiant blinks of a dying animal, still capable of lashing out, but knowing its time was up.

The South African elections may have finally undone apartheid, but their rugby flies the old flag and sings 'Die Stem' for a short while longer. With a succession of defeats, both at home and away, since their return to the international fold, even the South Africans cannot have clung to any notions of invincibility, but the England tour represented a last chance to circle the wagons and die fighting. The fact that so many of the players, at all levels, have taken this image too literally cannot be excused, but it can at least be understood.

Leaving Mrs Thatcher aside, the last time I saw such fevered but futile attempts to cling to power was the performance of Diego Maradona's Argentina in the last World Cup. Their retreat into anarchy as they sensed their pre-eminence crumbling provided a graceless but captivating narrative. It may take next year's rugby equivalent to confirm finally the Springboks' spiritual demise, though the longer they stay blind to the new order, and fail to reconstruct, the worse things will be for them and their supporters, and indeed for all those who will visit the country next year.

All of which raises the question about the level of violence the sport has recently generated, the problem which the South African, English and international rugby authorities have all failed to solve. So much of their creative and administrative energies are summoned to the cause of dinners and receptions, but I wonder if a little of it could be diverted to eradicating the brutal incidents that would get the instigators five years' 'bird' if they were committed in the outside world.

The fudged responses to the violence, particularly in the Eastern Province game, revealed the sport's continuing ambivalence about the darkness within. There is no doubt that many men, in all areas of rugby, actually relish the opportunity for excess physical contact which rugby provides. It's part of the visceral thrill of the game, both for combatants and spectators. Last Tuesday's ITV panel - all ex-international players - could not help breaking into wistful smirks as memories of the Lions' 1974 tour to South Africa and the infamous war-cry of '99' came flooding back.

Under the gaze of world-wide television, however, the old 'blind eye', 'let's have a jar and make up' system just won't do any more. The authorities should either stop bullshitting and own up to their acceptance that violence is a large part of the game's box-office appeal - how many more viewers did ITV get yesterday thanks to last week's warm-up bout, I wonder? - or they should create a clear-cut, rigidly enforceable code of conduct and scale of punishment for all to see.

It can be done. The United States' National Football League - and no game has more inherent potential for mayhem - comes down like a ton of bricks on any code violation. The coaches, the players and the fans know this, and technology and organisation is available to enforce it - cameras, video-replays and, perhaps more importantly, sufficient judges and referees in all the zones of combat. The game has not suffered as a consequence, indeed the control of the violence has been a stimulant to ingenuity. Rugby has the manpower to achieve a similar cleansing but may not have the willpower. At the moment, as the Americans say, there still seems to be 'a flag on the play'.

THE first law of journalism is almost certainly the one that says 'don't bite the hand that feeds you' - unless your expenses are turned down, of course. But as a recent guest on a cable TV Sports programme, I have to issue a few cautionary observations about what my hosts are serving up. With the potential to reach every home with a phone and a TV set, this new breed of media intruder is more insidious than anything we have seen so far from Murdoch.

For the couch-based sports fan, the implications are wildly varied. There will be a diet heavy with junk - the show I appeared in, against the backdrop of what looked like a bouncy-castle which had been retired hurt, took the form of various plugs for new TV plays about football, mixed with a phone-in. It's what I believe is known as 'inter-active televison', m'lud.

Well, the presenter duly scribbled his ideas drown on a scrap of paper about two minutes before air time and, despite many exhortations, failed to summon a single call from the various towns across Britain which were wired up to this thrilling spectacle.

It didn't matter. A slot had been filled, another 40 minutes of fat and rusk had been fed into the maw of the media beast, and now there was motor-bike racing from the Philippines or somewhere to take up the baton. The worrying part is that these organisations have got serious amounts of American cash behind them, which will enable them to buy up the foie gras as well as the pork scratchings. Boxing, tennis and overseas football are already on the menu and I was told that one American corporate executive had already enquired if it might help future programming if they, er, bought 'this Manchester United club'. The days of pay-per-view are upon us, comrades. I have seen the future - and it costs a packet.

THE tabloids must be despairing of young Mister Lara. Two new world records in the space of six weeks and not even a drop of champagne is sprayed over paparazzi. There's no vainglorious chest-beating, no bimbos on the arm, no trips down to Stringfellows to celebrate. Instead, he flies home to see his mum for the weekend after modestly admitting he still has many technical faults to work on in his batting.

There are three possibilities here - this is all a sophisticated smokescreen created by a penitent Max Clifford, and Lara is secretly as depraved and bibulous as most cricketers or, maybe, it's genuine and all that there is to him is scoring runs; or perhaps he's about to announce his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party.