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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 . View all posts by DB9

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