Rat Curry

Andrew Donaldson on an English stew of whingeing and snitching


Like many rugby fans, I am exercised by the claim that Springbok hooker Bongi Mbonambi had directed a remark of a discriminatory nature towards England flanker Tom Curry during the World Cup semi-final on Saturday.

Judging by the hysteria in the UK press, the incident was a highlight of a mundane performance from the world champions.

Another highlight of that dreary evening at Stade de France was of course how, in the last moments of the game, the Boks had cruelly snatched victory from an English side who had dominated for most of the encounter. But that is neither here nor there. The whinging now takes centre stage.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

I first learnt of Mbonambi’s alleged slur in an online Daily Telegraph report, which said the incident appeared to occur in the 23rd minute after Curry had been tackled by Mbonambi with both players lying on the field as play continued.

At the next stoppage, a minute later, Curry approached referee Ben O’Keeffe and asked, “Sir, sir, if their hooker calls me a white c*** what can I do?” O’Keeffe responded, “Nothing, please,” then added, “I will be on it.” It’s not clear whether this was in reference to Curry’s complaint, but no action was taken against Mbonambi. Crucially, the newspaper’s correspondent noted:

“Telegraph Sport understands that England will not lodge a complaint with World Rugby regarding the incident due to the lack of corroborating evidence to support Curry’s claim. This in turn could reduce the likelihood of a World Rugby investigation.”

My initial reaction to this has been echoed by the writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey who tweeted that he is “clearly one of that toxic older generation of rugby fans, because frankly I couldn’t care less what any grown man says to another grown man in the heat of competition”.

I began to care, though, when it emerged that World Rugby had taken an altogether different view of the incident, and that Mbonambi’s actions would indeed be the subject of a formal review.

If it was found that Mbonambi, who trained with the squad this week ahead of Saturday’s RWC final against the All Blacks, had verbally abused Curry, then he could face a suspension.

This would be disastrous for the Boks, as Mbonambi is the only specialist hooker in the squad, seeing as South Africa had opted not to replace the injured Malcolm Marx with another hooker. The Boks would now be unable to call up a specialist replacement for Mbonambi.

At the time of writing, there has been no official reaction to Curry’s claim from either Mbonambi or the Bok camp. But South Africans of all hue and form, far and wide, have meanwhile rallied to defend the Bok hooker. Many pundits and commentators have suggested that Curry’s complaint arose out of a misunderstanding — namely that the England player mistook Mbonambi’s call in Afrikaans to his team-mates at the breakdown, probably “wit kant” or maybe “wyd kant” (“white side” or “wide side”), as a personal insult.

The Boks have used colours to designate different sides of the ruck in the past. In the Supersport documentary Chasing the Sun, which charts the build-up to the 2019 RWC victory, then head coach Rassie Erasmus describes how fullback Willie le Roux had moved around a breakdown in a match against the All Blacks to feed the ball to Cheslin Kolbe on the wing, who then chipped it ahead for scrum-half Hershel Jantjies to score:

“When Willie swooped around, we knew there was something on and so I started saying — we call it ‘the pink side’, that’s the blindside — ‘the pink is on, the pink is on, the pink is on’.”

On Tuesday, though, the Telegraph reported that World Rugby was now examining a second video clip from Saturday’s match, one that purportedly undermines the claim that this hoo-hah arose out of an innocent misunderstanding of Afrikaans.

Should World Rugby elect to forensically review the entire game, though, they may find many, many more incidents of verbal abuse — mostly from the Boks chastising themselves for their shambolic performance.

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), the toxic old guard were extremely displeased with Curry’s on-field appeal to the ref, being of the opinion that this sort of snivelling behaviour was once greatly discouraged on the playing fields at England’s better schools. As one regular later remarked, in his best imitation of an Under-13s coach: “Get back in that scrum, Master Curry, no-one likes a tattle-tale!”

Except that the term used was not tattle-tale but doos.

As an aside, the press here are not censoring doos or poes — among the terms of abuse now directed at Curry on social media by legions on Springbok supporters — but do so with c***. (I am following suit. When in Rome, etc.)

Abuse, however, is abuse. And in the modern professional game, players are expected to be as sensitive as they are hard-knuckled. They have feelings and are easily hurt by insults, especially one like this. Counseling may be necessary.

There was a time, however, when this particular term of abuse may have been in everyday use and, as such, not at all taboo. This is according to Geoffrey Hughes, former professor of the history of the English language at the University of the Witwatersrand. In his acclaimed work, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English (Blackwell, 1991), Hughes notes:

“The first cited instance in the [Oxford English Dictionary Supplement] of c*** occurs in a London street name with the enticing (or monitory) appellation Gropec***lane, dated 1230. Such public evidence, alongside the ubiquitous Pissing Alley and Shitteborwelane, a London street name of 1272, suggests that c*** must have been a publicly acceptable term.”

A century later, the word would appear in the bawdier passages of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, albeit in the Middle English variant of queynte.

Attitudes were however swiftly changing. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang (1972), which defines it principally as the “female pudend”, the term has, since the 15th century, “been avoided in written and in polite spoken English… [It is] perhaps the most notable of all vulgarisms … and since circa 1700 it has, except in the reprinting of old classics, been held to be obscene, ie a legal offence, to print it in full.” It was only in 1965 that the Penguin English Dictionary had the courage to include the term.

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, an additional definition of the term emerged: “Anybody one dislikes.”

In recent years, and thanks to its frequent appearance in popular culture, the term has slipped down the taboo rankings. However, it retains much of its wallop. As JP Donleavy advises in his The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners (Penguin, 1976):

“The word ‘c***’ is still not nice to use in the presence of ladies of riper years, since their sensibilities may be thereby ruffled. And when applied to a chap should be additionally described. ‘You unconscionable c*** you.’”

Which brings us to the crux of the Mbonambi affair. It is not the alleged use of that notable vulgarism that is causing offence here, but rather that it has been “additionally described” with the adjective white.

C*** be damned, this was now that most heinous of crimes, a racial incident — albeit a racial incident in which the boot, so to speak, was on the other foot.

This of course plunges the matter into a whole new discourse, one familiar to the critical race theorists among us. Can Curry, with all his white privilege, experience racism? Can Mbonambi, given his background, be racist?

The Telegraph’s chief sports writer, Oliver Brown, believes that this is the “daunting philosophical conundrum” with which World Rugby must grapple as it reviews this incident. He writes:

“It deserves, at face value, to be treated with the utmost gravity. For just imagine, for a second, that the same claim had been levelled in reverse. This would not be some antagonistic postscript to a World Cup semi-final, but a major international incident.”

Silly Olly. This is a major international incident, one in which his newspaper has led the outraged Pom charge.

Be that as it may, Brown does make the point that rugby’s stance on racist behaviour makes no distinction when it comes to skin colour. As World Rugby declared in 2020, “The rugby family condemns discrimination of any kind, including racism, which has no place in our sport or wider society. We are unified in support of our players, coaches, match officials and fans in taking a positive stand and speaking out against racism.”

There is no suggestion, Brown continues, that racism can “somehow be deemed less reprehensible if directed at a white person. Either you decry the poison of racism in all its forms or not at all.”

Fair enough. Let it be known then, that moving forward and while we anxiously await the outcome of World Rugby’s investigation, whatever we may think of Curry, and it certainly isn’t pleasant at the moment, it’s best to avoid all mention of his complexion.

The pink may be on, but alas, not the white.

Andrew Donaldson