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Sunday 09 October 2011
I remember fondly my time as a young man in London while playing for Saracens. Under the stewardship of François Pienaar we trained hard, played hard and, when the time was right, partied a bit, too.
Sometimes nights would fizzle out and the obligatory (and healthy) chicken kebab would be consumed before midnight. Other times, the lights would be out and the closed sign hung at The Tubby Turk in Enfield before we made it to the door.
Hedonistic we were not, but we had a good time, not knowing we were in fact living out the end of an era. Walk into any pub in the land and you'll find a man seemingly surgically attached to his barstool proclaiming that rugby stopped being real the day money hit the table.
The pound coin alone brought about the demise of camaraderie and sporting solidarity and we, the remorseless profiteers, came over all shivery the day we signed on the dotted line as our souls drifted into the ether.
In fact the players didn't change all that much. Except that, as we quickly discovered, now we were receiving money every month there was a tangible sense that the ownership of the game had shifted in the minds of the public.
The wage meant that we now had a responsibility to behave in a certain way. I understand this, as one day my children will watch rugby and, put simply, I want their heroes to be good blokes. I don't want them aspiring to be like these pretend celebrities who seem to be in front of my eyes all day every day despite never having done a bloody thing. But I don't want those players to be perfect, for that is no less unreal.
On Mike Tindall's stag trip (yes, I'm bringing that up – now) I spent time watching the group and saw some amazing things. I saw non-players (civvies, we call them) terrified at the revelation that there were, in fact, paparazzi in the trees above our hotel pool.
I saw the likes of Tindall and Pete Phillips – who had seen it all before – shake their heads, laugh it off and dive in the pool. And I saw Mark Cueto – who is just one of the best blokes I have ever met – remain at the back, in the shadows for five days. We went to a pool party and he didn't get in the pool, not once.
Of course, he had a good time, but an unknowing bystander would have been forgiven for assuming he was royal security, such was his level of motionless observance. Obviously, he had nothing to hide, but he felt – knew even – that if he was even seen holding a beer the headline would write itself. As it turns out, he was bang right.
For those who regularly and unashamedly court the attention of the media for their own commercial gain, any sort of argument is futile; you can't have it both ways, certainly not in this neck of the woods. So acceptance stands out as the only viable reaction.
England were outplayed by the French on the field yesterday but their rugby has come second by a long way as a spectacle. The after-hours shenanigans are winning that battle, whether we like it or not. And I'm not here to persuade anyone who will listen that nobody has done anything wrong, nor am I here to crucify men no more flawed than you or I in the name of a story. No, I want to express my thoughts on the shift that is taking place before our eyes.
Some – many perhaps – will greet the now-cemented behavioural protocol imposed upon the professional rugby player with open arms and a sense of the right thing having been done. Others, like me, will feel a bit sad about the whole thing. I know, my old-school attitudes are unoriginal and predictable, but they are mine.
Rugby was always the game whose players hammered one another on the field and, almost bizarrely, shook hands at the end and went off to socialise together. Aside from the 80 minutes on a Saturday they were accessible and, despite being muscle-bound beasts with wrecked ears and black eyes, quite an approachable bunch. Some of our game's popularity lies in the game itself, of course, but much also lies in the inviting, inclusive atmosphere that surrounds it.
I once couldn't get out of our home changing rooms because Jason Robinson's presence had drawn what seemed like a thousand autograph hunters. He stood in the middle of the crowd, on his own, laughing and signing programmes for over an hour. Would Ryan Giggs be allowed to do that? Not in a million years.
This might seem like an irrelevant tangent on which to jet off but to me it is significant. Our weekly salaries may never reach the level of those in The Great Game but, due to the relentless hounding of our boys, we may soon have more in common with football than we ever imagined.
Whether rugby players become scared of the media or just fed up with having to explain away trivial happenings to their mums and dads, they will disappear. Enjoy them while you can, because soon they'll be gone.
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