UK sporting columnist Simon Barnes said it best: “The sport was never designed as an activity on which fortunes and the reputations of nations depend.”
Few truer statements have been made during this Rugby World Cup, a tournament in which we have scaled the dizzy heights of elation as Japan put South Africa to the sword, and then plumbed the sewer depths of blame, envy, pride and wrath following a single unpopular refereeing decision during the Australia versus Scotland match.
For the first time in my rugby career, I asked myself a question which it would never have occurred me to ask before. In fact, I would have considered such a question tantamount to a crisis of faith, like a monk questioning his holy vows.
As I watched the vitriol pour forth against an honest and undeserving referee, I was compelled to wonder ‘Do we care too much about rugby?’.
It is a difficult question to answer, because it usually only reflects in the negative, not the positive. That is to say, no-one will ever ask you whether maybe you celebrated too hard when Namibia scored against New Zealand, or whether maybe you liked the Japan win against the Springboks a little bit much. Enjoy the good times. Go as hard as you want.
In any case, there’s a lot to like. Most would say that the former IRB, now World Rugby, have done a bang up job in building rugby around the globe. Rugby sevens is now in the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup is the third biggest sporting event in the world only behind the Football World Cup and the Olympics.
The minnows are minnows no longer. The days of 100-point drubbings are past and rugby is a genuine world game. From 16,000 fans at suburban Concord Oval for France versus Australia in a classic 1987 semi-final, to 90,000 at Wembley for a simple Ireland versus Romania pool game in 2015, the professional game is bigger, shinier and richer.
But is it better? Undoubtedly, the spectacles of matches like Japan’s win over South Africa, Georgia’s one-point thriller over Namibia and Scotland’s 36-33 points-fest versus Samoa make it worth watching.
But the underbelly is always there. In the modern game, the stakes can be too high. For players and coaches, matches won and lost by narrow margins can ultimately decide careers. Vern Cotter will be remembered as yet another Scottish coach who went close, but, when it mattered, couldn’t quite pull off a tier one win. Of course, he is a much better coach than that.
If Cotter wants consolation, he may take a little from the fact that no-one does it tougher than referees.
Anonymous when they do well, and public enemy number one when they do poorly, our care factor is never more on show than when a ref makes an error. It’s hard to believe, but this week’s endless debate, ongoing analysis and nasty opinion could actually drive a leading referee into retirement from the sport, which would be an awful outcome.
Spectators at matches these days are also heavily invested. Incredibly high ticket prices mean a huge personal stake, both financial and emotional. Full stadiums increase the rivalry, which is driven to fever pitch by the media and marketers.
For those watching at home, new innovations like world rankings drive a continuous thirst for superiority against neighbouring teams. Witness the exhaustive stream of internet memes in the wake of England’s disastrous defeat to Australia. The match was concluded almost three weeks ago and the trolls are not done yet.
Not only are the stakes high, but the question of identity is always there. Who do you support?
Travelling to a Rugby World Cup is like travelling to Melbourne. If you don’t have a footy team, you’re a non-person. Going to a World Cup these days simply to watch some good rugby would make you incredibly quaint. You have to have a team and support them loudly and overtly. Anything less is a sinful lack of passion and apparently now makes you a traitor to your country.
The whole idea is to win, ideally at the expense of increasingly bitter rivals. How else to explain the distasteful and ongoing Australian crowing over the England campaign, some weeks after it is over.
Some sources of abuse are surprising. Gavin Hastings poured forth a river of bitterness in the wake of the Scotland-Australia result, saying that he would front the referee in question and tell him what a disgrace he was, and also that the person should never referee another international rugby match.
In my experience, over various drinks and phone chats, Gavin has always been affable, reasonable and excellent company. To see him berating a referee was unusual to say the least, particularly as a man who had himself made a critical error which decided a massive World Cup match for Scotland – missing a sitter of a penalty from right in front against England in 1991.
It was yet another example of a reasonable person showing completely unreasonable behaviour in a rugby context, which perhaps on the face of it has been happening since rugby began. But it seems worse these days.
One of the positive stories of this World Cup has been the resurgence of Matt Giteau for the Wallabies. A man who was dropped for the 2011 World Cup, and stranded on 93 Tests, and who, having been recalled by Michael Cheika this year, cracked the 100-Test milestone last week.
In an excellent and revealing interview with Australian rugby writer Rupert Guinness earlier in 2015, Giteau said of rugby: “It is a huge part (of my life). But I have got the balance right now. Before I left Australia, I probably placed too much emphasis on rugby.
“I really enjoy every opportunity I have and am grateful for every opportunity rugby has given me, but having kids makes you realise what’s really important in life. Having the right balance has also made me enjoy rugby more if that makes sense.
“I played too much emphasis on rugby, on results and how I played. Now you play the best rugby you can, train as hard as you can and prepare the best way you can. But when I come home, whether I have played well or poorly, my kids are still the same, my wife is the same … You get a little more perspective on life.”
Some of us regular folk could take Giteau’s advice.
Many will say that as an Australian whose team won last week, it is easy for me to say that. But in all honesty, I think it is unlikely that the Wallabies will go all the way. They may do. Whatever. At some point, Australians will have to swallow the bitter pill of defeat, or just maybe, will be able to celebrate an historic win.
Whichever it is, I hope that when that time comes, be it a win, a loss, narrow, comprehensive, controversial or clear cut, I will grab my kids and run outside to pass a rugby ball around the yard.
The Rugby World Cup is great. As long as we remember that the first rule of rugby is, enjoy rugby.
It’s only a game after all.