For “puce” read “puke”: mess with tradition at your peril

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The bipolar Wallabies were due for a big performance against England and they duly delivered, in accordance with the inconsistent level of performance which has marked the Deans era.

As encouraging as this result is, enthusiasm is tempered for two reasons – one being that recent good efforts tend to be followed up by poor ones, and therefore many supporters are reluctant to shout too loud too soon that the current Wallabies are the real deal.

The second reason being that the England rugby team, or rather the RFU, handed the Wallabies a significant head start before a ball had even been kicked, by ignoring tradition and sending their team out in a ridiculous looking playing strip.

Everything about this cries out ‘wrong, wrong, wrong,’ yet any alarm bells which may have rang out at RFU Twickenham headquarters were seemingly drowned out by clinking gin and tonic glasses and singing cash registers when this strip was first used against Argentina last year, and again on the weekend.

The RFU are already, by some distance, the wealthiest administrative body in world rugby which, to the layman supporter, suggests they don’t need to sell their soul for a few measly pieces of silver. This unfortunately underestimates the sheer power of greed, which is surely the sole motivation behind this strip.

Not that they are admitting it – they could acknowledge what we all know, that at 90 pounds per playing jumper sold, this decision stands to benefit Nike and the RFU considerably and leave it at that. But instead we get spun the line that the colour chosen is ‘Regal Purple’ and has some link to traditional English royalty.

Links to English royalty? Really? Like finally admitting that Will Carling was shagging Princess Di on the sly? Or Prince Harry would be a terror on the turps with Mike Tindall, baring arse cheeks, tossing a few dwarves and throwing in a few Nazi salutes for good measure.

In reality, the official colour is puce, a French word meaning ‘flea’, so named because back in the days when French beds were seemingly infested by fleas, Pierre would roll off the top of Antoinette, the nights’ conjugal duties all done and dusted, and squash a few of the little buggers – the dead fleas leaving colour spots on the white sheet that, even after washing, would be the colour of… well the colour of this English rugby jersey.

How proud and motivated would that make an English rugby player feel, slipping on that playing strip, coloured the blood of French fleas?

Many Test players of long standing speak about the buzz that comes before a game, on entering the changing room, eyeing up their jersey, and reflecting in what that means to them. That they carry a legacy for all players before them, for their country’s supporters, that they are considered worthy enough to be selected for the national team.

Indeed Richie McCaw, in his excellent book, explains how he believes each generation has the responsibility to continue the tradition and honour the black jersey and this is a major factor in the continuing All Black success.

I don’t contend for a second that every missed tackle or poor kick from an Englishman can be put down to them being embarrassed or demotivated by the strip. Or that their scrum somehow found a way to make the Wallabies scrum look world class because of it.

But I’ve got no doubt that it would be short odds on the initial reaction of the English players, upon being informed about the new strip, simply being “WTF?” When it should have been, “how good is this, how proud do I feel? White, red rose, 141 years of pure history…”

Word is that England will appear this week against the All Blacks in… well, black of course! Except that it isn’t black, it’s officially “Anthracite” a kind of dark grey. Which the RFU may well spin as to signify the link to their shit weather, but in reality provides the dual advantage of providing yet another merchandising option, and forcing the All Blacks into a change strip themselves.

All utterly ridiculous and if, as has been suggested, the NZRFU has acceded to this request without protest, then they are equally culpable.

It is 2012 and survival and growth in professional sport depends on sponsorship dollars. But clubs and national bodies must also be careful not to erode the tribalism and traditions which underpin their very being.

We are not talking here about Super Rugby sides adopting various colourful strips which are perhaps more indicative of modern times. These are, after all, ‘franchises’ with very little real history behind them, as opposed to national rugby sides.

Collingwood AFL President Eddie McGuire has it right when he proclaims that the Collingwood jumper is not for sale – at any price. Carlton are another proud AFL foundation club with a similar history, but the day they shelved their traditional navy blue and wore a horrible, sickly, M and M blue, all in the name of honouring a sponsorship deal, their club lost a little something of what made them special in the first place.

And so their players, just like England’s – even if they didn’t admit it publicly – would have felt, at worst, fools or, at best, somewhat emasculated. Certainly something less than what they should.

And with the margin between winning and losing at this level being so slight, it seems crazy to concede any advantage over something as preventable as this.

To the Wallabies, congratulations. To the RFU, you got everything you deserved.

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