James Lawton: Rugby must banish the bullying and skulduggery before 2015

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The Independent Online

One thing needs to be said right away. Nowhere in the length and the breadth of English rugby union is there a better qualified spokesman for the 2015 World Cup than Will Greenwood, the tall and rangy and at times brilliantly innovative centre who played a key role in landing the trophy in Australia six years ago.

His partnership with Jeremy Guscott was a connoisseur's delight. He ran the most improbable angles and he tended to do it when it mattered, most notably when he broke the menacing Welsh quarter-final challenge in Brisbane back in 2003. He won 55 caps and scored 155 points. He was in the purest sense an exciting sportsman and a credit to his game.

Now he has another responsibility that this week was somewhat ignored in his cheer-leading reaction to his country's landing of the host role for WC 2015.

He has, from the impeccable base of his own achievements and style, to point out something that seems to have gone completely missing in all the euphoria.

It is that rugby union in England, across the world, and not least in the home of reigning world champions South Africa, needs to take a pressing look at itself as it contemplates new commercial possibilities. It has to recognise that there is increasing evidence of something rotten at its core.

Here was Greenwood in the first flush of England's successful candidacy, "We focused on delivering a low-risk, high-return bid and a tremendous legacy. I've seen the ability of rugby to change lives, both on an individual level and a community basis and part of the RFU pledge is that all surplus money will go back into grass roots both on a domestic level and a global scale.

"We now have the opportunity to go round the country and spread the gospel of rugby, grow the support and the player base and spread the values and the beliefs of rugby such as teamwork, discipline, trust, friendship and second chances."

Sorry, Will, but are we talking here about some moral fantasy in the sky or the game which has been dragging itself through a gutter of compromise and cynicism, if not complete abdication from anything approaching serious responsibility for its own image?

Of course it is natural for Greenwood to put an upbeat twist on the success of a bid that was marked by the sound strategy of putting huge emphasis on financial possibilities. However, there is another issue and it is about the good name of rugby, which right now is not exactly a shining endorsement for Greenwood's anticipated crusade for the hearts and the minds of young people in this country and abroad.

He might have engaged the real issue. He might have stepped into the critical void left in the wake of the disgraceful leniency shown to South African Schalk Burger after his eye-gouging of Lion wing Luke Fitzgerald, the stomach-churning reaction of Springbok coach Peter De Villiers, and the anger of English players' union chief Damian Hopley over the year's ban on Harlequins' Tom Williams for committing arguably one of the most sickening cheating episodes in the history of any sport when he faked a blood injury.

The point is that before it launches another attempt to make inroads into the ascendancy of the round-ball game across the world it should engage the pressing matter of some vital self-purification.

Yes, we know football at times shows every sign of heading to hell in a stretched limo, but at least it cannot be said that the greatest threats to its popularity – rampant greed and gamesmanship – come under some law of omerta.

This week at the Edgbaston Test a man who has spent much of his spare time chivvying young villagers over their duties as members of the local cricket team made a withering contribution to the debate when he declared, "I wouldn't waste a second of my time on rugby – not so long as it does nothing to dispel the impression that it is nothing so much as a front for organised thuggery. Show me a responsible parent happy to see his son go into a game where he can be put into a wheelchair because no one in authority cares enough to put a stop to the skulduggery."

This is a terrible rebuke, but who can say it is without substance?

What someone with the antecedents of Greenwood needs to say is that rugby will not begin to take its full opportunities if it does not address a problem that is beginning to gnaw at both its soul and its entrails.

This week he talked of the rugby message of friendship and discipline, but how does he square that with the sickening image of Burger and the bully-boy Bakkies Botha at his work and, in the subsequent Test, their team-mates brandishing the word justice? Whose justice, whose charter? In this case one of thugs, surely.

Of course it is not a problem exclusive to South Africa. One Lion forward was missing from the tour because of eye-gouging and if English rugby had any idea of hitting the high ground it was surely ruined by the egregious blood-faking incident.

The problem runs broadly across the game. At its heart is a failure to establish a working ethical code. Hopley railed against the "inordinate" nature of the punishment handed to Williams when he should have been mourning the fact one of his members had brought the game so low.

Rugby, it should go without saying, is an inherently great game, and it has men like Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Danny Carter and, yes, Will Greenwood, to prove it.

It makes it all the more sad that the greatness should be so often buried in a mindless amorality. So by all means, speak up for rugby, Will, but for the best game that is under such insidious attack.

Alonso a cause for soul-searching by Benitez

Maybe it is that the tentacles of Real Madrid have proved too strong, but if you are Rafael Benitez there is possibly a more direct cause for regret if it is indeed true that Xabi Alonso is bound for the Bernabeu.

What hasn't been a secret for a long time is that the Benitez-Alonso relationship has been fraught with the kind of problems unusual in that of a hugely ambitious manager and a franchise player. Yes, franchise player.

Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are the marquee players at Anfield, but who provided their most consistent performance in Liverpool's best title challenge in so many years? It was Alonso, driving and passing with the momentum of a pure winner.

If Real do land Alonso, they have given their last galactico lunge a huge injection of credibility.

At Liverpool the designated replacement is apparently Lee Cattermole, a young English player of undoubted force and promise. But he is a long way from the status of Alonso, and the potential development can only reduce the Anfield belief that this, of all seasons, is the one when they reclaim a title they once assumed was their right.

One consequence might just be an acceptance by Benitez that, however brilliant a coach, he is nothing without the enthusiastic support of his most important players. Alonso, if he goes, will surely trail a thousand regrets in the matter of what might have been.

Pietersen needs to put priorities to the true test

Kevin Pietersen's heart-rending concerns for the future of Test cricket might carry a little more credence if his priorities, like those of his England team-mate Andrew Flintoff, had not been declared a little earlier and in a more meaningful way.

Pietersen has already been advised that he needs to allocate his time more responsibly if he wishes to remain at the heart of England's Test team as its most gifted batsman. This is no doubt a reaction to the allegations that he was cavalier about his injury problems while taking the shilling from the India Premier League.

Pietersen says, "People are now swaying away from Test cricket and starting to watch the Twenty20 format of the game which is pulling in everybody. That's the thing that frightens me because as soon as the support goes and the spectators go, it's going to be difficult to keep playing the [Test] game. And players are going to want to play the game where you get all the support."

For support, read money, and for the future of Test cricket, which is to say, the real game, be sure what will be most valuable. It is the involvement of the best and most committed cricketers, not those merely chasing the fastest buck.