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Preserving rugby’s values is not just blind traditionalism

There seems to be a growing tide of opinion that because sports people are role models they must behave like role models, it is a rather unfair point of view as being a role model is not a choice, it is something that others bestow upon you as a result of their admiration of you.

The dictionary definition of the term ‘role model’ is: “A person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.” So if people are regarded as a role model do they have a responsibility to behave in a certain way? Well no, it would be preferable of course, but it surely cannot be an obligation, their status is merely a by-product of who they are or what they do.

However, I do believe that sportspeople have a responsibility to their sport and to its values. That, in my view, is a responsibility that everyone must bear, from the international to the casual park player.

It is with that in mind that I found Delon Armitage’s arrogant pre try-scoring mocking of Clermont Auvergne, and Brock James in particular, so utterly deplorable.

Rugby is a game that is based heavily on its values, core among those values is the respect of your opponent – this is not just some fuddy duddy tradition stemming from the blazer filled boardrooms of the amateur era, this is a value that is key to the game.

Rugby is an aggressive game with some very real dangers if that aggression tips too far, you must put a great deal of trust in your opponent that they understand where that line is, that they as an opponent will respect you. If, like Armitage, you demonstrate that you have no respect for your opponent then you become a loose cannon, your opposition loses their trust in you.

Some may say that it is hypocritical to say that when you have a game where a sly punch or a bit of a ‘shoeing’ is often greeted with an attitude of ‘well he deserved it’. To an extent that is correct, certainly from the outside it seems ludicrous and if I am honest it is never a great advert for our sport.

The thing is though that respect remains in that scenario, if I am all over the ball at a ruck I expect a good Michael Flatley impression to come raining down on me, and I would have a beer with my opposite number after the game and admit that I deserved it. If it were gratuitous though we would have a whole different kettle of fish.

It is that element that is key though, being able to have a laugh or a beer or a post match tea with your opponent. If my opponent clearly has no respect for me though, why would I wish to spend anytime socialising with him after the game?

I am not angry with Delon Armitage because he behaved like that in the Heineken Cup final, I am angry with him because he behaved like that on a rugby pitch. I would feel the same if it was an unknown player at their local club on a Saturday morning.

We have a sport that has some wonderful luxuries that other sports do not, and respect is at the heart of those. We are able to have our referees microphoned up so that we can hear them because we know that the players respect them enough that a TV audience will not be offended by anything. We are able to have our fans sit together, united not just as fans of their teams but also as fans of the game and the occasion, because there is respect there.

We are able to have something as special and unique as the British and Irish Lions because the players respect each other despite having knocked seven bells out of each other all year. Imagine if Delon Armitage was touring and it was not Brock James he mocked on Saturday but a fellow Lion.

This is not a personal crusade against the Toulon full-back though, I have plenty of time for him as a player. He is a gifted runner with a siege-gun of a boot. Not many could pin down a place in the Toulon side and make it their own but he has, that is quite an achievement.

No, this is simply an expression of displeasure at his antics and an expression of my belief that when any player demonstrates such a lack of respect for an opponent it must be strongly criticised for if we allow respect to erode on the pitch we will end up travelling down a very sticky wicket and the game will be taken to a place that no player, fan, or commentator wants it to be.

So I hope that Armitage is able to enjoy his Heineken Cup victory and to celebrate with his team, that he can forever treasure scoring in a Heineken Cup final and being a part of this special group of players, but I also hope that he learns from the outcry at his five seconds of silliness.

By Angus Savage

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