Rugby Union: Banish the warmongers

Chris Rea says the battle of Brive raises fundamental questions about rugby
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The Independent Online
Those irredeemable optimists who forecast that things could only get better after rugby's first year of professionalism had no understanding of the game's apparently limitless capacity for shooting itself in the foot. So far, and admittedly we are only four weeks into it, the season has been an unmitigated disaster. Low quality play, small crowds, weak- willed leadership, lamentable refereeing and the abandonment by mainstream television.

It is difficult, however, to think that the game can sink lower than it did last weekend in France with the mayhem on the field and the shameful aftermath off it. If rugby's image has, from time to time, been besmirched by thuggery during play, it has always prided itself on the strength of its cameraderie in the bar afterwards.

By all means kick lumps out of your opposite number in the afternoon just so long as you get pie-eyed with him at night. That is the code by which players throughout the ages have lived and up until now it has worked pretty well. It is all part of the unique ritual of a game in which confrontation, intimidation and extreme danger are major components. It is the ultimate exercise in male bonding, but it all hinges on respect. Respect for the game, respect for the laws and those charged with the responsibility of applying them and, above all, respect for your opponent. There seemed precious little respect for anything at Brive last week.

In the circumstances, therefore, there is only one conclusion that European Rugby Cup, the competition's ruling body, can reach when they deliver their judgement to the clubs tomorrow and that is to banish both Brive and Pontypridd from the competition forthwith.

Furthermore, both should be made to pay compensation to those sides who will be financially inconvenienced by their absence. But by taking such decisive and drastic action, the administrators would be sending the clearest of signals that the kind of unfettered brutality which so disfigured rugby's image last weekend would not be tolerated.

It is disappointing that such action wasn't taken on Thursday, and the delay suggests that once again the punishment will come nowhere near to meeting the crime. In the avalanche of quotes I don't recall one word of contrition from either side, let alone a general condemnation of violence. Indeed, some of the comments, and particularly from members of Pontypridd, have beggared belief.

The problems, of course, run far deeper than a mass brawl between two fiercely passionate and over-motivated clubs. The entire infrastructure of rugby union, its roots, its laws, its ethos, is based on the amateur concept. Anyone who seriously thought that more than a century of recreational sport could be changed into fully-fledged professionalism overnight was bonkers. Celtic Park, Glasgow, and Parc Municipal des Sports, Brive, are separated by much more than mere distance.

In Glasgow on Tuesday night there was a contest of dazzling skill, vividly sustained movement, nobility and spectacle between Celtic and Liverpool, whose intense rivalry would turn the bad blood between Brive and Pontypridd to water. Yet there was not one unpleasant incident during the match. Football as it was played that night and as it again demonstrated 24 hours later at St James' Park, Newcastle, has no equal. Its strength lies in its simplicity. Every man, woman and child can relate to it and by quickly coming to terms with its basic rules can be involved in it.

Rugby union, on the other hand, is an impenetrably complex game. Its arcane laws are too much even for the players and arbiters to comprehend let alone the casual bystander. For as long as it was just a pastime this didn't matter. Rugby, we were forever being told, was a game for the players. If spectators turned up and were prepared to pay for the privilege, good on them, but it didn't change the fact that rugby was primarily about the participants enjoying themselves. But with the onset of professionalism has come a drastic change. The desire to win has become a need, and the aim to entertain has become a duty.

The frustrations felt by the players of Brive and Pontypridd could not, it seems, be confined within the 80 minutes of the game but were so powerful that they spilled over into the after-match socialising. Without in any way condoning the actions of the guilty parties, this says as much about the game of rugby as it does about the players. It may also be a sorry reflection on the standard of the refereeing. Last week Fred Howard, a much respected former international referee, was quoted as saying: "It can be very daunting and problematical for a relatively inexperienced referee in France."

But the referees chosen for this competition are supposed to be top grade, in which case either the best is not good enough, or else the professional game cannot, in some cases, be effectively policed.

The root of the problem lies in the structure of the game itself. Despite the excitement and the entertainment value of the rugby being played in the Southern Hemisphere, we are still some way short of adapting to the requirements of a professional game in this neck of the woods.

But take heart - it took rugby league a lot longer than a single year to evolve from a game which offered too many opportunities and too many hiding places for the dedicated thug.