Rugby Union: The Boks who smack of arrogance: Chris Rea argues that the ills of Johan le Roux are part of a wider affliction

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The Independent Online
RUGBY, as we all know, and as we are constantly being reminded, is a violent and undeniably macho game. It is based on physical strength and intimidation. Unlike soccer, the simplest and, as it has been played in the United States in recent weeks, the most beautiful of games, rugby is a confused mass of contorted humanity. It is played in a complex labyrinth of arcane laws and is impossible for one man to control. It is a series of brutal and at times callous confrontations, made more intense by the tension that nowadays permeates top-class competition. Every international team in history has at times used brute force to quieten the opposition: it is simply not possible to play the game and to win by any other means.

But there exists within rugby a code of conduct, accepted by players and referees alike, which permits the settling of personal differences providing it does not overstep the mark. Stamping, head-butting and ear-biting are very definitely beyond the pale. Regrettably, in common with most other pursuits, rugby has its share of cheats who hide behind the respectability of the sport and use it for their nefarious ends.

Johan le Roux is the rottenest of eggs who, long before biting the All Black captain's ear in New Zealand last weekend, had been unmasked as a drug user and whose physical excesses on the field were well known the world over. There has hardly been a word written about him without the adjective 'notorious' or 'infamous'. The England players will tell you that he did not miss a dirty trick during their tour to South Africa earlier this year, and they will not be grieving over the 19-month ban that he has received, although it seems unlikely that he will ever play rugby again.

The first question to be asked, therefore, is why Le Roux was picked for a tour in which he was a certainty to cause a major incident. Even now he has the audacity to bleat that the All Blacks set out to provoke him. Of course they did. It is all part of the game and it is the penalty that players who are known to operate on short fuses must pay for their intemperate natures. Whether selecting players of such notoriety is worth the risk is another matter. Not only has Le Roux brought shame and dishonour on himself, but he has gravely damaged South Africa's standing in world rugby.

There is, alas, an inherent arrogance lurking in the South African psyche which is impeding their progress and which has bedevilled their return from sporting exile. It began with the playing of the Afrikaner war-cry 'Die Stem' before the All Blacks game at Ellis Park two years ago. Not only was it an act of extraordinary insensitivity in view of the fact that this was the occasion which officially marked the country's re-entry into the rugby fold, but it seriously endangered political harmony in the republic and threatened the international against Australia the following week. The Wallabies, who won the World Cup the previous year, had themselves been subjected to the arrogance of their hosts, whose claim that the Springboks were the real world champions was well and truly discredited by the Australians' record victory in the Test.

During England's tour there was further evidence of the self-satisfied obstinacy which is impeding South Africa's progress. The selection of the national squad and the coaching methods remain firmly rooted in the past: the persistent selection of immobile heavyweight forwards is a classic example. There is a cussed refusal to accept that the game has moved on during the Springboks' years of isolation and a marked reluctance to seek help from those involved in the game's development. Despite the wealth of talent available to them, the selectors have been singularly unable to translate those riches into success in terms of results. It must be intensely frustrating for the players, yet frustration cannot be the excuse, nor is it the reason, for the Springboks' wretched passage through New Zealand at the moment.

If Le Roux is the most shameful entry yet into the rogues' gallery of players who have been sent home from international tours, he is by no means the only villain. Others, such as James Small and Adri Geldenhuys, have been up to no good, and there have been innumerable incidents of over- zealous play by the tourists. There is undoubtedly something rotten in the state of the South African game.

Whatever the shortcomings of the late Dr Danie Craven, the former president of the South African Rugby Board, he was a rugby man. He was besotted by the game and its jealously guarded traditions. There is unease that the same cannot be said of his successor, Dr Louis Luyt. Under his presidency there has been a marked shift in policy and attitude. England discovered a brazenly professional game in which players are traded in the open market.

One of the main problems concerns the quality of South African referees. Their incompetence was harshly exposed during England's tour, and until steps are taken to improve standards, South African sides will continue to have great trouble at international level, where neutral referees of a far higher calibre will not tolerate the disregard for the law blatantly displayed and seldom checked in their domestic game.

The irony of the most recent outrage to besmirch the good name of rugby is that Le Roux's barbarism would have escaped punishment had it not been for the sharpness of television's eye and the recently established citing procedure, which enables a player to be punished for crimes which the referee might have missed. Something at least is seen to be working in a sport whose image as it is being portrayed to the outside world through the Le Roux incident and the disfigurement of Jonathan Callard during England's tour is being irreparably tarnished. South Africa's emergence into the full glare of international rugby, so eagerly anticipated and so brashly heralded two years ago, has been explosive for all the wrong reasons. Let us hope they put their house in order before they host the World Cup, in less than a year's time.

(Photograph omitted)