Violence Darkens Rugby's Future
Officials and observers decry fights and abusive words plaguing current World Cup games
'MANY of the scenes witnessed on Saturday were crimes." The Times of London might have been delivering an editorial judgment on yet another outbreak of violence in a British inner city. In fact, it was giving its considered view of the latter stages of the 16-nation Rugby World Cup competition, which opened Oct. 3 and concludes Nov. 2.The comment by the paper, still known as the Thunderer because of its trenchant opinions, reflects growing concern that a game which began in 19th-century England as a recreation for gentlemen (see related story, left) is fast becoming a money-driven international spectacle, with dirty play the order of the day. Last Sunday, players from Australia and Ireland came to blows in a quarterfinal encounter in which the Aussies managed to snatch victory by a single point. The previous day, Daniel Dubroca, coach of the French "side" (as rugby teams are called), grabbed the referee by the lapels and allegedly screamed abuse at him. The incident was preceded by a bruising encounter in which England beat France after 90 minutes, culminating in flaring tempers and flying fists. The month-long tournament, expected to generate British pounds40 million ($68 million) from ticket sales and worldwide TV franchises, has attracted amateur national teams from countries as far afield as Zimbabwe, the United States, Japan, Argentina, Romania, and Western Samoa. But the violence that spectators saw last weekend arose not in games involving fledgling rugby nations, but between firmly established teams. England and France have been playing rugby for more than 150 years. The experience of Ireland and Australia is almost as long. Will Carling, England's captain, said the reason for on- and off-field fury was "taut, tense emotion - and feelings of extreme national pride." In England's game against France, Carling said, "All hell broke loose." In the run-up to this weekend's semifinals between Scotland and England, and Australia and New Zealand, tournament referees have been warned by World Cup organizers to exercise ultra-tight discipline. "If they don't," said Nigel Starmer-Smith, editor of Rugby World and Post, "a fine game will slide into disrepute." The final will be played at Twickenham, a 57,000-seat stadium near London, before an estimated TV audience of more than 2 billion people in 70 countries. The driving force behind the World Cup tournament was the determination of rugby administrators in the more than 50 countries where the game is played to turn it into a sport inspiring the kind of enthusiasm routinely generated by American football and international soccer. At the outset of the tournament, crowds in British and French cities were treated to some spectacularly attractive play. There was little sign of the bad sportsmanship to come. In amateur rugby football (a professional variant has been played since 1895), the 15-member sides gain points either by scoring four-point "tries" (touchdowns) or by kicking goals (3 points; 2 points for "conversions" after touchdowns), and there were plenty of both to admire. New Zealand's victory over England in the opening match of the tournament would not have been possible without a feast of goal-kicking by Grant Fox, whose assured boot notched up 14 of the 18 points his side scored against the home team's 12. The New Zealanders - traditionally dubbed the All Blacks because of the color of their playing gear - also have been giving crowds a taste of their special pre-match trademark: a haka (Maori war dance) in which the players wave their arms, roll their eyes, poke out their tongues, and generally try to impress opponents with their ferocity. In early matches, the United States team - known as the Eagles and handicapped by lack of experience against hard-tackling backs and rugged, ball-raking forwards - went down to Italy. Japan's team, hampered by the small stature of its players, tangled with comparative giants from Scotland and Ireland and lost by wide margins. Wales, a top rugby nation three or four years ago, lost ignominiously to a little-known side from Western Samoa whose members learned the finer points of the game from neighboring N ew Zealand. The violent aspect of the contest did not begin to emerge fully until the third week. Rugby World and Post's Starmer-Smith says there is a link between worldwide televising of matches and players' and coaches' fraying tempers. "Rugby is a very physical game anyway," he says. "When there is international competition in front of vast TV audiences and lots of cash is at stake, it is easy for part-time players to lose their sense of proportion." The players wear minimal protective gear and are used to hard knocks. What is novel is the huge part that money is playing in the World Cup contest. The sport had remained obstinately amateur since it began in 1823. The first World Rugby Cup contest was held in Australia four years ago. The All Blacks won the trophy. Suddenly, players and team managers got a whiff of the international interest that could be whipped up - and the large amount of money that could be made - by promoting the sport in the ele ctronic age. Dudley Wood, secretary of the Rugby Football Union, the game's regulating body, is not surprised by the violence spectators have witnessed, but he is saddened by it. "The sport has to make a certain amount of money if it is to survive and grow," he says. "But the sums being generated by the World Cup are threatening to debase rugby. Ours is essentially an amateur game, and there is now a danger that commercialization will undermine that aspect of its appeal." With what one English rugby writer dismissed as the "no-hoper teams" out of the contest, interest is focusing on the semifinals and final. New Zealand and England are the joint favorites to win the William Webb Ellis trophy. Many of England's hopes are pinned on Jeremy Guscott, a lightning-fast center-back who as a lad modeled his sporting attitudes on those of Pele, the great Brazilian soccer star who retired in 1977. If they reach the final on Nov. 2, the All Blacks will rely on Fox's trusty boot and on Michael Jones, a fiery back-row forward who, out of Christian conviction, refuses to play on Sundays. But hovering over the three remaining matches will be the concern that the game - which one of its greatest former practitioners said is supposed to "sweat the vice out of a man will turn into a slug-fest. Michael Calvin, a top rugby commentator, observed in London's Daily Telegraph: "Teams can be corrupted by a desperate desire for self-fulfillment. The World Cup is close to being the Frankenstein's Monster of rugby."