"Gentlemen, Can I Remind You of Your Responsibilities to the Game?

Saturday, March 19, 2005

"Gentlemen, Can I Remind You of Your Responsibilities to the Game?

One of the nice extra benefits of having moved to Europe is being able, for the first time since I lived in Japan 15 years ago, to follow international rugby. Today's victory by Wales over Ireland, clinching the Six Nations Championship* and securing the first Welsh grand slam** since 1978, was just another confirmation that this is a bloody great game.

I played a bit in college, and then again on a foreigners' XV after hooking up with some Kiwis in Japan (New Zealand, as you may know, has been the most successful international side in recent decades). The game is brutal; there can be no denying that. The stylish French player Cristophe Domenici was knocked unconscious in today's match against Italy. Unlike Domenici, I had no medics in attendance at the last match I ever played, when I took a knee to the head (or was it a foot? I just remember a flash of a green sock and then I was on the ground); and unlike Domenici, therefore, I stupidly remained in the game in spite of what was surely a concussion. An England under-21 international broke his neck recently. The game does bear some resemblance to what American football was like a century ago, when no less a manly sportsman than Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport because of all the serious injuries and deaths on the field. That led to the legalization of the forward pass and other steps to open up the game. Meanwhile, rugby is still a violent game played without pads or helmets.

But it's honest violence, and it's a thrill to play. Part of what I like, I must admit to my lefty shame, is the element of the game that reflects its history as a snobbish pastime of the English upper classes. Soccer is the working class game, and rugby is for the public school lads. That's not true everywhere; in Wales, for instance, rugby is the national sport, to the extent that people were weeping in the stands after today's match. But the values--often perverse--of the public schools where the game originated still prevail to a great extent. That means keeping a stiff upper lip--no rolling around on the ground feigning injury in the hopes of drawing a yellow card like histrionic soccer players. It means playing hard and hitting hard for 80 minutes and then drinking beer with your opponents afterwards (the home team provides the drinks and the venue; after our first match in Japan on the road, they even gave our whole team a ride to the train station in the back of an army--excuse me, Self Defense Force--truck). It's also why rugby was at least officially an amateur sport until a decade ago, when the derivative made-for-TV sport of Rugby League was siphoning off too many of the best players with lucrative contracts. The last point especially is quite classist, but there's something about the spirit of the game that I love.

The BBC's coverage of the Six Nations highlighted that spirit by fitting the referee at each match with a microphone. There were so many examples, but two from today's match exemplified the themes pretty well. In the first half, a Welsh player was hurt, and the Irish forwards had to stand around waiting for a scrum while the Welshman was patched up. When play was ready to resume, the referee said, "Thank you, Ireland."

Then, in the second half, tempers started to get out of control. All of a sudden, a Welsh forward and his Irish counterpart were rolling around on the ground outside the boundary, with the Welshman (at least) throwing several punches. After their teammates separated them, the referee called the two captains over, and the two combatants came along. The first thing that happened was the two guys who had been fighting shook hands, without any prompting. Then the referee said something like: "There's been some cracking rugby today. Let's not ruin the spectacle. We didn't see what just happened, and we're not going to see it again, if you know what I mean." Neither man was penalized; as the announcer said, what would be the point, and anyway, it was clear from hearing the exchange that all five men in the conversation understood that this was going to be the end of it. Just to make sure, as the two packs approached for the ensuing scrum (for which the referee has to line them up and tell them when to slam together), the referee said as they jockeyed for position: "Gentlemen, can I remind you of your responsibilities to the game?"

And after a game that was tremendously physical even by rugby standards, with players on both sides streaming blood from cuts to the head and limping to the sidelines, here's what the Irish captain had to say:
They have got progressively better throughout the championship and deserve their Grand Slam. They have been ruthless when they needed to be and have also shown plenty of steel as well. The fact they've won a Grand Slam speaks for itself. Congratulations to Mike [Ruddock, the Wales coach] - he's a likeable chap and that makes it a little bit easier to accept the result.
The Irish coach added:
It was a tough one to lose but we didn't deserve to win it.
*The Six Nations tournament is held annually among the leading rugby nations of the Northern Hemisphere: England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Italy.

**The grand slam is achieved by defeating all five opponents in the tournament for a perfect record. There is also the triple crown among the teams from the British Isles, which goes to any of them who defeat the other three. Ireland could have taken the triple crown by beating Wales today, and indeed could have won the Six Nations by winning by 13 points or more.

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