The Last Word: Different ball games but nowt to do with class
Sunday 12 October 2008
For once, perhaps for the first and only time, Joey Barton could be forgiven for raising his head towards the heavens and screaming about the injustice of it all. When he, a product of the footballing estates of Huyton, assaults a team-mate on a training ground he is punished with a six-match ban. When Josh Lewsey, a product of the rugby-playing grammar schools of Hertfordshire, does the same, it doesn't merit a slap on the wrist. As Joey's boss at St James' might put it: "The class system? What a ****!"
There are degrees of thuggery to be considered before doing anything quite so daft as hailing Barton as the latest working-class martyr. Players who witnessed the attack on Ousmane Dabo in May 2007 talked of a frenzied burst of punches and a sickening flow of claret in the process. Lewsey was rather more clinical. Fist up, lights out. It was over so quickly it was barely worth a mention. In fact, it wouldn't have got a mention if the recipient had not been the new poster boy of English rugby.
Whatever the rugby intelligentsia maintain, when the words "Danny Cipriani", "knocked out", "right hook", and "team-mate" were included in a sentence, the incident last Tuesday was definitely "a story". Especially when "Kelly Brook" could be inserted.Goodness knows what the model-turned-actress made of it. Her last beau happened to be Billy Zane. Can you imagine him being floored by Jude Law for getting his lines wrong in rehearsal?
"This is not Hollywood," Cipriani may have said as she tended the scratch above his smouldering lips. It's not even Moss Side. Why is it acceptable to remove a colleague from his senses on one professional field and not another? Class is not the issue; that notion, however attractive, can be dismissed with a peek across the Severn. When the Welsh striker John Hartson kicked his West Ham team-mate Eyal Berkovic in the head in 1998, there was much tut-tutting in his homeland. Yet when Neath's Barry Williams set about Mark Regan in the Lions camp a year before, it was "just our Barry letting off a bit of steam". Believe it, Williams is about as middle-class as dripping.
So it must be a cultural anomaly, then? Union has forever had this inherent glamorisation of violence – listen to any after-dinner speech – and the commitment to punish has always been weakened by the game's propensity to giggle and shrug the shoulders. In every rugby club in each corner of the land, there is a hardman whispered about above all others. It is done with a reverence totally alien to a man like Barton. Perhaps Tommy Smith or Norman Harris could identify with it, yet their notoriety is of a different age. Footballing hardmen don't exist any more. They've all been killed off by that nasty bout of Vinnie Jonesism. Only the nutters remain.
To be fair to union's overlords, they have sought to eradicate the "justice in their hands" element of their sport. On Thursday, Worcester's Chris Horsman was banned for four matches for stamping, a crime that not so long ago would have gone unpunished. With the advent of the citing procedure and all the cameras, little escapes rugby disciplinarians. After Danny's upending, is it now time to train the lenses on training fields as well, particularly if it is as widespread as those in the game claim it to be in their rush to dismiss this incident's relevance?
The holier-than-thou brigade would doubtless say it is, but that would be to ignore the facet central to rugby's appeal – its physicality. To be able to withstand 80 minutes of controlled violence on a Saturday, players are pushed to the brink and, apparently, over it during the week. When an old pro like Jonathan Davies confirms that "it's not the intensity of the matches that made me retire but the intensity of training", one starts to understand the difference between rugby and football. In the latter they do not tackle at full pace in practice; in the former they do. And when the defence-obsessive coach Shaun Edwards takes a session, players are made painfully aware it is no dress rehearsal. "I encourage emotion," he says. In game-time, Edwards "demands control".
There is a clear line of what is deemed inexcusable, and another has been drawn of when the inexcusable can be deemed excusable. That is why not one syllable of disaffection emanated from Cipriani. Much blood, sweat and tears must be shed to make it on to sport's most demanding catwalk. Miss Brook would understand.
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