Sportsmanship – Time to Dust off an Old Column

Given the Bakkies Botha schtick at this week’s Tri Nations match, I’ve been giving this column about Sportsmanship from 2001 a lot of thought.  It might be time to fly it up the flagpole and see if it resonates with any rugby fans.

– Benson

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In my last column I briefly addressed the idea of sportsmanship and the lack of it as it mattered in the Hopoate case in rugby league.

Well, it’s time to focus on this idea of sportsmanship.

Last weekend I watched one of the best up and coming college rugby teams play. The University of New Mexico Lobos faced off with the New Mexico Tech Pygmies rugby team. The game was very much one-sided. The Lobos scored almost at will. They play with a teamwork and a fluidity that you see in top Super 12 teams. The Lobos never were threatened in the game. Scoring early and often, they won, 91-3.

However, I also haven’t seen such a high level of unsportsmanlike conduct and arrogance, ever.

In my life.

The saying is “Rugby is a hooligan’s sport, played by gentlemen.” What I saw last weekend bore no resemblance to a gentlemen’s sport.

I’ve seen the Dallas Cowboys of the early ’90s, I remember the ‘85 Bears and the “Superbowl Shuffle.” Anyone remember when the Boston Celtics were good?

That wasn’t enough. When is winning ever enough anymore?

In the first half, the University of New Mexico played like they were true champions, they jumped into the lead, they took control of the game, but they allowed the Pygmies to stay in the game.

The difference between the first and second halves could be measured in light years. During the second half, the Lobos were boasting about how many tries they had left to score 100 points. The Lobos kept out one of their best players until the second half, when they were up 41-0.

Near the end of the game, one of the Pygmies was injured, the result of a cheap shot. He was shoved from behind into the knee of another player, no attempt at a tackle. At the end of the game the Lobos ran the ball in from one end of the try zone, ran across the try zone and placed the ball down in the furthest corner they could find and still score.

Was that necessary?

No.

I understand we live in an age where you can’t just win, you have to show up your opponent.

Why only score, when you can score and rub a little salt in the ol’ wound?

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Sound familiar?

Is this what rugby is really about? Running up the score, trash talking, humiliating your opponent.

At what point would the coach step in and say “Enough is enough”?

I like a good, hard ruck as much as the next guy, I’m in favor of hard playing rugby. It’s the taunting, the deliberate belittling of a team playing their best that I’m against.

I spoke with the referee after the game. He said that if the game hadn’t ended at that point, he would’ve taken the player who scored the final try aside and had a word with him.

I’m glad I’m not a referee. I’d have disallowed the final try for taunting. (Be worried, the referee at the game has almost talked me into becoming a referee)

I mentioned a line in the sand that players can’t fully come back from after they cross it. It’s the same with teams. If a team gets a reputation for running up the score, throwing cheap shots, and being bad sports when they lose, then it’s hard to come back and re-create the teams image. Every time a team slips up, the people start to think, “Well, they’re back to their old ways.”

Look back at the 1995 World Cup, New Zealand vs. Japan, 145-17 All Blacks. That didn’t make up for the loss to South Africa. Draw the parallel with the University of New Mexico, they can run up the score against a team they outclass, they can taunt and trash talk. But outside of a sevens tournament in May, their season is over. They lost in the Western Round of 12 to Air Force. And I’ll bet that despite running up the score this weekend, they’d give up every try they scored in order to be in the playoff run.

If you truly love the game, then it’s not a matter of winning or losing, this is the essence of sportsmanship. (But I gotta tell you, I’m not against winning a game, it’s winning without class that I’m against.) The indomitable spirit of the game is being decimated by these antics.

One of the best phrases I’ve heard about sportsmanship comes from “Any Given Sunday.”

From Al Pacino to Jamie Foxx, “Just remember, on any given Sunday, you’re either gonna win or your gonna lose.”

And back to Coach Al, “But can you win or lose like a man? I got it.”

Is it too late to get it?

Botha Called Out By Springbok Captain

According to a report at Scrum.com, Springbok captain John Smit has called out “Cheap Shot Bakkies” for receiving a nine-week ban for headbutting New Zealand’s Jimmy Cowan at last Saturday’s Tri Nations opening match in Auckland, New Zealand. Money quote:

“The fact of the matter is that in a team sport, you can’t afford to have too many big egos. If you have one that is outside the team ethos, it hurts a team,” Smit said. “It was probably the least penalties we’ve conceded in a long period of time but all you remember is one act of silliness. It’s been dealt with, thankfully. I think it’s just reward for silly behaviour.”

Smit has spoken out at odd with Springbok coach Peter De Villiers, who sticks to his story that Cowan grabbed Botha’s jersey and kept him from getting the ball at one point in the game.  For a team captain to speak out against the coach’s talking points is a bold move, and might be indicative of frustration on the Springbok team with Botha’s antics on the field.

Botha Update–Springbok Thug Gets Light 9-Week Ban

Springbok thug… er, lock, Bakkies Botha received word today that he’d be receiving a nine-week ban for his flagrant headbutt on New Zealand’s Jimmy Cowan at Saturday’s Tri Nations opening match in Auckland. Botha appeared before a SANZAR judicial officer in New Zealand on Sunday to receive his sentence.

According to the South African RFU, Botha admitted the charge and expressed remorse. Botha left the meeting without speaking to anyone in the media and later apologized to Cowan via a media statement. Look, I work in public relations and if you want to get out of Dodge and make a faux-apology that gives you the appearance of caring about your actions then the South Africa RFU hit it right on the head.  And if Botha is smart he’ll keep his mouth shut for the nine-weeks except for being seen at some photo-op “anger management” course, or teaching rugby to some schoolkids.

I’d understand letting Botha off with a nine-week ban for his actions if this were his first infraction.  Hell if this was his first sentence then I might even say it was too strong.  But let’s take a look at Botha’s list of previous bans for violent infractions, shall we?

  • From Wikipedia: “Botha is known as one of the “hardest” locks in world rugby. He is particularly fond of the dark side of sport and has received bans for biting, testicle grabbing, head butting, and eye gouging.”
    (OK, let me say now – I’ve thrown a retaliatory punch or two in the ruck, but if you ever grab my boys, on the field or off, I’m going to club you like a Canadian with a baby seal)
  • In 2002, Botha received a yellow card for stamping against France, in his first international match
  • Aug. 2003 – Accused of biting and eye-gouging against Australia (8-week suspension)
  • April 2009 – 3-match ban for hitting a player in a Super 14 match
  • June 2009 – 2-week ban for a dangerous charge in a match with the British/Irish Lions (the ban was later dismissed on appeal)

I understand that South Africans love their rugby a little rougher than anyone else, some of us might call it “Cheap Shot Rugby”, allegedly.  But there is a certain point where a player becomes too much of a disgrace to have him on the field. Given his previous run ins with the rugby authorities for his dirty play, Botha might be approaching that line.  If he hasn’t stomped all over it already.