Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Forums rival forearms

There’s more dirt off the field than on as internet trolls turn a once intoxicating game toxic, writes Gregor Paul.

The test at Eden Park last Saturday had some ugly moments but not as ugly as some of the comments online after the final whistle. Photo / Kenny Rodger
The test at Eden Park last Saturday had some ugly moments but not as ugly as some of the comments online after the final whistle. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Test rugby has become an ugly business. There are bloodied oafs everywhere, using brawn, never the brain, and so rarely is a game these days determined by brilliance.

The World Cup final was marred by eye-gouging; last year, Dean Greyling took his forearm to Richie McCaw's head; Scott Higginbotham head-butted the same man a few weeks later; Adam Thomson stomped on someone's head; Andrew Hore clocked Bradley Davies from behind; there were biting and gouging allegations out of Argentina; and last weekend, Bismarck du Plessis clobbered Liam Messam with his elbow and Ma'a Nonu crunched Jean de Villiers with an illegal shoulder charge.

Someone let the boofheads in.

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Rugby now looks a game for hooligans played by hooligans. Yet despite an influx of men playing in a red mist fug, the nasty stuff doesn't really begin until after fulltime.

It's not funny how angry the armchair critics have become. Tests now tend to grow an arm and a leg in the days that follow.

The post-match reactions are vicious, spiteful and rabid and it was painful to see how forceful, blinkered and ignorant most of the comments were in the wake of last week's test at Eden Park.

Not only was rugby once a game for all shapes and sizes, it also had room for different opinions and views. Win or lose, to an extent it didn't matter to those who didn't play.

The true value was being part of a global community where friendships could be formed, experiences enhanced by sharing the sport - of commiserating, celebrating and debating the best and worst; dissecting the finer aspects and realising that bonds couldn't be broken by seeing the detail differently because nothing mattered more than having a mutual passion for the game.

Rugby once had a sense of camaraderie among the people who played and followed it. It was a great club of like-minded souls, branded a bit odd by those who went for 'softer' codes. That feeling of all being in it together, regardless of nationality, background, religion, profession or sexuality was intoxicating. Rugby was the world's only egalitarian sport - a sociological miracle in that it was truly inclusive, non-hierarchical and non-judgemental.

But what is it now in the digital age? A haven for angry venters who sweat the detail and curse, threaten and abuse those whose opinions differ from their own. Intoxicating? Not now. Just toxic - a sport where social media sites and any shared forums are venomous and hateful.

Everyone's an expert these days - seemingly convinced that making the bench once for the local third XV has given them an in-depth insight of high performance cultures.

It's a worry because this new trend for people with big opinions and little knowledge to be heard; to metaphorically yell until they feel validated, has the capacity to not just corrode the sport, but destroy it.

The art of losing or winning gracefully has been lost - not by the players but by whole fraternities. The All Blacks win and there is an inevitable post-mortem of why it was built on anything other than their superior skill-set. 'Richie McCaw's a cheat' is usually the most popular theme.The entire All Blacks side are cheats; referees favour them.

South Africa or England win and they are labelled boring, and if they score fewer tries than their opponent, a process begins of spinning the result into a moral victory on the basis that losing with some misguided notion of what constitutes style is better than winning with substance.

The French and Argentinians are dirty when they win, supposedly.

The Welsh and Irish are just plain lucky when they get it right.

The saddest development has been the victimisation of referees and the culture of blame. It all started in 2007, when many New Zealanders lost perspective about the performance of referee Wayne Barnes in the World Cup quarter-finals.

He was bad but so were the All Blacks. Barnes spent the days after that game holed up in a hotel, fearful what might happen to him if he stepped out.

Bryce Lawrence suffered just as badly at the next World Cup when he was accused of refereeing the Springboks to a defeat against the Wallabies.

Again, he didn't have his best game but how did it end up with people ringing him in the middle of the night to abuse him? How did things get so bad that Sanzar decided it wasn't safe to let him referee Super Rugby games in the Republic ?

Or what about Chris Pollock this year after the first Lions test? He penalised Brian O'Driscoll and fans reacted like he'd spat on the Queen. Now Romain Poite has been subjected to a tirade of abuse that gives the impression the Frenchman did not just make a mistake in a game, he ordered the chemical weapon attack in Syria.

The faceless and nameless have done too much damage and it's not confined to referees.

Every gigabyte was harnessed in 2010 to destroy the reputation of Stephen Donald.

Admittedly he had an abysmal 15 minutes in Hong Kong that handed the game to the Wallabies but less opprobrium has come the way of child murderers.

There were calls for Andrew Hore, after his nasty challenge in Cardiff, to be banned for life or sent to jail. One bloke, nicely dressed, posh accent, a week later in a hotel lift in London, even screamed in the face of the then All Black doctor that the team was a disgrace and Hore should be deported.

The internet has created a vehicle for aspiring Pieter van Zyls, the fan who made it on to the field in Durban 11 years ago and attacked referee David McHugh. There's no need to front now and be named and shamed; refs can be destroyed anonymously from the safety of the living room.

Opinions don't need to be measured and respectful because there are virtual fan communities where people don't have to be mindful of social norms. Is rugby's future one where there will be empty stadiums - just millions of twisted, spiteful trolls watching through the ether, dripping their poison into their digital device of choice?Who will soon bother paying for a ticket when there is no postmatch meeting of minds? When there is no convivial banter with opposition fans? Just the isolated and insular, fingers furiously tapping out their righteous indignation.

There probably won't be any referees left anyway - none willing to take the inevitable savaging when, shock, horror, theymake a mistake.

It's not obvious how rugby can restore its sense of community. A generation are growing up barely cognisant the game has a rich social history that for many has been the main attraction. The French call it 'the third half' - a half they have excelled in since time immemorial.

The only hope is amid the cacophony coming from the empty heads, the dignified silence of the players can be heard. Despite the escalating violence, the players at least have retained the art of leaving everything on the field. They know how to forgive and forget and the South Africans especially gave the perfect example of how to respond to controversy and disappointment.

"The one thing we mustn't look past is that this is a quality New Zealand team," said Springbok captain Jean de Villiers. "They were the better team. They played better than us. And we need to take a hard look at ourselves and the way we perform because that was certainly not a performance that was good enough.

"The management and coaching staff did everything they could to prepare us for this game. But this performance was 100 per cent the fault toward the players and myself as captain. We need to take the fault for that. It's very disappointing. We let our country down tonight."

A few fans need to think about what he said, because they are letting their country down way more than the players could.

Trolls cry foul outside the hall of shame

October 2007

New Zealand lose their World Cup quarter-final 20-18 to France - a game in which referee Wayne Barnes is accused of missing a blatant forward pass that led to a critical try by the hosts and as many as 40 potential penalty infringements.The nation was caustic - 55 per cent blaming him for the defeat in aTV3 online poll and the internet clogged with angry bloggers.

This is from one called www.iamjohnnyking.com: "Simply put he stuffed up. Yes I am sure you all know who I am referencing here, the pasty and not very tasty English referee Wayne Barnes. It is my contention that this man so abused his position as sole arbiter, that any sense of talking about the All Blacks 'choking' is lost."

October 2010

The All Blacks lose their 10-game unbeaten record against the Wallabies in Hong Kong after leading 24-14 with 20 minutes to go. Stephen Donald came on for Daniel Carter and had a nightmare: his worst mistake was his failure to kick the ball out in the last seconds which allowed Australia to snatch a dramatic late win. He was vilified in away never previously seen.

This from someone called crazysmurf: "If Carter had stayed on the ABs would've taken it by probably 20 or so points. As for blaming the loss on one person, I think it's pretty fair considering how completely f*****g s**t Stephen Donald is. Every time he touched the ball in the match it turned to s**t.

"DID YOU EVEN SEE THE F*****G RETARD DONALD CLAP AFTER THE TURNOVER.This idiot thought great we have the ball, we're gonna win. WHAT DOES THIS IDIOT DO?

"Stephen Donald kicks the f*****g ball to the opposition's fullback because Stephen Donald doesn't have a f*****g clue. But what I am grateful for is that he will never see a black jersey ever again."

October 2011

Australia beat South Africa in their World Cup quarter-final and captain John Smit blames referee Bryce Lawrence. A Facebook page is created for people to petition the IRB to stop Lawrence from refereeing. Sanzar decided last year that they had no choice but to not schedule him for Super Rugby games in South Africa.

This from the Facebook page 'stop Bryce Lawrence ever reffing a game again': "This man is a blatant cheat and should never be allowed to ref a game again. . . this is a petition to IRB to strip him of his ability to ref any professional rugby game again. . . yes we are calling foul play.

"Bryce Lawrence has proved over and over that he is incompetent of reffing a game of rugby at a professional level. We are calling for a vote of no confidence in his ability to perform his duties correctly.

Too many important games have been completely botched by Bryce Lawrence's inability and complete mockery of the game. He is a disgrace to the integrity of the sport and should no longer be able to control any game of rugby."

November 2012

Andrew Hore clobbers lock Bradley Davies from behind in the first minute of the All Blacks test against Wales in Cardiff. The officials missed it and while Hore stayed on, he was later banned for five weeks.

Blogger Scott Jordan Harris had this published by The Daily Telegraph in London: "The New Zealand Rugby Union now has an opportunity to show itself to be the world-leading authority it ought to be. It should, immediately and unilaterally, hold an inquiry and, if necessary, ban Andrew Hore from ever again wearing the All Black jersey."

September 2013

Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis is wrongly shown a yellow card for a thunderous, legal tackle on Daniel Carterand is then sent off after receiving a second yellow.

His first card was officially withdrawn by a judicial hearing and therefore the red rescinded as well.

Within minutes, there were 40,000 signed up to the Facebook page, that was devoted - based on the one used to remove Lawrence - to petitioning against French official Romain Poite.

The Frenchman hasn't spoken publicly since the game but he will be aware that the anti-Lawrence page ended up with 76,000 likes, a factor which was instrumental in him deciding to retire last year.

"It got pretty bad," Lawrence said. "Not really threats to my family as such, but it was mainly aimed at me through social media.

On Facebook they launched a 'get rid of Bryce Lawrence' site and it was pretty nasty. That was absolutely the reason for my career change."

- Herald on Sunday

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