by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
“I had a buddy in college who played rugby and he was always talking about players being punched or stomped on” said a man to me after we were introduced. He was unfamiliar with rugby, and only had stories from his college pal to base his opinions of rugby on. I briefly described rugby to my new acquaintance as a hard and uncompromising sport that requires the athletes to be able to run, pass, and tackle. I stressed to him that there is a high degree of teamwork and athleticism in the game, and although it was not necessarily a sport for everyone, foul play wasn’t in the spirit of rugby.
During my playing career, I always felt a responsibility to my teammates to play as hard as possible. I was taught that I could run and tackle as hard as I wanted and yet never cross over the bright line that separates playing hard from playing dirty. It was my responsibility to compete within the laws and uphold the spirit in which the game is supposed to be played. By my way of thinking, players are custodians of the game, entrusted to play hard but fair at all times.
As coaches, we are responsible to help our players learn the laws and train them to compete within those laws while embracing the rugby’s great spirit. Self-discipline is at the core of this spirit and regardless of what is at stake, foul play is never acceptable. Players and teams that only demonstrate discipline when it is convenient never reach their potential. What’s more, there isn’t a situation during a match that justifies foul play, plain and simply. All players will be placed in vulnerable positions at some point during a match and our sport’s laws and culture state that felonious actions not occur during these moments.
It is frustrating to hear coaches blame referees for issuing yellow or red cards during a match for foul play. The role of the referee and assistant referees is to enforce the laws based on what they see players do. It lies at the feet of the players and coaches to improve the standard of play, not the referees.
During this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour, there were numerous comments made in the media by the Lions players about the thuggish play of the Southern Kings, a team coached by Alan Solomons. Lion’s replacement Ronan O’Gara commented after the match, “There were more cheap shots in this game than the rest of the tour put together”. “The consensus in the dressing room was that we were pretty shocked by some of the things that went on.” There were several moments during this and other matches on the Lion’s tour that were an eyesore to how rugby should be played.
In the United States, it is critical that players and coaches embrace the role of being a custodian since we are trying to introduce the game to a new, inexperienced audience. Rugby in America will never become what it can be if teams carried on as the Southern Kings did versus the Lions.
We are in a constant battle to improve the image of rugby. A recent example is the July 31st Wall Street Journal Weekend piece on the South African Springboks. The bulk of the article speaks to eye gouging, broken bones, and players being injured. As custodians of the game, we have to do our very best to present a balanced view of the game, not just highlight injuries that have occurred. We are responsible for looking after the game, making sure that skill, fitness, and teamwork are the common talking points while in conversations with the media and the general public. We must remind each other that rugby’s appearances in the public does matter, and as custodians of the game, it is our duty to never glorify egregious foul play.
Dirty players are cowards and there is no room for them in our game.
Those of us that love the game, players or coaches alike, are the guardians to maintaining the spirit the rugby. Our behaviour on the field should always be aimed at enhancing rugby’s reputation, especially here in the America, where rugby has so far to grow.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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