Rugby union invokes Orwell with incidents of needless ill-will

Paul Rees
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: MB Media/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: MB Media/Getty Images

Respect works both ways. Regardless of whether an empty lager container was hurled at Eddie Jones at Murrayfield as the team walked into the ground, will the Six Nations have the bottle to not just remind coaches and players to choose their words carefully but take action when they don’t?

World Rugby’s core values of “integrity, respect, solidarity, passion and discipline” looked forlorn at the end of last week, as if taken up by Storm Ciara and scattered over various parts of Europe. To hear words like war, hate and niggly being uttered was to be reminded of George Orwell’s essay The Sporting Spirit in which he describes sport as war minus the shooting.

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Orwell started by saying that sport was “an unfailing cause of ill-will” and that international sporting contests led to “orgies of hatred.” He was writing at the end of 1945, when a real war had just ended and he was reflecting on what he saw as the perils of nationalism. “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,” he wrote.

Related: Murrayfield atmosphere reflected rising noise, bile and spite in rugby union | Robert Kitson

“The significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.

“Even when the spectators don’t intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and rattling opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

Orwell was writing primarily about football, boxing and the Olympics. Rugby union was then amateur and, apart from Wales, lacked a profile outside the then Five Nations, a Lions excursion and the well spaced out tours by New Zealand and South Africa. There were no coaches then to inflame passions or media conferences for anyone to bang on about hate and war. With no one to pay, apart from Union secretaries, or chief executives as they would now be called, there was no need to sell the game and the number of reporters covering rugby was both small and uninquiring.

Lewis Ludlam’s assertion last week that “they hate us and we hate them” as he looked forward to England’s international at Murrayfield was an echo of Imanol Harinordoquy’s declaration in 2003 that he was not alone in “hating the arrogant English,” although the France No 8 said afterwards that something had been lost in translation; a swear word, probably. That said, it is not players who foresee headlines during interviews when a nod of the head in response to a question sometimes leads to a transfer of words.

When Warren Gatland was in charge of Wales, he remarked that his players disliked the Irish more than any other nationality. Like Jones, his remarks are designed either to set a snake loose in the opposition dressing room or deflect attention from his players. The latter seemed most likely when Jones warned France about the brutality they could expect from his side in Paris at a time when attention was being lavished about the effect Saracens’ punishment would have on squad morale.

Jones lamented after England’s victory at Murrayfield that they had not been shown respect, either before the game or during it when Owen Farrell was roundly booed every time he lined up a kick for goal. Provocative talk in the build-up to a match is no excuse for excessive reaction by spectators any more than by a player who is goaded by the crowd, but what are core values worth if they are so often flouted?

With Gatland back in New Zealand, Jones finds himself alone in the grenade cupboard. He was interviewed by Sonja McLachlan on the BBC before the match against Scotland and asked why he liked to stir before a match. It is a model example of the inquisitor’s art, polite but persistent cajoling eliciting a response from a reluctant subject where indignant hectoring would have tightened lips.

Jones, having met his match to the point where he looked ready to reveal his pin codes, relented. “I enjoy doing it. It is easy not to say anything, but I think you have a responsibility to create the theatre of the game … sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Jones was asked the same question in 2003, World Cup year when he was coaching the hosts, Australia, and England were the favourites.

He never missed an opportunity to wind up his opposite number Clive Woodward and his troops. His explanation then was that rugby union in Australia was not in the top 10 most popular sports and he would not get the Wallabies on to the back pages by going on about scrummaging technique or miss passes. It was the same for him in Japan, but the coverage of rugby in all the home unions except Wales has grown considerably in the last 30 years to the point where he does not have to open his mouth too wide for coverage.

He plays the media, expertly during the World Cup, but you could sense the tension at the Six Nations launch when the subject of Saracens kept recurring. He has delivered for England, two Six Nations titles and a World Cup final, and they are well placed this tournament with Ireland and Wales to come at home – if needing someone to beat France – but has he ever felt accepted? Fighting the media as well as the system, does he need it?

It would be duller without him but, as Orwell noted, manoeuvres in sport are not confined to the field of play.

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