NEWS & ANALYSIS

Rugbyballs: Here and abroad

Jeremy Gordin reports on RWC red cards, Etzebeth, Mr Jones, Basson, & other idiocy
Call me the n-word (narcissist) or the s-word (solipsist), you can even call me the k-word, h-word, p-word or even the pp-word (public protector) – call me what you like. But since I believe the following piece must be predicated on my nous and credibility regarding certain issues, I begin with two personal statements.

First, my cervical spine is surgically fused on four levels. According to the eminent surgeon who did the work, the offending disc herniations were mainly caused by playing in the front row of a rugby team’s forward pack. Second, as is now obvious, and although I am small and unassuming, I played rugby for at least five years after high school [[i]] – in Israel [[ii]], Sweden [[iii]] and later in the SADF. The point is that – although it’s unlikely that I would have been selected, even aged 24, for, say, the C team at Grey College, Bloemfontein – I have played the game.

The red card rash

Yes, I know rugby-players of all ages, sizes, nationalities and levels have suffered horrific injuries, often to the neck and spine, and that this situation has been exacerbated by the introduction of professionalism [[iv]]. And when I say “horrific,” I mean just that: there are former rugby players stuck in wheelchairs, and worse, as a result of rugby injuries.

Consequently – and also because there is a drive to introduce the sport in places where it hasn’t previously been popular (e.g. Japan) and due to the ubiquity these days of cameras – the international administrators of the game took a decision or series of decisions to stop foul play and dangerous foul play in particular [[v]].

Among the new rules is one that stipulates that players are no longer permitted to tackle above the shoulder and/or to shove their shoulders or elbows into another’s player’s head or neck and/or to tackle without properly “wrapping their arms around” the other player; i.e., players may not body-block like an American footballer/ANC security person or charge into another like a runaway rhinoceros.

Another rule stipulates that if, in the act of tackling or any other act, player X lifts up player Y, it is incumbent on X not to lift Y’s legs above waist-height (a so-called tip- or spear-tackle) and moreover X must ensure that Y is not dropped on his head or neck.

Now, even though there exist scores of old-timers such as I who remember with affection the biting, gouging, punching and testicle-crunching that happened in the scrums of yore and the immense feeling of satisfaction garnered from spear-tackling a particularly pesky member of the opposition, preferably when the ref’s back was turned, there can be no rationally valid argument against the new rules.

Let me also note that infractions of the above sort carry several riders. The referee – with the help of the two linesmen and above all with help of the referee, known as the TMO (television match official), peering at the simultaneous video footage of the game – must decide whether the infringement was either intentional, unavoidable, or how much damage it caused or could cause.

But let’s be frenk, as we Seffricans say. Rugby is not tennis. It’s what’s (euphemistically) called a contact sport. No one is forced to play it; it’s not a species of chibalo (or shibalo, as historian Charles van Onselen prefers to spell it). If it seems potentially hazardous, which it is, then don’t play it or see to it that your children (or parents and siblings) don’t. Let them go into politics, stockbroking, academia or (heaven forfend) journalism, though I must caution you that those pursuits can also be very injurious.

Additionally, let’s bear in mind the Latin saying, “Sunt pueri pueri, pueri puerilia tractant,” “Boys will be boys and boys will act like boys.” It’s just how it is. Don’t blame me; I didn’t order the universe. Actually, according to most cosmologists, no one did; it’s just, as I said, how it is.

We come now to the “punishments” or sanctions available to referees. In rugby, if a player commits a foul, he can get a yellow card, which puts him in the “sin bin” (off the field) for 10 minutes. But if the infraction is deemed to have been intentional as well as potentially dangerous or plain dangerous, the player gets a red card, which takes him out of the game for the rest of it – and what’s more, at least in the present Rugby World Cup (RWC), red-carded players have been given three- or four-match bans, which have pretty much taken them out of the rest of the RWC.

Well-known Argentinian rugby player, Tomas Lavinini, was red-carded and banned for four matches for shoulder-charging England’s Owen Farrell (it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, Farrell being a real pain in the tuchis), and two Italian players, Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio, having been relentlessly bullied by the Springboks, decided to work in tandem to dump Springbok Duane Vermeulen right onto his keppele.

Quaglio escaped on-field sanction but was later banned for three matches. Vermeulen, by the way, appears to have been none the worse for the experience; he was not even sent off for a HIA (Head Injury Assessment), for which these days players are taken off if they so much as stub their toes.

Anyway, both games were as a result ruined for both players and spectators alike, and particularly for Argentina and Italy.

But here’s the thing. Rugby is team sport. It’s one thing to punish a player by taking him off for 10 minutes; but if you remove a player from the full match, his team is down to 14 players, and it generally becomes a no-contest game. What then is the point? The game is killed.

In short, rugby is presently being over-refereed – i.e., given the clamp-down on so-called dangerous play, the refs are handing out red cards left, right and centre – with the result that rugby is being turned into a game for pussies.

For example, in the case of Lavinini I don’t believe there was malice aforethought; he was going into the tackle as only he knows how. He’s what’s known in rugby as an “enforcer” – cf. Bakkies Botha and Eben Etzebeth, whom we’ll get to.

So why a red card? Even that jovial fellow, Steve Hansen, the All Blacks’ coach, has said that the over-refereeing could turn the quarterfinals, semis and final of this RWC into a fiasco. I fear he might be correct.

I think, however, there is a solution – at least in the future. Red cards should be given only for a clear punch or obvious stamping to the face or other anti-social behaviour such as biting. For the rest, give a yellow – and three yellow cards in one game can add up to a red. Finished en klaar.

Etzebeth and the h-word

But although there might be a solution to the red card rash in world rugby, I fear the problem – as evidenced by the need to give red cards at the RWC as often as possible – is a symptom of a larger, more frightening and intractable one.

I’m concerned, that is, that the world might have been infected by a virulent illness. I’m not sure how precisely to describe it but it seems to be a mixture of “nanny state” disease coupled with large dollops of virtue-signalling and Snowflake emotions.

In the beloved country the disease has become an epidemic, especially as we have reached the point, to take but one example, at which certain words and even opinions have become completely taboo. For examples, the k-word, the p-word and now, as we shall read, the h-word; as for opinions, consider Helen Zille’s dastardly suggestion that some benefits might have accrued from colonialism. She was well-and-truly red-carded; and though she is fighting, for unknown reasons, to get back into the team as captain, it’s going to be a struggle.

Now then, certain folk in Langebaan have alleged that the Springbok’s present enforcer, one Eben Etzebeth, assaulted someone/s and called someone/s a derogatory racist name (the h-word – it’s apparently hotnot by the way), and these allegations have grown like Topsy.

First there was just the alleged racist name-calling during a fracas at a pub in Langebaan. Then the phrase “pistol-whipping” raised its ugly head and then, according to journalist Adriaan Basson (whom we’ll also get to), “people have stated under oath that Etzebeth assaulted and insulted them”. (In Seffrica, by the way, we specialise in people stating things under oath that do not necessarily have a relationship with verisimilitude – but never mind.)

The Sunday Times also seems to have jumped into the fray. Ever since a few of its senior members were caught fibbing, I don’t buy it anymore (I’m also allowed to virtue-signal) nor am I a subscriber and thus cannot pick up more than the opening paragraph or two on the Net.

But last Sunday’s story began: “Racism and assault accusations against Etzebeth at his Rugby World Cup going-away party are just the tip of the iceberg, Langebaan residents said this week. The 27-year-old lock forward and his so-called ‘Wolf Pack’ are notorious in the west coast town for their thuggery, said South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) acting legal head Buang Jones [[vi]].

The learned Mr Jones also said – and I quote – “Etzebeth gets away with murder” [[vii]].  Though, in fairness to the HRC, Jones’ utterances and their fall-out seem to have what young CNN reporters these days call “a lot of moving parts” – and I heard this morning that the HRC boss has announced an inquiry into Jones’ behaviour.

Anyway, how did a fracas that seems to have been some sort of a pub brawl end up with Etzebeth being accused of getting away with murder? Well, it’s a result of the disease described above. Worse, though, is that Jones et al have launched a full-on media campaign against one of the Springbok star-players, demanding that he return home now “to face the music” (more like a cacophony).

Now, though many would disagree, I think the Springboks could manage without Etzebeth; in my view, Franco Mostert, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman are playing better than he is now. And, though I’m a serious rugby addict, I don’t believe the future well-being of this nation depends on how the Bokke do at the RWC. (“We” do like to hype these sports events – keeps our minds off other pressing matters.)

But neither of my views is relevant. The issue is: why has such a virulent, malicious and negative campaign been launched at one our sports stars in the middle of the RWC? It’s not exactly how “we” deal with Caster Semenya’s tribulations, is it? And though Etzebeth might be a man mountain of an Afrikaner and probably doesn’t subscribe to the works of Emily Post, and though he might, on previous form, soon be red-carded – as far as I remember people are innocent until proven guilty and getting trials to court rapidly is not one of our priorities.

Also, though it might be hard to imagine, he and his team mates doubtless also have feelings and stresses. Leave Etzebeth alone – you can caterwaul all you like once the William Webb Ellis trophy is here, and even more so if it’s not.

Him with his foot in his mouth

One person who would not agree with me, one person who seems to have a frighteningly bad case of the disease outlined above, is Media24 columnist Adriaan Basson (“Bassonetjie”).

Just so you know, Him with His Foot in His Mouth is the title of a short-story collection by Saul Bellow. It is not the title of my planned biography of Basson. And, while Bellow’s on my mind, I recall that he once said that reading a certain, very famous South African author was “like gagging on a Kotex” [a sanitary pad][vi]. I won’t mention the author’s name; I’m far too gracious to do that.

I will however say that reading some of Basson’s columns does make me feel as though I’m retching on a Kotex, or as I imagine that would be like. (I haven’t actually ever done so – unlike Bellow, apparently.) With the possible exceptions of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, so-called Commander-in-Chief of the EFF Julius Malema and former president Jacob G Zuma, there is no one as adept as Basson at putting his/her foot in his/her mouth. 

Basson’s latest piece of journalistic genius is to suggest that “Etzebeth should do his team and South Africa a favour and return home to clear his name (he claims he is innocent) or face the music”.

Why does Basson think so?  “I get goosebumps just thinking of the possibility of [Siya] Kolisi – [“the team is captained for the first time by a black player,” Basson notes elsewhere] – lifting the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2. South Africa has never been as ready for this victory. To win the World Cup requires the team to be 100% focused on their game, strategy and competitors in the remaining four matches. The charges against Etzebeth are an unnecessary and potentially fatal distraction.”

Fatal?

I think Basson needs to get over his racial hang-ups, his virtue-signalling and his overweening desire to drive away most of his supposed readers and focus 100% on trying to get cured.

Basson is red-carded for the next 10 years.


End notes

[i] In those days (circa 1966-9)– and it might still be the case, I don’t know – English-language “government” schools on the East Rand did not play rugby but soccer. The reason given (as far as I know) was that English-language schools, of which there weren’t more than say one per East Rand town, would have to play Afrikaans-language schools and it was thought that this could lead to “violence”. The moral of this for our purposes is that (i) it was common cause even then that rugby players are roughnecks and (ii) it seems rugby players are roughnecks notwithstanding the opposition team being of the same skin colour.

[ii] Once my team, the Hebrew University, played a relaxed (unofficial, of course) friendly against some members of the then Northern Transvaal rugby team, on a Bible Tour of the Holy Land. They must have been taking it easy; they beat us only 97-0.

[iii] And, trust me, the Swedish Rugby League was not for sissies and the fields were bloody hard, especially with the onset of winter.

[iv] Players are stronger due to prolonged weight training, probably swallow certain “supplements” that make them more vicious than they were to start with and can make a lot of money, provided their bodies hold out. Radix malorum est cupiditas.

[v] If you want to know the chapter, verse and evolution of these decisions and consequent rules, you should be able to find them on the Net, or simply send commentator Nick Mallett an email.

[vi] James Atlas, Bellow: A Biography, Faber & Faber, 2000, p. 552.