Fair play the loser in ruck for deadline

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The Independent Online
THE NUMBER of sportsmen who are becoming media narks has never been higher. Strident opinion from the throats of players, coaches and managers booms out at us through television screens, radios and newspapers at an unprecedented rate. Even if we i gnore the Cantona kerfuffle and the hordes of football folk all busting to get their four pennyworth in, the amount of wordage issuing forth from past and present practitioners of the sporting arts has reached cacophonic proportions.

Having spent a working lifetime trying to prise fragments of wisdom from tight-lipped superstars, I'm not inclined to decry the development. Nor am I worried at the competition being faced by us gnarled old career journalists who earned our pontificatingrights the hard way. The land of hyperbole has long been a free country.

However, a recent addition to the communication between the field of play and the watching millions takes the freedom of sporting speech into areas not previously explored. I refer to the writing of opinion columns by players fresh off the field of battle, most notably by England rugby union players.

Unless you buy every newspaper every day, you might not realise how far this practice has advanced over the past few years. Of the England XV who played their Five Nations' Championship match against Ireland in Dublin last weekend no fewer than nine havenewspaper columns for which they are paid and in which they discuss the match.

The nine players and their newspapers are Will Carling (Mail on Sunday), Jeremy Guscott (Daily Express), Tony Underwood (Independent), Rob Andrew (Times), Jason Leonard (News of the World), Brian Moore (Sunday Times), Victor Ubogu (Observer), Ben Clarke (Sunday Telegraph) and Tim Rodber (Daily Mail). Rory Underwood did have a column but relinquished it, and of the other five Kyran Bracken is reckoned to be the next to burst into print.

There are three points that make this a remarkable development. First, until recently all our major sports imposed rigid rules on players' commenting without permission on international matches in which they had just played.

Second, in January 1991 England scored their first victory over Wales at Cardiff for 26 years and all of them, manager and players, refused to speak to the media on the flimsy pretext that they were "too emotionally drained". From nought to 60 words a minute in four years is a swift acceleration.

Third, there is the matter of money. The nine players involved each receive a fee upwards of £300. If they wrote the articles themselves they could claim they were being paid as journalists but they each have a ghost writer. Furthermore, if they weren't in the England team they wouldn't be employed so their earnings are a direct result of playing.

This is not an objection about money - they deserve as much as they can get from any source - but about the principle of allowing some players the opportunity to express opinions about the opposition or the referee that in the heat of the moment may not be helpful. It has long been the practice of sports writers to get after-match quotes from players, but there is a difference between giving a quick reaction that may or may not be worth printing and spending 10 minutes whispering comments into a ghost-writer's ear so he can knock out 500 words for a Sunday paper deadline.

Sometimes these comments are very illuminating, mostly they are bland and apt to drive a ghost to drink after trying to make a little go a long way, and occasionally they can be tilted towards unfairness. Last Sunday, for instance, three of them ganged up, not by design I'm sure, on one of their Irish opponents, the prop Nick Popplewell.

It so happens that four of the England forwards, including the front row of Leonard, Moore and Ubogu, write for the Sundays. What happens in the privacy of the front rows, particularly in England v Ireland matches, is a matter for the strongest of men and best not discussed in polite company. But on Sunday morning Observer readers were informed by Ubogu, who was propping opposite Popplewell: "... Poppy kept trying to lift my foot off the ground. Poppy's action is not only illegal but highly dangerous. It was that that led to Ben Clarke being penalised for throwing punches. If that's Poppy's idea of throwing a challenge down to the opposing front row, it was pathetic."

Meanwhile, Moore wrote: "We were also thoroughly aggrieved that the referee continually allowed Nick Popplewell to pick up Victor's leg in the scrum to destabilise it. It is an incredibly dangerous practice which can do untold damage."

Clarke, who was penalised for punching Popplewell and was later shown the yellow card for stamping on another Irishman, informed his readers: "Considerably more serious was Popplewell's attempt to destabilise our scrummage by grabbing Victor's leg. It isvery dangerous to attempt to deliberately collapse your opponents ... and we told the ref throughout the match."

Through a gross oversight of his, Popplewell doesn't have a column so his name was blackened without reply in front of millions of Sunday readers. His only defence came from another of his writing opponents, Jason Leonard, who said: "I am sure Nick did not want to injure Victor but wanted to get him going backwards."

By Monday's papers Popplewell, who is a British Lion and rated the world's best in his position, was given a chance to retaliate. "I apologise unreservedly to Victor if I have upset him with my scrummaging," he said. "I am sorry if he has a gripe but it's a tough old game in the front row. I had no intention of doing him any harm and I shall tell him so next time I meet him."

Fearsome tales from the front row are legend but perhaps we are seeing a change in habit. Next time there's any trouble in the scrum we might hear these words coming out: "If you don't stop doing that I'll give you a right pasting in my column."

This saturation of views is not the fault of players but of the growth in media coverage. Satellite television has greatly increased sporting screen time, there's more airtime for sport on radio than they know what to do with, and the number of sports pages in newspapers has tripled in recent years. There's no harm in that, nor in the influx of sports men and women into the press box. But if it's objectivity we are seeking, it might be a good idea to wait until they hang up their boots and get rid of their hang-ups.

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NO DOUBT which event caused the greatest controversy on Wednesday, and no doubt either which person came nearest to sustaining a serious injury - Jurgen Klinsmann, who was felled by a leap from the Aston Villa goalkeeper Mark Bosnich.

It would have been bad enough if Bosnich's knee had caught Klinsmann's head inside the penalty area. But he had no business jumping like that five yards outside the box. It was a terrible foul and Spurs didn't even get a free-kick.

If the FA can act against Cantona, quite properly, on the evidence of what they saw on TV, they can hardly ignore Bosnich's offence.

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