How rugby has lost its soul.

By Gareth Axenderrie

The clock ticked into the red, France were camped out on the Welsh try line. A final scrum would prove the difference in the tightest of games. Amazingly, that final play lasted almost 19 minutes. Allegations of a bite to George North, two yellow cards, tactical substitutions and the strangest of moments with a French doctor followed.

It’s left a very sour taste in the mouths of people across the rugby community. It has led many to question whether rugby’s integrity, a pillar of the game since William Webb Ellis first picked up and ran with a football, is being eroded.

The damning evidence that the game had been packed with wrongdoing was presented in the post-match press conferences. First, Rob Howley accused the French management of sending their team doctor onto the pitch to allow struggling prop Uini Atonio to leave the field.

Antonio was a substitute, and should have seen out the rest of the game despite complaining of a sore back. Referee Wayne Barnes asked him if he was injured and he signalled that he wished to carry on. A French doctor then entered the field without the referee’s permission. When Barnes asked him if Antonio had to leave the field because of a concussion, the doctor looked him in the eye and said yes. Howley contests that this was a bare faced lie, but his opposite number was also quick to throw around accusations of feigning.

When asked about George North’s allegations that he had been bitten, French head coach Guy Novès insinuated that he could easily have bitten himself. These were truly remarkable scenes, two international coaches accusing each other’s teams of cheating. Tournament officials are looking into the events, but as wild as they are, it isn’t the first-time the game has been brought into disrepute.

In 2009, the Harlequins engineered a blood injury that allowed them to make a pivotal substitution late into a Heineken Cup match against Leinster. Wing Tom Williams chewed a blood capsule given to him by the physiotherapist, it allowed him to leave the field and fly half Nick Evans to come back on.

Harlequins were found out in subsequent investigations and it became apparent that they had used fake blood injuries on four separate previous occasions. Ramifications included a three year ban for head coach Dean Richards, a twelve month ban for Williams and a £260,000 fine for the club.

The hard line taken by the world’s governing body was welcomed by the wider rugby community, the hope was that it would draw a line in the sand and nip organised cheating in the bud. Unfortunately, the last eight years have continued to see a continuation of actions and behaviour throughout the game that have only furthered arguments that the days of sportsmanship and morality are being confined to the era of amateurism.

Welsh rugby has been no stranger to this. In recent years, there have been unprecedented incidents of players being found guilty of drug taking in Welsh rugby. Eleven individuals playing in Wales are currently banned, whilst rumours of further drug taking throughout the amateur community game are rife.

The sport has always been held in very high esteem in the wider sporting community, one built on hard but fair play. Rugby lovers have given out their fair share of jibes to the football community whenever their sport has been engulfed in scandal, but in recent years, rugby has had to look at itself in the mirror with increasing frequency.

You can definitely identify the symptoms of professionalism as a cause for rugby losing its way. There is far more emphasis placed on two things now: winning at all costs, and attracting as many customers and money to the game as possible.

The ‘win at all costs’ mentality has, for the most part, been limited to actions within the rules: playing with injuries, pushing training regimes to the limits, challenging previous levels of commitment. Where does this mentality stop however? It would appear that it has spilt over into the realms of unsporting behaviour and even blatant cheating.

The financial growth has also had an increasingly conflicting relationship with the game’s traditions. You only have to look at a typical match day in Cardiff to see the impact of corporatism on the once sacred act of watching a Wales international. Games are happening later and later into the day, this year was the sixth time the Principality has hosted the Six Nations on a Friday night in the last eight years.

It would appear fans are being priced out, tickets are now going for over £150 a game, and encouraged to abide by the demands of a maximum profit mentality. A Friday night game gives fans a maximum of three hours to travel from home to a game. Add rush hour traffic and parking, and there’s barely time to grab a pint before you get in. If you live outside of South East Wales, you either take the afternoon off work or you can forget it.

Those fans who do make it to the game are also getting increasingly drunk, especially when they have been on the beers for hours in advance of kick off. It has given match day’s the feel of a drunken night club atmosphere, pyrotechnics and strobe lights included, as opposed to one of educated engaged fans focussed solely on the game.

At the Ireland game, I saw two separate incidents of individuals being removed from the stadium for being aggressive and abusive, the result of too much alcohol. Behaviour has lead Welsh journalism and sport presenter Jason Mohammad to declare he wouldn’t take his children to future games. Not really the kind of talk associated with a game built on the foundations of respectful behaviour.

This all concludes the argument that rugby has lost its way, and in turn, its soul. With increasing corporatism and an emphasis on winning at all costs, whether it being on the field or off, its difficult to now envisage a return to the good old days.