Enmity between the Lions and Springboks has exposed rugby union’s veneer of morality

The image of rugby as a sport of respect and fair play has taken a battering after spiteful second Test

You’ve got to love Ruby Tui.

“Russia, they are very cool people, man,” the New Zealand sevens player said in an interview that went viral last week, during which she also spoke in Japanese, Samoan and Maori.

“Don’t be fooled. That was not an easy game. My GPS blew up, that’s how hard it was.”

That was for the vanquished. What about their next opponents?

“I love the whole concept of GB – huge respect to Great Britain,” Tui went on. “They fundraised, they worked hard, they campaigned.

“I think even a couple of us donated [after the GB side’s funding was cut], and they ended up at the Olympics.”

So far, so rugby, right? Respect for your opposition and fair play, and carry with you a charitable intention, too. Core tenets of those intrinsic Rugby Values that are so often spoken about.

Or maybe it was because she was an Olympian. Because they are all good eggs, too.

Take the high jump final on Sunday night, when Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi did not miss a jump – until they each failed at 2.39 metres.

Rather than contrive a tiebreak to decide the winner, the two friends opted to share gold – which has never happened before in Olympic high jump competition.

It was widely heralded as a triumph for the type of sportsmanship the Olympics ideal in founded on.

Meanwhile, over at the rugby …

What is it about British & Irish Lions tours of South Africa that brings out the worst in many of those involved?

The home sides have to wait 12 years to face the Lions. Maybe that’s it.

That is a long time to have to listen to the other lot crowing. It is pretty much a once-in-a-career opportunity for South Africa, Australia and New Zealand players.

Clearly, a series win is precious. Which no doubt fuelled the Springboks’ desperation to level the series on Saturday.

The preamble and the match itself were – at best – ill tempered. Nothing new there. It goes with the territory.

Back in 2009, the host union was fined £10,000, their captain £1,000, and each of their players £200 after taking to the field wearing thin white armbands, on which were written: “Justice 4 Bakkies.”

It was to protest a two-week ban for Boks lock Bakkies Botha for foul play.

Back then, the disciplinary committee argued the punishment would “deter all rugby players from adopting such an unwise and ill-considered way to make their feelings clear to [World Rugby], or the general rugby-watching public”.

How quaint that seems now. Deterrence? Hardly. Twelve years on, the world is a very different place. So is rugby.

Vimeo had been founded in 2005, but its use was not as widespread as today. Certainly not by rugby coaches trying to prove a point about unjust refereeing.

Let’s be honest, Rassie Erasmus’ online campaign in the lead up to the second Test made for captivating viewing.

First, the wackiness of his use of Twitter, including an alleged alter ego from a burner account. Then the explicit, 62-minute singeing of the officiating via video.

It was calculated. And it did the job, too. His side were vastly superior versions of themselves in the second Test, and way better than their visitors.

So did the ends justify his means? If they win the series, then maybe yes. But for the wider game, surely it was a bad look.

This is a sport which prides itself on its “values”, which are rather undermined by a respected coach harpooning officials in cyberspace – not to mention some of the foul play on both sides in the ensuing Test.

Obviously, for every Rassie Erasmus there is a Ruby Tui.

But in the wake of what has happened in this series, the next time someone from rugby refers to its beloved values, fans of other sports might be forgiven for rolling their eyes and thinking: “Please, spare us the sanctimony.”

Updated: August 2nd 2021, 12:11 PM
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