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Does Rugby Have a Tribal Problem?

child-soccer-fanWell, first the good news. Rugby union has not yet become as tribal as 13-a-side, as was proved to me at the weekend.

Being a lifelong dual-code rugby follower, I was on Saturday glued to the BBC watching my beloved Leeds Rhinos getting well and truly spanked by Huddersfield Giants.

The online forums (fora?) were what you’d expect afterwards. Fans of Huddersfield (and everyone else especially Bradford Bulls) gloating – not a hint of graciousness in victory. Many fans of Leeds moaning about the ref and blaming the defeat on him – not a hint of humility in defeat from the vast majority of posters.

However, the real story of why Huddersfield triumphed is this: despite dominating possession and territory, and playing against 12 men for a quarter of the game, Leeds were outscored in both halves and had no way through the Giants defence. Huddersfield’s defensive display was a master class in commitment, teamwork, discipline and controlled aggression; the classic combination of fire in the belly and ice in the mind. When scoring chances came their way, they were far more clinical than Leeds, made fewer errors, and so ran out deserved winners. No blame on referee Phil Bentham, who did make mistakes but certainly nothing that affected the game as dramatically as the mistakes made by Leeds players.

Anyway, my point about tribalism. During the game, if you’d closed your eyes you might have thought it was a football match you were hearing as the Huddersfield fans proclaimed “we all hate Leeds scum”.

This kind of thing has been par for the course at RL grounds for some years now, with certain rivalries (Wigan-St. Helens, Castleford-Wakefield, Hull-Hull KR and Leeds-Everyone) being especially bitter. Fortunately, the aggression in the crowd is generally diffused by the action on the pitch, and I can only remember one incidence of serious crowd trouble in the recent past when irate Hull fans invaded the pitch at Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium after a Cup semi-final loss to Leeds (inevitably).

But the undercurrent of rivalry bordering on hate bubbles away under the surface at RL grounds, and as with football crowds the supporters just seem to be angry a lot of the time if the widespread bad language is anything to go by – something you just don’t hear at a rugby union game.

Indeed, none of the issues mentioned above is present at rugby union grounds, where supporters of rival clubs mingle freely, drink beer together and engage in humorous and good-natured banter.

So hurrah and huzzah for rugby union, great bastion of sportsmanship and repository of sporting ethics par excellence.

respectNow the bad news. While everything is still hunky-dory at the game itself, away from the stadium and especially online, rugby union followers are getting more and more like those of other sports.

Anyone who used to go on the old BBC 606 forum will know what I mean – the place should have cut the pretence and just called itself Fight Club. I left a Facebook rugby discussion group just before the 6 Nations started because I could see what was coming and didn’t want any part of it. However, I do get all the RBS news on my timeline so I was ‘privileged’ to read some of the ‘discussion’ that played out after what I like to call The Game That Never Was when my beloved England were well and truly spanked by Wales.

The online forums (fora?) were what you’d expect afterwards. Fans of Wales (and everyone else especially Ireland) gloating – not a hint of graciousness in victory. Many fans of England moaning about the ref and blaming the defeat on him – not a hint of humility in defeat from the vast majority of posters. Sound familiar? Some of the hatred levelled at England’s players was vile, like expressions of regret that this or that player hadn’t been put in a wheelchair for life. Clearly a record win isn’t enough for some. England fans reserved their bile mainly for ref Steve Walsh, but however flawed his performance (that’s a topic for another post), death threats are a bit much – it’s only a game.

Just a one-off? The discussion about Cian Healy’s stamp on Dan Cole was similarly heated, with one section of supporters advocating a severe punishment beating for Healy (equating a game of rugby with Ulster’s sectarian issues – genius), while others saying Cole got what he deserved for cheating and Healy should have really hurt him. Or the Lions selection debates, pre- and post-squad announcement. Attempts at discussing the relative merits of the available players were hijacked by those with a nationalist agenda. Their MO is simple: anyone not from my country is worthless and has to be slagged off mercilessly in the most basic terms. So apparently we learned that Sam Warburton is a [EXPLETIVE] coward who will bottle it against the Aussies, Owen Farrell is [EXPLETIVE] useless and only picked because of Daddy, and so on. All very unsavoury and the only comfort is the players themselves are unlikely to read any of this garbage.

But the very worst of it is that I’ve started to hear club rivalries expressed in similar terms at grassroots level in age grade rugby. Such and such a club are a set of cheating [EXPLETIVE]s. We don’t play against them, their ref’s bent. I’ve even heard one coach calling a rival club ‘inbred scum’ – and meaning it.

Every club buys into the Ethos of Rugby: Teamwork, RESPECT, Enjoyment, Discipline, Sportsmanship. Gradually, over the last six or so years, that word respect seems to mean a bit less.

It’s about shaking hands on the pitch and not arguing with the ref and that’s it. But if you do those things and then later bitch about the ref in front of impressionable youngsters, or refer to a club as cheats and refuse to play against them – are you really showing respect for the ethos of the game?

And do we really want to go down the path which leads to supporters chanting abuse at each other and viewing the opposition with hate? Because at the moment, that seems to be what we, aided by the internet, are teaching the game’s future guardians.


About DB9

Dave Beal played rugby league and rugby union for schools, colleges and clubs in his native West Yorkshire, as well as in Nottingham, Dorset and France, before having to retire through injury at 27. For the last 9 years Dave has been a junior coach at National 3 North side Huddersfield where he is about to launch his new U9 squad into the world of contact rugby. A level 1 coach and ELRA 2 referee, Dave is passionate about passing on all that is good in the game of rugby to the young players in his care.
To read more of Dave’s thoughts about rugby, follow his blog at http://rugbymusings.wordpress.com .

View all posts by DB9

3 Comments to Does Rugby Have a Tribal Problem?

  1. Spike, those are all great points.

    On an amateur level, if a club encounters teams like this, what can be done? (1) Raise the issue with the referee; (2) Complain to the club in a formal manner post match (i.e. letter to the Chairman); (3) Complain to the RFU local body; (4) Not play the team again (although this may not be an option if they are in your league).

    Any other ideas, Dave/Spike?

    • DB9

      In a lot of ways, Spike nails it. At local level people have to take ownership of the issue when it arises and report it in the correct way. Partly my article was inspired by the similarity of the online mudslinging in both rugby codes. That’s easy to deal with – ignore it. Don’t go on those message boards or Facebook pages and you won’t see the obnoxious comments. People do it because there’s the distance and anonymity factor and they know they’ll never have to face those they offend.
      However, we are starting to see this happen on a local level. Example: after a recent County Cup final at my club, we had an item posted on our Facebook page about what a great event it had been. An official from one of the participating clubs posted a snotty comment about our not having enough bar staff on and perhaps we shouldn’t host such events if we can’t cope with an large influx of visitors. Nothing abusive, but addressing a problem in completely the wrong way. I posted a reply asking who he had spoken to about the staffing issue on the day, to which he didn’t bother to reply – but he took his comment down.
      We had an issue earlier in the season where our U16s lost quite heavily in an away game; the home team posted a video of the game on YouTube with an ‘amusing’ voiceover, and shared it via Facebook and Twitter. Again, this was resolved by a prompt phone call to the club in question and the video was taken down.
      What exercises me I guess is that these problems CAN be dealt with, but perhaps we shouldn’t have to. People seem to be too ready nowadays to go down the route of being provocative or gloating – a reflection of society in general I guess and a broadening of rugby’s appeal.
      I’d rather be in a situation when this sort of disrespect didn’t happen at all.

      PS – talking to a friend yesterday who has been to Cardiff to watch England play numerous times, perhaps the ‘it doesn’t happen at the game itself’ idea needs revising. Various incidences of abuse, threats of violence etc over the years, even one female friend having a cigarette stubbed out on her England shirt. He no longer wears his England shirt to games there, he wears a Lions shirt instead. Sad he should have to feel that way.

  2. I’ll have a crack at this.
    I think there is an element of this creeping into the support of the professional game but it is a very small element at grounds. Social media is easy for any keyboard warrior to mouth off about anything they want to have an opinion on. I tend to ignore such comments on forums (fora) and choose instead to be impressed that the individual worked out how to turn their computer on and hope that they might use it to learn something.
    Going back to the professional game again I have only ever come across this sort of “fan” once or twice in all the years I’ve been to matches. They tend to be the big games and the individuals seem to fall under the rent a crowd mindset. Normally they are self managed by those around them or excellently dealt with by the stewards at the ground.
    This is the bit which is key, this is our game and it is up to us to manage the standards. If we do nothing then nothing happens and the behaviour grows.
    This takes me to grass roots rugby. One of the things I do at the club is coach our U16s and this year they together with a couple of our other age groups have come across an approach from an opposition team which was an example of this sort of behaviour.
    Our players were abused verbally and physical on the pitch by the opposition. Now I know rugby is a physical sport but punches at that age off the ball and behind the referee are not common but happened on numerous occasions in the match. They were that good at it you might be forgiven for thinking they knew what they were doing.
    During the match one of the substitutes called me a word I wouldn’t accept anyone calling me and when I raised this together with the other items with the coach I was called more names.
    As a club we have no need or wish for our players to be put into that sort of environment and as a formal letter to the other club only got a similar response we decided not to bother playing those teams for the next season.
    Respect and the spirit of our game makes it more than just a game and as I said if we do nothing and accept it when these two cornerstones of the game are abused then it is our fault as much as those behaving in that way.

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