Welcome to The Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly (and free) rugby union newsletter. Here’s an extract from this week’s edition. To receive the full version every Tuesday, just pop your email in below:
Sport brings out the best and worst in us. The same occasionally applies to sportswriting. One minute it is all breathless hyperbole, florid adjectives and poetic descriptions of the best days of our lives. The next it is curtains for some ashen-faced manager and the purple prose turns to acid rain. One day you’re a rooster, as the ex-Wallaby rugby coach Alan Jones used to say, the next you’re a feather duster.
More recently social media has picked up this ancient art form and run off with it like a demented William Webb Ellis. Nick Kyrgios looks an angry man at Wimbledon but he has nothing on some of the Twitter loons howling at this week’s chosen moon. Which may explain why elite sport in general seems to be becoming more shouty by the week.
The aforementioned Kyrgios is merely the most prominent example, someone who sees no problem in behaving like a complete arse in his place of work because, as he modestly told the Wimbledon chair umpire, “people want to see me, not you”. Goodness, what a caring, thoughtful guy he sounds. The former Australian grand slam legends such as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall must be bursting with pride.
But to some extent he is just another reflection of our hair-trigger times. And if he really fancies getting annoyed, he should watch some rugby union. No other ball game – not even politically riven, cash-bloated golf – currently feels more fractious. To some extent that is OK because contact sports are not meant to be pat-a-cake or bland but the naturally occurring “edge” that makes rugby compelling is in danger of tipping over into something less healthy.
This is not, to be clear, a whinge about hair-pulling, yelling at opponents or gamesmanship or any of the other isolated behavioural excesses which cropped up during the raft of international games last Saturday. Passions have always run high on the field and will continue to do so whenever huge blokes deliberately collide with each other.
No, it is more about how the sport wishes to showcase itself: through its players’ stirring deeds or via prolonged, partisan show trials on social media. Currently the latter seem to be dominating, with any fleeting feelgood factor buried beneath a mixture of rising cynical “shithousery” and hair-splitting law interpretations.
Take the Australia v England game where the Wallaby lock Darcy Swain was rightly sent off for an unsubtle butt to the head of England’s Jonny Hill. Subsequently, though, footage emerged of Hill having previously yanked Swain’s hair and shoved him hard in the face. Conduct prejudicial to the game’s best interests? The English lock, who saw only yellow at the time, has not even been cited.
Then there are incidents like the illegal high clean‑out by Scott Barrett on Peter O’Mahony in the New Zealand v Ireland game. It has been replayed on a loop on social media and the tale of the tape is clear. Barrett should have been off the field and probably would have been had the All Blacks not been on home soil. Instead, once again, the absence of a post-match citing charge merely stoked the fizzing resentment across Irish Twitter. Hit someone marginally high on a rugby pitch nowadays and the final arbiter is not the referee.
The inconsistency of it all just breeds further frustration. Hence the trend for players to report the slightest high contact to the match officials in the hope someone might get carded. At worst there is the possibility of a breather while the local TV director does his worst and the replays are pored over. At best an opponent could walk if the complaints are loud enough.
There will be another major firestorm if Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, a man with a complicated concussion past, is declared fit to play in the series-shaping second Test. In theory he is a prime test case for World Rugby’s new minimum 12-day stand down period for concussed players. In reality Ireland are now insisting Sexton’s injury was not a confirmed concussion and that he is being assessed further. If the fly-half plays this Saturday and takes another heavy blow, what price World Rugby’s player welfare message then?
All this is worth mentioning because it is diverting attention from what should be going viral: the actual sport. Wales may have lost in South Africa but what an inspiring performance they gave in Pretoria. Their 77th-minute try by Dewi Lake, an equaliser with his team down to 13 men, was a fabulous example of mind over matter, not to mention epic belief and concerted passion.
Likewise the 19-year-old Henry Arundell’s try for England in their losing cause in Perth. It is necessary to go all the way back to Wales’s Keith Jarrett in 1967 or even Prince Alexander Obolensky at Twickenham in 1936 to find a teenage debutant who has announced himself more strikingly. When the seen-it-all Eddie Jones starts mentioning Arundell’s name in the same breath as Bryan Habana and David Campese it is clear a special talent is emerging.
So did you notice what has just happened? With a few taps of the keyboard we are back in purple prose territory. Easy, isn’t it? Sport is nothing if it prompts only anger. As in all the best drama there have to be shafts of warm emotional light as well. Too much shouty negativity and everybody loses. The moral of this sporting tale? Hack off your audience and the road to perdition awaits.