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R-E-S-P-E-C-T! What can rugby learn from Aretha Franklin?

Sam Cane. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
Roar Rookie
4th July, 2021
51
1158 Reads

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. When Aretha belted out these letters in 1967, they became an anthem almost immediately.

Crossing the RnB and pop genres, it struck a chord with so many people and became a fundamental mantra for rights and equality.

Lost behind Aretha’s star was Otis Reading, who had originally written and recorded the song. While much can be gleaned from an analysis of its perfect timing at the end of the Civil Rights movement and timing within the women’s rights movements, one particular line stands out; “Respect, find out what it means to me.”

This one line can be both profoundly empowering and mystifying at the same time. Empowering in the sense that it enables someone to self-describe and to define what respect is to them, while mystifying as it actually does not provide the answer.

With that being said, it is still commonplace for others to mistakenly take it upon themselves to decide what respect means for other people, particularly in sport. While being mindful of this, we can glean a universal principle or two about respect.

On the sporting field, respect is often synonymous with sportsmanship; you offer a hand to an opponent to help them up, you apologise when you clean them out illegally, you shake hands, hug, perform a Hongi at the end of the game, or you form a guard of honour and clap your opposition off the field.

As such, the idea of respect has a foundational place in our game, as it does in most highly physical combative sports.

A general rule of thumb, when showing respect to an opponent, is that you give them your best. This is why if a team selected is seen as the second-stringers, or the B-side, this is often viewed poorly or as an insult.

Essentially saying, that your team isn’t worth the full effort, that a team doesn’t even need to try to be assured of a win.

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While there are absolutely one-sided games out there, this is still seen as poor form. Regardless of whether the win is assured or not, a sporting fundamental you try your best no matter what.

How many times do you see someone showboating at the line, only to have someone who never gave up pip them at the post? It is this principal, that drove Brian To’o to stop Kyle Feldt from scoring in the 72nd minute when NSW were up 26-0.

This was not a game saver, but was about always trying 100 per cent, a ‘never say die’ attitude born out of a principle of respect for the opposition (and too many years of bloody Queensland coming back at the death and stealing the game and/or a series).

When you have a game like the recent South Africa/Georgia game, or New Zealand/Tonga game, there are a few things that stand out.

The score lines both suggest a one-sided game, albeit on different scales. This was after all, the World number 1 and 2 sides, taking on the Worlds number 12 and 13 respectively.

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The Georgians, while seemingly closer, were still only able to score three penalties and none after the 24th minute. That this game was not as big a blow out as the New Zealand versus Tonga game probably has something to do with this being the first game for the Springboks since the RWC final, some 20 odd months ago.

The question what good are these games, and should the top tiers not deliberately handicap themselves so as not to ‘embarrass’ the opposition.

Ask yourself, if you could race against, Usain Bolt, knowing you would get flogged would you still do it? What if he said, he was going to hop, and still thrashed you?

Or if he said he would race 400m while you only did 100m? Provided I did not give myself a heart attack trying to get to the end of the 100m track, I would want him doing his best, no matter how ugly it turned out.

Richie Mo’unga of the All Blacks celebrates scoring a try during the 2020 Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup match

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

If you compete with someone, and they don’t try their best, it says you don’t matter, or that that result doesn’t count, it places an asterisk next to any outcome. In principle, getting back to a fundamental human quality, all anyone wants to feel, is that they matter.

It’s an undeniable fundamental quality we all share, to varying degrees. It inspires the best and worst behaviours in humans.

At the same time both inspiring people to greatness, and motivating internet trolls.

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The overwhelming desire for this feeling can, when there is a profound lack of it, lead people into a spiral that can have all too often tragic consequences, such is its importance to our frail human psyches.

The principle of trying your best, of giving 100 percent all the time, is so core in the idea of respect, it informs our perception of our sporting stars and what we think of them.

It is why the Australian public is more and more getting behind Nick Kyrgios, because despite his on-court approach, he does always try his best and gives it everything, in fact it is exactly because of this he has trouble with controlling his emotions, much like a young Lleyton did.

This is the complete antithesis of Bernard Tomic and his lack of respect he shows for his opponent and the sport which has provided him with his self-professed millions, and results in him struggling to find any fan support.

It’s why we all got behind Eddie the Eagle or the Jamaican Bob sled team.

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So, when discussing, giving it your best and maximum effort, we are not just talking about winners. We are also talking about the underdogs, the ‘have nots’ in the global market place of sport.

While, for a team like New Zealand, it is often a matter of just selecting your team, and saying don’t stop playing, for a team like Tonga, just selecting your top team is a massive, and as this most recent game shows, often insurmountable problem.

While there are things outside our control, like COVID and a government right to shut quarantine free borders, the inability to select to players due to Club contracts is still a plague on rugby.

This can be in the form, of flat refusal to release a player outside the ‘international’ window’ or a financial penalty of withholding pay.

For Pacific Island players, who often support wider family, this is a choice they cannot make and it is profoundly unfair that they even be asked to make that sort of decision.

This financial power and stranglehold currently enjoyed by clubs, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, needs to be broken if we actually want to show due and proper respect to countries like Tonga, Samoa, Georgia or Romania. For too long these countries have been left out in the cold.

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Hopefully the new Super Rugby format will allow for a competitive team to represent Fiji and Moana Pasifika at Super Rugby level, and better pathways and financial opportunities for players to not have to then decide between a club pay-cheque and representing their country.

If Aretha taught us anything, it’s that respect is a fundamental expectation and primary principle that even the least of us deserve and are entitled.

This concept of feeling like you matter forms a core tenet in the respect or sportsmanship idea of trying your best. But we must do more to allow each country to perform at their best, to give it their 100 percent.

To show them that they don’t just matter enough for us to turn up in force, but that they matter enough for us to try and change things so they can turn up in kind. If we want to show them the respect of giving our best, then we need to allow them the opportunity to do the same.

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