What does loyalty really mean in rugby these days?
New Zealand's All Blacks wing Sonny Bill Williams vies with Argentina's (No. 8) Leonardo Senatore. AAP Image/AFP, William West
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I’ve observed with some interest the attention that Sonny Bill Williams’ reported relocation to league has garnered. If nothing else, it’s obvious that opinion is deeply divided with regards to Williams and his career decisions.
A turncoat, traitor and a money hungry mercenary were all labels that were sent the way of SBW back in 2008. And now it seems that some in rugby union are ready to repeat that dose of vitriol.
All this had me thinking about loyalty.
What does it mean in the context of a rugby career and has it been devalued by professionalism.
Is an athlete who remains at a single club more loyal than one who explores multiple opportunities to ply his trade across the globe?
I don’t think the answer is as simple as it might intuitively seem.
Professionalism has meant that players are increasingly seen as commodities, they are employed as performers, entertainers if you like. As such, they are repeatedly subjected to demands that nobody who was not paid would tolerate.
And let’s be clear on that point.
Rugby, at least at the elite level, is not a healthy sport. While players are very athletic, the trade off is a diet of anti-inflammatory meds and off-season surgeries that take their toll over the long run.
Interestingly, we don’t tend to question the loyalties of less talented players who make smart career moves to new teams. And yet the games’ superstars are held to a different standard.
They are expected to remain at franchises despite an endless stream of enticing offers when they come off contract.
In the case of SBW it seems that he’s given his all to each of Toulon, Crusaders, Chiefs and All Blacks. He has fulfilled his commitments in every sense of the word. If playing rugby league is what his heart desires should he not be loyal to himself first?
To stay in rugby out of guilt or pressure from fans would be a particularly insincere action.
And so it is that loyalty is really about values.
Our values dictate our decisions when we’re presented with options.
Ironically, many players appear loyal when really they’re comfortable. They become part of an environment that no longer demands continuous improvement and the thought of having to reinvent themselves at a new club scares them.
Other times players move clubs precisely because they recognise the importance of new challenges.
Of course, money plays a roll in all of this but it’s rarely the case that players transfer to new teams on the basis of dollars alone.
And nothing makes it easier for clubs to attract world-class talent than on field success. In my experience most players will settle for less money in exchange for being part of a winning culture.
Another player currently weighing up his rugby future is David Pocock.
The Wallaby skipper is being pursued by a number of teams; most notably the Brumbies. It’s been mooted that his loyalty to the Force will keep him in Perth.
Relocating to Canberra would not make David any more or less loyal than a decision to remain in Perth.
It’s likely that David will be offered more money to play his rugby in WA, but I’ve little doubt he would grow more as a player and as a leader in the Brumbies environment.
Laurie Fisher is widely regarded as one of the best breakdown experts in rugby coaching and Jake White would accelerate David’s already impressive growth into leadership.
My money has Pocock running out for the Force next year, but as a Brumbies fan, I’d love to see him relocate to the ACT and play a central role in chasing some Super Rugby silverware with the Brums.
On another note, I want to give a shout out to Stirling Mortlock and Julian Huxley.
Both will play heir final super rugby matches in coming weeks and both are fantastic footballers and genuinely good blokes. Snork played during a golden era of Brumbies and Wallaby rugby and produced some amazing efforts, none more so than ‘that try’ in the 2003 World Cup Semi.
Hux was an often underrated but extremely skilful player who inspired us all by overcoming brain cancer.
Cheers to the next chapter fellas!
Former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone has returned to Super Rugby with the ACT Brumbies, following an injury-forced retirement from all forms in 2009. He writes guest columns for The Roar, and will blog his journey back to professional rugby in 2013.
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