Thursday, 9 July 2009

John Smit's "Call of 99"

In the third test of the 2009 British Lions series, the Springboks demonstrated their solidarity with team mate Bakkies Botha (who was suspended for foul play in the second test) by wearing white "justice 4 Bakkies" armbands. The Springboks have made it clear that they feel Botha is being victimised for an action which is a routine part of the game and rarely gets penalised, let alone results in a suspension to the guilty party.

In doing so South African rugby has, perhaps unwittingly, issued its own Call of 99. Back in 1974 it was the British Lions standing up to the bullying tactics of the Springboks; in 2009 it is the Springboks standing up to what they perceive as the bullying tactics of the International Rugby Board (IRB)'s disciplinary process. One wonders if they are prepared for the fallout that may ensue.

Willie John McBride's men operated under the (correct) assumption that the referee of that match would be unlikely to issue red cards if the whole team was involved. As an interesting aside, the South Africa-Canada match in the 1995 World Cup - also in Port Elizabeth - was played in a similarly mean spirit and did result in three red cards being issued.

The difference with the current confrontation is that:

  1. the Springboks are up against their own sport's governing body, and

  2. the drama is unfolding at a more considered pace, behind closed doors, allowing the participants plenty of time to consider their response.

Intimidation and domination in rugby

The essence of rugby is simple and unsubtle: the game is won by physically and mentally dominating your opponent. However, perhaps rugby administrators need to realise that that mentality does not necessarily translate well into the boardroom. Whereas rugby is a game of winners and losers, in business and politics win-win outcomes are generally more desirable. This inevitably involves an element of compromise, but generally leads to agreements that all parties can live with.

It will be interesting to see how the IRB handle the matter. Early indications are that they will take the Springboks on up front, as it were, evidenced by reports that the South African Rugby Union will be charged with bringing the game into disrepute. That may well be a fight that the IRB will win, but it will be seen as an opportunity missed: to clarify the letter and application of rugby's laws in this area, and to rise above petty power-plays, for the good of the game and all who enjoy it, players and spectators alike.

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