Unhappy union: what has gone wrong with rugby?

A game that once prided itself on behaviour on and off the field has fallen from grace. The reason? It's society's fault, say the RFU
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The Independent Online

Eighteen months ago, concerned that the "hooligans' game played by gentlemen" was fast becoming a hooligans' game played by hooligans – not to mention drug abusers, misbehaving tourists who refuse to help local detectives with their inquiries, and barefaced cheats who invent injuries with the aid of blood capsules administered by professional medical staff – the great and the good of the Rugby Football Union launched a public campaign aimed at re-establishing a sense of discipline, decency and dignity. Recent events suggest the "core values" initiative was not entirely successful.

The year is barely a third over, yet the RFU has already found itself blanching at the antics of some of the highest-profile, highest-paid individuals in the sport. They have seen Delon Armitage, the international full-back from London Irish, suspended for lambasting a doping control officer in language that would have had the fictitious political spin doctor Malcolm Tucker doffing his cap: indeed, the governing body's own published account of the incident records Armitage using 15 "f" and "c" words in three minutes flat, which is going some by any measure. As he also pushed his victim before threatening to "smash" him, it beggars belief that he had the temerity to appeal against his eight-week ban. Happily, that appeal fell on deaf ears.

Ben Foden of Northampton, the man who replaced Armitage in the national team, recently spent a night in the cells on suspicion of causing criminal damage to a taxi. And then, on Monday night, two of the leading players at Wasps, the England prop Tim Payne and the Wales back-row forward Andrew Powell, were suspended by club officials pending an internal inquiry into violent events in a Shepherd's Bush pub. Needless to say, the police are also investigating.

Under the circumstances, there is not an RFU council member alive who is not profoundly relieved at Gavin Henson's departure from the English game. The celebrity centre spent a few desultory, semi-interested weeks at Saracens – when, in the dressing room before his first-team debut, he was asked to name the people he would be playing alongside, the Welshman failed the test spectacularly – before heading to the south of France for a stint with Toulon. Two games in, he is on the verge of being out again, having angered, and fought with, colleagues who took exception to his arrogant denunciations of players like Jonny Wilkinson and Joe van Niekerk, who had contributed rather more to the growth of rugby on the Mediterranean coast.

All sports have their troublesome sorts – even golf, which considered itself far beyond the reach of scandal until Tiger Woods drove into a fire hydrant and set in train events that changed perceptions forever – and it may be that the RFU was kidding itself in thinking that in this day and age, a group of greying, well-to-do custodians of the union code pontificating about "acceptable behaviour" would make the slightest impact on real life (or rather, the sporting version of it). Yet Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the governing body, believes the core values venture was important, even if he is entirely realistic about its effect.

"It was worthwhile in the sense that we needed to let the public know that we had concerns about some of the things going on, and that our concerns were justified," Thomas said yesterday. "I think now that the fake blood business at Harlequins was timely, because it demonstrated to everyone that standards were slipping. But if you're asking me what I feel, rather than for the party line, I have to say that I never saw the 'core values' campaign as a panacea. There will always be isolated incidents; we'll always have people who push the boundaries, whether through drink, or drugs, or by cheating.

"Rugby has moved on from the 'white, middle-class' stereotype: like any other sport, it reflects society in the round. And where are we, as a society? We're seeing children playing games of all descriptions who come from families who have either struggled to find work or have shown no great desire to work, and quite often, we find ourselves trying to inculcate values that should have been inculcated already. As a union, we have to stay aware of developments. Of course we do. But to a certain extent, we've all failed, haven't we? Bad behaviour of the kind we're discussing is reflected in sport, not necessarily caused by it."

Thomas went on to claim a degree of sympathy with some miscreants. "They're propelled into the public eye and expected to live by different standards to the guy driving the dustcart," he said. "Is this fair? They earn a lot of money, I suppose, but is this enough to justify the gap in expectation? It's an interesting question."

Indeed so, yet when things go wrong among sporting professionals, money is often a contributory element. Leaving aside the fact that rugby players in these parts earn far more than the game can sustain – clubs have been overspending on wages for 15 years, and judging by the efforts of a small handful of owners to abolish the salary cap currently operating in the English Premiership, there is no immediate prospect of what might be called a reality cheque – it is inevitable that a significant proportion of young, single men working short hours for large dollops of cash will find ways to spend it. Some put it into property, others put it behind the bar. Many do both. Was it ever any different? Probably not.

The difference now is that there are no secrets. No sooner had the Toulon players agreed not to talk about the Henson incident, details were emerging of the precise course of events. No sooner had Wasps announced the suspensions of their players while refusing to divulge why they had been suspended, there were pictures on the internet of Powell laying face down on a pub floor, surrounded by paramedics. The lesson of the last few weeks? If you're going to mess up, don't expect it to be in private.

Recent rogues' gallery

Andrew Powell Brawl in west London bar - suspended by Wasps

Gavin Henson Fights team-mates - suspended by Toulon

Delon Armitage Threatens to 'smash' drug tester - eight-week ban

Ben Foden Suspected criminal damage - night in police cells