Were I a neutral, last Saturday's match versus London Wasps might just have made the perfect afternoon's viewing. There were gang celebrations after high-paced, beautifully worked tries, huge, eye-watering hits and lots of contentious decisions by referee Chris White for the punters to take to the pub and argue over late into the night.
It was a horrid game to lose, primarily because it was at home but, as professionals, from time to time you have to take it on the chin. But one thing that was more difficult to accept with a shrug of the shoulders and a handshake was the sour note on which the game finished.
Tim Payne's dismissal after receiving his second yellow card for scrum offences would certainly have soured his trip to The Rec, especially as he would, without question, have felt hard done by. These were punishments dished out under the banner of "referee's interpretation" and we, of course, were not complaining. At the final whistle, though, both Lee Mears and I went straight to Payne and offered our sympathies for what may have been – and to be honest, at scrum time, we front- rowers often don't even know what's happening – a very harsh call.
Payne's departure was not, however, the moment that disappointed us the most. David Lemi's middle-finger-wielding charge at Ryan Davis after his failed attempt to level the score with a last-gasp, touchline conversion was astonishing. It is worth mentioning that, although the two of us have never met, I have never heard anyone describe Lemi as anything but a man of principle and of lovely nature. This, though, was an incident where all compassion and sportsmanship was pushed to the back of his mind while aggression, disrespect and vitriol took hold.
If compared to the vile histrionics performed by former Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor last week (the fool scored a good goal against his old club then ran the length of the field to taunt the fans who, until weeks before, had chanted his name with affection), Lemi's behaviour seems more an explosion of emotion rather than a premeditated insult.
Is it, though, any less scandalous than the dives and abuse of the officials we scream at while watching Match Of The Day on Saturday night? If Wayne Rooney had sprinted at Frank Lampard, having watched him miss a penalty, telling – and showing – him where he wanted him to go, he would have been strung up in the press. Instead, Lemi said sorry and all was forgiven. To be honest, I would not want him to be punished, it was certainly out of character and to see him banned would not make me feel better. But I ask, were it Danny Grewcock's face on that picture, would an apology from our club press officer have been sufficient? I doubt it.
Last season we lost to Leicester in the Guinness Premiership semi-final. We were well beaten by the eventual champions and it was a feeling that will stay with me forever. Upon the final whistle I approached my old friend Julian White and we had a chat. "How you feeling, Jules?" I asked him. "Old, mate," he replied. We shared a laugh with arms on one another's shoulders as the camera panned past us, then retreated back to the changing rooms to either celebrate or sulk.
It was a few weeks later that someone (they shall, for the benefit of all concerned, remain nameless) accused me of not caring enough, having witnessed me dare to smile with my friend on television. "Laughing at the final whistle after losing to Leicester?" he squawked.
I felt instantly violent towards this man, mainly because he was wrong – very wrong – but also because he seemed to have forgotten what rugby is about. Rugby is about giving everything for the badge, for each other, and then, whatever might have happened in battle, shaking hands with the opposition and sharing a pint afterwards. This isn't rugger; it's not the good old boys getting the game out of the way before getting down the pub for a ruddy good knees-up.
The game may have gone professional but the values remain the same; we operate in a world of brutal violence and ruthless physicality but also one where respect is king.
It's not wrong to cash in overseas
The exodus of some of the Premiership's most talented and charismatic players to the French Top 14 has caused a stir. When questioned, they talk about lifestyle, experiencing new cultures and taking on new challenges, and a lot of this may be true. However, why folk continue to deny money being the main cause is beyond me. Why maximising earnings has become frowned upon is one of sport's great mysteries.
If a successful chap in a suit decides to leave his post at, say, BHS and gets a 100 per cent pay rise for a similar position at M&S, he is congratulated. But if a sportsman (football's at it too, see Manchester City) declares money to be any sort of motivation in a short, high-risk line of work he is branded a mercenary, a slave to the Euro.
Of course loyalty still exists in rugby but how far must that stretch? Will a Premiership club keep a man on when his playing days are over, on a nice salary, just to be loyal? No. He will, in almost every case, be discarded like the obsolete commodity he is and replaced by the new, young buck. Anyone who tells a father of young children and main breadwinner that he ought not to chase more financial security for his family before it's too late is a braver man than me.
Feels brilliant to put Sale away
Though it is rarely talked about in the same breath as the likes of Welford Road and Kingsholm, Edgeley Park has become quite a fortress in the last few seasons. A combination of precise territorial rugby with Charlie Hodgson and company plugging the corners and 30 hours straight in the same hotel room before the late-evening kick-off make it a truly awkward fixture.
So to travel north with the odds against us and claim our first, much-needed win of the season – a 25-12 victory on Friday night – feels wonderful. Sale had moments of early brilliance with Mark Cueto and Mathew Tait causing havoc through incisive running and untouchable agility but our midfield of Shontayne Hape and Matt Carraro held firm and built a platform from which to win the match. Their every tackle was hurtful, every ball-carry thunderous. It takes a lot for me to credit anyone outside the front five with such abandon, but they were wonderful.
Once or twice Dean Schofield, the big oak who seems to have been around forever, ran the ball in so hard and with such ferocity it was almost inconceivable that his progress might be arrested. But arrested it was – just – and we hung on to beat a team of real quality for a win of real value.Reuse content