Rugby union: a thug’s game watched by snobs

Rugger’s halo may have slipped during the World Cup, but feeling superior to football is still rugby fans’ favourite sport.

Duleep Allirajah

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Regular readers of spiked might have noticed the conspicuous absence of any articles about the Rugby World Cup. Nul. Nicht. Not a sausage. There’s a simple reason for this: I loathe rugby union. Don’t want to play it. Don’t like watching it. Don’t like the braying toffs who watch it. Don’t like my Sunday papers being dominated by it. Don’t like people tweeting about it. I’m a NIMTY – Not In My Timeline – when it comes to rugger. Do. Not. Like. It. Got that? Good.

I thought about writing a ‘10 reasons why football is better than rugby’ article. But I decided against it. This is not a question of whether one sport is more skilful than the other. I can’t see the artistry in a scrum, but I’m probably not looking hard enough. It’s not because rugby’s offside law is incomprehensible. I just can’t be bothered to study the rulebook. Nor am I suggesting that football is more aesthetically pleasing to watch. I watch a lot Championship football where ugly is the default mode. And I’m really not conducting my own personal class war by railing against the Twickers set. I love tennis which, in England at least, is equally elitist and middle class.

It’s not so much the sport of rugby per se that I hate, but rugby’s nauseating sense of moral superiority. We are constantly lectured about how football has a lot to learn from rugby union. Rugby players don’t cheat and feign injury. They don’t throw tantrums. They don’t swear at TV cameras. They call the referee ‘sir’ and never argue with decisions. The fans, similarly, don’t need to be segregated. They can enjoy a few beers without being violent or abusive. Rugby’s claim to the moral high ground was perfectly articulated by Patrick Collins in the Mail on Sunday during the 2007 Rugby World Cup: ‘The public believes that professional footballers spend too much of their time diving, acting, bickering and bawling abuse at impotent referees’, wrote Collins. ‘The public has the distinct feeling that, just like their managers, footballers are ludicrously overpaid, systematically under-achieving and perversely pleased with their own inadequacies. And the public, I have to say, has got it just about right.’

I was fully expecting a steady stream of similarly sneering comments about rugby’s superior sporting ethos during this year’s World Cup. But then came England’s disastrous tournament campaign, complete with a boozy night of dwarf-throwing, Mike Tindall pictured cavorting with a mystery blond, Courtney Lawes banned for kneeing an opponent in head, two of England’s coaching staff suspended for illegally switching balls and Manu Tuilagi fined for diving from a ferry. The tabloid headlines may well probably have been forgotten if England had delivered on the pitch. But Martin Johnson’s team stunk out the tournament before being dumped out by France.

Even the plucky Welsh were not the teetotal saints they’d been painted. A dangerous tackle by Wales captain Sam Warburton handed the advantage in last weekend’s semi-final to an abject French team (who even then nearly contrived to lose). Wales coach Warren Gatland later revealed that they had considered getting one of their prop forwards to feign injury in order to force uncontested scrums but decided that it was not morally right. Players feigning injury? That doesn’t happen in rugby does it? In reality, allegations that players have faked ‘blood-bin’ injuries have long surrounded the sport. In 2008, the game was rocked by the so-called ‘bloodgate’ scandal after Harlequins player Tom Williams was found to have used joke blood-capsules to feign a mouth injury.

This isn’t about the corrosive impact of professionalism on a once-amateur sport. Booze-fuelled high jinks have always been a feature of rugby tours. It’s just that England’s rugby stars are now finding that their off-field conduct is regarded as fair game for the tabloid sleaze-hunters. But although the crowing about rugby’s higher moral standards has been more muted during this World Cup, the unequal media treatment of the two sports still remains. As football’s Nietzsche-quoting enfant terrible Joey Barton has pointed out, if the England football team had behaved like that ‘there would probably have been public executions when they got home’. Speaking at a Professional Footballers Federation conference, the Queens Park Rangers captain said: ‘“Football’s a gentleman’s game played by thugs”, I hear quite a lot, and “rugby’s a thug’s game played by gentlemen.” The minute a footballer steps out of line, I think the media in this country – because of the sums of money they earn and also because of the stigma attached – are really quick to jump on it.’

Barton’s point is borne out by the contrasting reactions to the dismissals of Wayne Rooney and Sam Warburton. The England striker was widely condemned for his immaturity and stupidity. As I argued on on spiked last week, his red card was seen as a manifestation of his latent thuggery. ‘Rooney’s punishment is harsh but the least he could have expected – eruptions of violence characterise his game and the bureaucrats of UEFA know this’, wrote Jason Cowley in the London Evening Standard. By contrast, Warburton, whose tackle was far more dangerous than Rooney’s, was widely painted as the victim of a refereeing blunder. Cowley, branding the Welsh captain’s dismissal as ‘unjust’, wrote: ‘Warburton certainly lifted his opponent off the ground but his was no spear tackle and there was no malice in his intent.’ Warburton was exonerated even though many pundits have acknowledged that he deserved a yellow card, which suggests a degree of recklessness.

This was a tale of two red cards. Both Rooney and Warburton lost their discipline, both did something stupid, both let their team down and both were handed harsh punishments. Yet, while the rugby man was given the benefit of the doubt, the footballer was vilified. Rugby’s halo may have slipped, but the elitist disdain for football is still evident.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. He will be taking part in the debate Who is the greatest-ever Olympian? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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