Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Peter Bills: Rugby in the dock but is there case for defence?

So, let’s get this straight. The charge sheet against rugby union this shocking summer continues to mount.

A drug problem has been revealed as rife at the Bath club, with five players leaving the club for drug related offences. Another Bath player, prop David Barnes, laughingly says there is no drug problem at Bath. The RFU disciplinary panel’s indictment of three players who denied they avoided taking drug tests, is scathing.

The London club Harlequins and their wing Tom Williams are heavily fined and suspended after a disciplinary panel convicted one of England’s once most renowned clubs for faking a blood injury.

The Springbok forward Schalk Burger is convicted and banned for putting his fingers into the eyes of the Lions’ Irish wing Luke Fitzgerald. Far from criticising Burger, Springbok coach Peter de Villiers actually supports him, saying such things are part of a manly game.

The world famous Wallaby wing Lote Tuqiri is thrown out of the squad and his contract torn up by the Australian Rugby Union for, thus far, unspecified alleged offences.

French international centre Mathieu Bastareaud is said to be facing a ban of between one and three years from the French team, after falsely claiming he had been mugged during the French tour of New Zealand. He later admitted he had made up the whole story because he fell and cut his face when drunk. FFR President Francois Alquacil is forced to write to his New Zealand counterpart, confessing “This was offensive to the French team, but also to the Governments of New Zealand and France.”

Such a charge sheet stains the name of rugby football forever. Not surprisingly, those with an axe to grind have wasted no time clambering aboard the bandwagon, berating rugby and what they perceive to be its arrogance. And frankly, it’s hard to defend any game involved in such unsavoury affairs.

In most of the cases listed above, you can point the finger at one cause — weak leadership. There has been a major drug problem in the city of Bath for years. I should know — at one time

I lived there with my three teenage children. The stories they told of the drugs in the city were mind boggling.

Now in that respect, Bath is probably no different to anywhere else in the UK. But wouldn’t you think the Bath club would have nipped this problem in the bud immediately their England international prop Matt Stevens was caught by a drugs test and confessed cocaine use last winter? Stevens was banned for two years and you assumed Bath would have cracked down hard on any such culture.

Instead, weak leadership at the top of the club meant that other players allegedly imbibed. The club’s Australian lock Justin Harrison returned home and retired rather than face the music after a wild end-of-season party in London. Three other players, among them the club’s joint captains — great example of leadership they provided — twice refused to take drug tests and were subsequently thrown out of rugby for nine months by an RFU disciplinary panel. Yet one thing I find bizarre is this. Stevens confessed his guilt and got a two year ban. These three denied everything yet were convicted of bringing the game into disrepute. They only got nine months. Is this justice?

The South African eye gouging affair was just distasteful to humanity. Sticking your fingers in anyone’s eyes in any circumstances is a vile act. For a player’s national coach to back him was repugnant and a comment on the values now apparently pertaining in the Springbok camp. How sad.

Harlequins’ involvement in alleged cheating was another nail in the coffin of rugby’s good name. Likewise, the Bastareaud affair in France.

All over the world throughout the game, we are seeing the price to be paid for making money the No. 1 objective of every union, club and individual player in the game. This is what you get when you introduce the filthy lucre.

Remember that quaint, little old game which once espoused values of quality and merit? Remember that lovely old sport that produced young men whom the world admired for their sportsmanship, manners, courtesies and values? Remember men like Jack Kyle who wished their opponents a good game before the start and actually meant it? Sure, they had fun in their time, lots of it. But when you look back, it was pretty harmless stuff.

Today, we have blood capsules to fake injuries, drug taking by young men who regard themselves as tin Gods in their own back yards and have too much money in their pockets and too little common sense in their heads, plus players unwilling to accept responsibility for their own actions.

Another reason for all this is the fact that these young men have been made into little Gods by their own clubs or Unions. They are kept away from the realities of life such as mixing with supporters after games in the bar and having to explain a bad defeat, meeting the press and having to deal with them. In other words, growing up with their feet still on the ground.

An army of PR lackeys shelter them from such nasty intrusions. What we are seeing now is the result of such a policy adopted by clubs and Unions all over the world. They must accept part of the blame for events that have dragged rugby’s good name into the mud. Whatever the truth, it is depressing to see a great game descend into sleaze and self indulgence.

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