Ben Flower’s punch was a shaming moment for the sport I love – but at least it knew how to respond

Rugby League enshrines values which endure, for all the challenges it has faced

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The Independent Online

I was brought up with the sport of rugby league. As a boy, I was taken to watch our local club by my father, and my early years were in part shaped by a passion for our club and for the sport itself. Rugby league, born of the struggle of working men in Lancashire and Yorkshire against the privileged classes of the South, gave me a sense of identity and belonging, not to mention a bond with my father that existed until the day he died.

It is a noble sport, a game still connected to its terroir  and its traditions, and although my allegiance was for my own club, I was proud of to be a rugby league supporter. This was a feeling I shared with almost every fan of every other club. Rugby league meant something to us: it defined us geographically, socially and - for many - politically.

Then Rupert Murdoch came along in 1996, and changed everything. His money was irresistible, and a sport that was played in the winter was re-engineered as a summer game to fit in more neatly with the Sky schedules. Rugby league became Super League. Hyperbole replaced modesty. Clubs with a rich history adopted nicknames that had nothing to with their heritage (Bradford Northern became Bradford Bulls), and an authentic, genuine sport became superficial. And, unsurprisingly given Murdoch's involvement, the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. My club, like a good few others, was left behind in this gold rush and is now clinging on to life. I'm a sporting Luddite, it's true, and there's no doubt that, at the highest level, the game is more professional and more popular than at any point in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, for all the transformation, some things don't change. Rugby league supporters still have an evangelical zeal about their game, which will explain the widespread shame and despondency about "the punch that shocked a nation". In the sport's showpiece game at the weekend, watched by a crowd of 70,000 and a television audience of millions, an assault was made on a player lying prone, defenceless on the ground. It was a moment of madness from a reputedly well-behaved player and is sickening to watch. Not long ago, rugby league marketed itself as "a man's game for all the family". This punch was deemed too shocking for a viewing before the watershed, and was not shown by the BBC on breakfast telly. The player responsible, Wigan's Ben Flower, was yesterday banned for six months.

 

If Flower's punch brought ignominy on the sport, the reaction to it has revealed rugby league in its best light. Justice was swift, sentence taken on the chin (so to speak), apologies were made and accepted. No one tried to make light of what happened, but a sense of perspective was administered. And the statement from St Helens (the club against whom the offence was perpetrated) was humbling. "During the period of this ban," it read, "Ben Flower will be nothing more than a 25-year-old boy who will be very vulnerable emotionally."  "This is a game which looks after its own," said the Wigan chairman Ian Lenaghan on the Today programme. Other sports would do well to take notice.

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