By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
ANTICS ON the football field lately, particularly the endless diving and poor attitudes on show in the Barcelona-Real Madrid Champions League semi-final, have left many fans disenchanted with the game. Then there are all the sordid tales of off-field misbehaviour in the tabloids – and that’s before you consider all the stories now protected by super injunctions.
It was a recent comment from Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic that caught my eye and brought up the age-old debate of whether football can learn from rugby. He said: “When I played in Serbia and Russia, players dived. In England, you don’t so much. That’s why people love to see English football. Fans don’t come to watch people going down or arguing on the pitch. Fans enjoy it when players are honest.
“You have rugby in England. You see how much respect they have. They challenge, they hurt each other, they even fight – but how many do you see rolling on the pitch? This is respect. That is what football should be like.”
Rugby has often preached to football about the need to respect officials, fair play and so on – but can the sport still lord it over their round-ball cousins? Frankly, I’d say no. Rugby is not whiter than white, far from it in fact given their own recent misdemeanours. Bloodgate is the obvious example to disprove the theory, but more recently there have been bad cases of gouging and even this weekend bore witness to an instance of unsportsmanlike behaviour, Manu Tuilagi landing three punches on Chris Ashton in the Aviva Premiership semi-final between Leicester and Northampton.
Off the field, there have been drugs bans and plenty of drunken antics, recent incidents involving Andy Powell, Gavin Henson and Danny Cipriani cases in point. Even rugby’s bureaucracy has become as farcical as football given last week’s embarrassing U-turn by the RFU. So surely rugby union needs to look at itself before preaching to other sports. Yes there are plenty of good things about the game but there are things that need to be addressed – and fast – for rugby to ensure the sport maintains its traditional values and enhances its reputation. Perhaps then rugby could even attract some of those disillusioned football fans, this year’s World Cup a perfect opportunity to do so.
“Rugby’s not a saint by any stretch of the imagination,” says former Australia fly-half Michael Lynagh. “Players are getting into trouble on and off the pitch.”
Ex-Gloucester coach Dean Ryan believes it’s important to educate young players coming through the ranks so that they realise they are role models. He says: “It’s not just rugby or football, we’re talking about young men playing sport and the responsibility that comes with that. A lot of things come with paying young men enormous amounts of money and we need to look at how to support players in terms of education. I hope the World Cup is a show – the last thing the sport wants is to be clouded by bad incidents.”
Ieuan Evans, the former Wales wing, realises the potential of the World Cup as rugby’s showpiece event but is realistic enough to point out that the sport will always play second fiddle to football.
“The audience is bigger for the World Cup so is a great way to promote the game, but we’ll never compete with football because that is the truly global game. But we can spread the word of the game with the World Cup. We want to offer entertainment and for young people to be drawn in. We want kids across the world to follow the sport.”
And it will be fantastic if those children appreciate the respect and camaraderie that makes rugby such a special sport. However, rugby must also ensure it gets its own house in order before preaching to other sports about rights and wrongs. The game is not perfect.
To read more views from the Sky Sports analysts on rugby’s big issues, see the July issue of Rugby World, on sale Tuesday 7 June.Like Rugby World? Subscribe to the magazine for the latest comprehensive content.