The most red cards we’ve seen in a season of European rugby is eight. This season the tally’s six, and we’re not even halfway through. Nor has World Rugby’s latest wave of zero-tolerance directives kicked in yet, these ones recommending sanctions for unavoidable accidents, which is what their directives have long advocated, but at least they’ve had the grace until now not to admit as much.
When the latest victim, George Earle, was sent off for accidentally grabbing the side of a player’s head for a split second he could be seen roaring in frustration at the referee as he walked, his game over for nothing, a game now ruined for everyone who’d paid to watch. He was right to, albeit not at the referee but the faceless suits of World Rugby who place these officials in such impossible situations.
This week, we entered new territory – a club musing out loud whether to sack a player for a moment’s indiscretion picked up by one of the legion cameras that scrutinise these players’ every move. James Davies has been, rightly, banned for the masturbatory gesture he made to one of his Scarlets team-mates about a referee who had just penalised him for using bad language, but to threaten in such a way a young man who is, like them all, playing under more pressure than any of the suits could dream of is self-righteous cowardice of a stomach-churning order.
Oh, for a zoom lens in the playing days of some of these moral guardians. Let’s not forget, either, how all of us, suits or not, have been regaled over the years by ex-players with their bawdy tales of yore. That manager who was having his hotel trashed by the 1974 Lions and threatened to call the police. “Will there be many of them?” said Willie John. How we roar with laughter. That 99 call, which was nothing more than a trigger for all-out assault. Ha! What characters! What a sport!
Square that with these latest directives. Or with this sanctimonious drivel from the Scarlets in the wake of the Davies affair: “The core values of respect, discipline and sportsmanship ensure that rugby, more than any other sport, embraces the responsibility of developing better people and better communities by challenging unacceptable behaviour.”
Rugby is loathed by many people not for its innate aggression and violence but for morally superior attitudes such as this. Sometimes, rugby really does seem to believe it’s better than all the others.
It’s not. Rugby is sicker than it’s ever been, and that’s nothing to do with the players, every last one of whom deserve medals for enduring the hardships of an ever-more brutal sport under the ever-closer glare of more and more cameras and frame-by-frame slo-mos.
Rugby is sick because it doesn’t know how to handle the modern world. So it screams in panic and fury at the very people, the players, that it continues to betray. And you can measure the disease by the red cards.