Peter Bills: Bulls show true face of rugby
Sometimes, in some places, things just happen in rugby football that make you proud to say you have an association with this game.
Take the Super 14 match in Auckland, New Zealand last weekend between the Auckland Blues v Blue Bulls of Pretoria, the reigning Super 14 Champions. Two teams desperate for victory simply smashed the living daylights out of each other in a physical sense. Players carrying the ball were crunched; the hits were as hard as you'll see.
The Bulls, after an abject display the previous week, gave a performance of such heart and courage that they restored their name, if not their desired winning routine of last season. Truth to tell, they were horribly undermined by some shocking refereeing decisions, notably when Australian official James Leckie allowed Bulls No. 8 Pierre Spies to be brazenly taken out by Blues' centre Isaia Toeava for Kevin Mealamu's vital try. In the event, that decision cost the Bulls seven points and the match.
But the point is, none of that mattered at the final whistle. And you had to marvel at the character and composure of the Bulls' players as they took the full impact of defeat and such a painful near miss.
Had it been soccer, we would have seen the normal unsavoury scenes, with players angrily surrounding the referee, gesticulating and abusing him verbally and making the kind of scene that denigrates their game before the watching world.
So how did rugby players handle such rank injustices and the pain of defeat? They shook hands between themselves, slapped each other on the backs, smiled and chatted between groups. It was as though there hadn't been a single contentious decision, not one hammering physical collision that would hurt long into the night and the next day.
Sometimes I marvel at rugby men's ability to keep their heads, not to mention their humour, in such circumstances. I don't think any of the Bulls players even approached the referee far less remonstrated with him. They were too busy chatting with their foes and smiling with them.
Understanding the intricacies and individualism of rugby football as a sport can often be hard for outsiders. On the face of it, there seems today no more room in the game for much courtesy or comradeship. Professional players are out there to earn a handsome living and they cannot bother themselves with the niceties of the game that were once an endemic part of the sport.
Yet the players of the Blues and Bulls reminded us in Auckland last Saturday evening that these qualities are not dead in the game, far from it. You can play as hard as hell, smash lumps out of your opponents, get shabbily treated by the referee yet you take it all like a man and just accept it as part of the sport.
Rugby ought to be proud of players who continue to demonstrate such virtues, even at the height of adversity. Players with that attitude are a superb role model for any watching youngsters.