Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

OPINION: Rugby’s moral superiority complex needs to go

Posted on 25 January 2021 by Xander Chevallier

Rugby union is a game built upon values like respect, honesty and sportsmanship. Encouraging players to live by these values on and off the pitch is superb, but rugby supporters using them to lecture other fans that rugby is ‘better than’ their sport is preventing the game from growing.

As the old saying goes: “Football is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans, whereas rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.” While there’s debate around the origins of this saying, the statement itself is what is important. It reinforces the inherent superiority complex within the game of rugby union.

But why does rugby union feel the recurring need to do this?

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After the game went professional in 1995, the following 10 years saw the sport face the odd celebrity-style scandal in the tabloids, such as drug allegations against England players. Although serious, this and other cases were issues involving individuals who played rugby, rather than anything major within the sport.

However, in the last decade or so, two of the UK’s biggest sporting scandals, Bloodgate and Saracens’ financial doping, happened in rugby union. Both were examples of premediated cheating which was systemic in the game at the time. Harlequins and Saracens weren’t the only amoral sides, they were just the two who got caught.

Yet, scandals and mismanagement are not exclusive to the club game. In December, historic tweets resurfaced from Argentinian captain Pablo Matera where he spoke of “running over blacks” in his car. He was instantly stripped of the captaincy by the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR), only to be reinstated 48 hours later accompanied by the statement that the tweets were “imprudent and immature.”

The tweets were not imprudent, they were racist, and the handling by the rugby hierarchy was almost equally abhorrent. The fact a Tier One Nation backed by World Rugby took such little action means Ugo Monye was completely right when, on BT sport, he passionately said: “Rugby wants to combat racism, until it has to combat racism.”

Despite these incidents, rugby continues to lecture other sports about why it is morally superior. It does this through the promotion of its ‘core values’: honesty, respect and sportsmanship. All of which were broken in the examples above.

Shortly after last season’s Heineken Champions Cup Final, this shot was captured by photographer Dan Mullan. It shows Scotland teammates Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, sharing a beer after Russell’s Racing 92 and Hogg’s Exeter Chiefs had battled it out to be crowned champions of Europe.

The photo itself is superb and the sharing of a beer with an opponent is one of the great traditions that takes place from grassroots all the way to elite finals. But the issue here comes from the text in the tweet.

Implying that rugby is different because it’s the only sport that has values encouraging this camaraderie is untrue.

Countless other sports fight hard on the field and then share a beer with the opposition. After the momentous 2019 Ashes series, another great photo was taken. This time the English and Australian players were pictured sharing a drink in the changing room and exchanging stories from the series and the World Cup. This happens after almost every tour and those within club cricket will tell you the tradition of sharing a drink is just as common in the pavilion as in the clubhouse.

Cricket promotes very similar values to rugby, but with the added layer of more safety awareness. Cricket helmets were first used in the late 1970s and although initially unpopular, were commonly used by the early 1990s. Comparatively, it took rugby until 2011 to widely implement concussion protocols (subsequently the Head Injury Assessment) and given recent news, this appears to be far too late.

Cricket has the same values as rugby, the same sense of camaraderie and is considerably safer. If anything, cricket would be better placed to reinforce its perceived superiority over other sports.

Yet it doesn’t.

On the whole, most involved in cricket are aware of the complexities and barriers that prevent newcomers from picking up the sport. Many cricketers will happily explain to a beginner what a googly is, or how to engineer reverse swing. Whereas it is not uncommon to hear rugby novices mocked after confusing a scrum and a maul, with the snide comment of “stick to football.”

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Is this the real issue? That rugby doesn’t want to be morally superior over every sport, it just wants to be morally superior over football. James Haskell mentioned on his House of Rugby podcast (now the Good, the Bad and the Rugby), that this was something ex-footballer Ian Wright had discussed when they appeared on “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”.

Wright said that he enjoyed rugby as a sport, but whenever he went to a game there were constant jibes thrown at him like; “nice to see you at a proper sport” and “this is a real man’s game” which spoiled his enjoyment.

Fans and players alike have always seemed to feel the oval ball was just better than the round ball game. Yet, when the Saracens scandal emerged last year, Chris Robshaw said: “We’re a sport that claims to be whiter than white, and we always look down on football, we look down on this and that and say how it is, but we are like everyone else.”

Despite the scandals, rugby fans still have their heads in the sand. Frequently on rugby Facebook groups and twitter pages, posts will appear showing a footballer diving alongside a photo of a rugby player covered in blood, accompanied by a suitably obnoxious caption.

Rugby needs to get out of the mindset that it will genuinely compete with football. It will not.

If it acknowledges and embraces this then it can still continue to grow as a sport. If rugby can grow the money will come, that is the crucial factor.

However, the way to expand the game is not to pretend “it is better than football.” Rugby should focus exclusively on its positives, of which there are many, without ever mentioning ‘the f word.’

Rugby is a phenomenal game which should be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Sadly though, until it abandons its obsession with lecturing other sports about why its morally superior to them, then it is nothing more than a hooligans’ game played by snobs.

Feature image credit: Dhammika Heenpella / CWSSIP Images of Sri Lanka