The old chestnut is that football is a gentleman’s game played by thugs, while rugby union is a thug’s game played by gentlemen. Some have ventured to suggest that rugby league is a thug’s game played by thugs… but I couldn’t possibly comment as I’m due to travel north at some point in the future. But as a former footballer and a keen fan of the egg-chasing, I’ve always been willing to accept that while rugby union players might not always be more intelligent or better-bred than us, they’re generally a hell of a lot more dignified. That was, of course, until these last six weeks and what must surely rank as England’s most disgraceful World Cup campaign in ANY sport.
After the dwarf-throwing, carousing and leaping off ferries, as well as several pretty disreputable on-field performances, I have to say that I feel sorry for Martin Johnson. When England’s footballers flopped so badly at the World Cup in South Africa last year, I firmly believed Fabio Capello was wrong to lock up his players and leave them in isolation. So I can hardly say now that I disagree with Johnson’s approach of treating his players as adults and allowing them to go out for a drink. If Johnson keeps his job – and I can’t see many coaches banging on the RFU’s door demanding to replace him – then he will be left with a major dilemma on future tours because he has been let down badly.
For the 1966 World Cup, we were away together as a squad for – as my missus always remembers – a total of 14 weeks. And I can honestly say that, while we enjoyed the occasional lively night out on the beer, nobody ever over-stepped the mark. There was always the feeling that we were there to do a job, that we had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something really special and win the World Cup. It was a sense of duty and a pride in our country that I believed our rugby players possessed. Sadly not.
I always thought Mike Tindall was a bright lad. When you’re the England rugby captain, in the most rugby-mad nation on Earth and you’ve just married into what is New Zealand’s Royal Family as well as our own, you really ought to know better. Tindall is worthy of that harshest of condemnations: he acted like a footballer. Footballers have realised for a long while that camera phones and CCTV have changed the game. Every drinker in every pub is now a potential photo-journalist. Our rugby players are learning this the hard way.
I’ve always admired the hell out of rugby players. They put themselves through the sort of physical punishment that footballers could not imagine in their worst nightmares. When you compare it to footballers diving around as if they’ve been shot in the head, when they’ve actually just stubbed their toe, it really is laughable. Yet everything about rugby union seemed far more civilised than in my own sport. I went to Twickenham last year to see England play the All Blacks and enjoyed the lack of segregation and the mutual respect between rival fans.
On the pitch, self-discipline and respect towards referees are things that rugby players have long been rightly proud of. Yet dissent is gradually creeping its way into the sport and you fear rugby will end up going the same way as football in the long run. Rugby players used to enjoy the moral high ground over footballers – but that has now been lost. And this thug can tell rugby’s gentlemen that the high ground will not be easy to regain.