Friday, 21 October 2011

Guy Mercer: Bath Rugby's general-in-waiting

With a back row that boasts the likes of England skipper Lewis Moody, Springbok Francois Louw, British Lion Simon Taylor and England Saxon Carl Fearns, young flanker Guy Mercer could be forgiven if he showed a hint of frustration at Bath Rugby. But the local lad who has risen through the ranks at the club is far from down-hearted. In fact, he oozes an impressive blend of maturity and good sense. After interviewing him this week, I have a prediction: Mercer will skipper Bath within five years.

Go on, be a good sport...

There are debates about injustice, and there are debates about injustice in sport.

While few would question that legal debates in the Supreme Court are of greater significance to the lot of mankind than the rulings of the IRB or any other sporting body, which ones tend to linger longer in the collective psyche?

It is a peculiar fact that sporting controversy often outlives political and social controversy. That is testament to the way in which sport can seize – some might say possess – the mind.

The question of whether Sam Warburton should have been red-carded and banned for his tackle on Vincent Clerc might not be of greater legal significance than whether travellers should be Taser-ed while being evicted from a farm, but I know which one I'll recall with greater vivacity in a decade or two's time.

Similarly, there were all manner of civil rights issues being thrashed out in the mid-1960s. But when I say 'England, 1966' to you, what do you think? Moreover, ask a German about whether the ball crossed the English line after hitting the crossbar and you will receive chapter and verse. And then some.

It is a truism that sporting events can escalate into diplomatic incidents. The other side of the coin is that sporting events can sometimes defuse political problems. What, after all, is the Olympics if not a quasi-utopian portrayal of a world at peace with itself, however fleetingly?

The power of sport is that we can rehearse to ourselves all sorts of emotions and virtues. Phrases like "Gascoigne redeemed himself..." or "Pietersen atoned for his dropped catch..." or "England fans forgave Robson..." come all too easy to the fan and the journalist, because in the safe world of bat and ball we can experience mock-dramas that prepare us for the proper emotional demands of real life.

The danger of sport is that it can also poison the well of emotional response. It's now a commonplace to hear of parents behaving like apes on the touchlines of under-10 football matches, baying at the ref in a way that should land them before the Bench. That's because they take their lead from peevish footballers and managers whose stock response is rage.

All notion of stoicism, deference and emotional restraint is long dead in football. Lest I be accused of being anti- football, it came close to dying on the golf course too when the American Ryder Cup team trampled over Jose Maria Olazabal's line in 1999.

And that, tortuously, brings me back to captain Warburton. Although obviously devastated at the sending off that cost his country a place in a World Cup final, there were no tantrums or histrionics for the cameras. And didn't you find that just a little reassuring?

Friday, 7 October 2011

World in Union? Don't be such a Twit

Reprimands from a team manager to players are about as welcome for a squad as Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu at an IRB tea party

Forget World in Union. Boorish antics and intemperate language from players, as well as petty mean-spiritedness from certain quarters of the media, have made this Rugby World Cup look like a comedy of human folly as much as a festival of sport.

The melody for the Rugby World Cup anthem is based on a section of Holst's The Planets but at times this competition has seemed like two planets colliding.

On the field, the division between so-called Tier 1 and Tier 2 teams has been made to look spurious – witness Tonga beating France and Samoa running both Wales and South Africa close, despite the South Sea Islanders' less charitable scheduling.

That scheduling – which involves Tier 2 sides having a shorter turnaround between matches, a state of affairs driven largely by Tier 1 sides being given weekend television slots – has come in for vociferous criticism.

Georgia have grumbled and United States captain Todd Clever has voiced his dissatisfaction but every cause needs a charismatic, articulate leader – and spearheading the criticism has been smartphone warrior and Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu.

Armed with his mobile and Twitter account, the former Bath Rugby player has been waging a vitriolic online campaign against the International Rugby Board's scheduling.

Sapolu, a trained lawyer, is unquestionably a bright man but, after reading some of his tweets, the question that arises is this – what's bigger, his learning or his ego's desire to usurp this World Cup for itself?

The Samoan makes cogent points about how his team and other Tier 2 sides are condemned to perform on an uneven playing field.

But to make analogies with the Holocaust, apartheid and slavery, as he has done, are extreme, disingenuous and unsavoury, no matter how much subtle reasoning he has subsequently deployed to try and explain himself.

To then call a referee biased and racist put him beyond the pale. At best it was a particularly acidic case of sour grapes, at worst it was an arrogant and libellous attack which reinforced the notion that Sapolu at times thinks he is above civil law, despite his frequent protestations that it is he who is fighting for justice.

Elsewhere at this World Cup, England have at times seemingly gone out of their way to make things as hard as possible for themselves.

Certainly, reprimands from the team manager to players are about as welcome for the England squad as Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu at an IRB tea party.

Some media portrayed Shontayne Hape as having 'broken ranks' on Monday for having the audacity to say that 'a couple of the guys have let the squad down', when really what the centre was making was a statement of the bleedin' obvious.

Fanning the flames further, The New Zealand Herald carried a picture on its front page yesterday of a surly-looking Mike Tindall alongside the headline: "An Englishman Repents: The Most Horrible Team".

That headline may well be a non sequitur but it still managed to convey an ugliness and thinly disguised malice that has characterised much of the news media's coverage.

To both the outsider with little acquaintance of rugby and to those who love the game, RWC 2011 has been a depressing spectacle at times.

Somebody ought to give Dame Kiri Te Kanawa a bell and get her to belt out World in Union again. It would be music to supporters' ears for the game to rediscover the harmonising power of rugby.