Rugby is no stranger to violence. Although professional players are monitored by television cameras from nearly every conceivable camera angle these days, incidents of thuggery still regularly abound, whether it’s another punch by Danny Grewcock or a spear tackle by Tana Umaga...
While even the elite game struggles to entirely rid itself of its violent image, anyone who plays regularly at lower levels knows that part of the skillset of being a rugby player is knowing how to “look after yourself” – whether that’s knowing how to avoid trouble or knowing how to deal with it.
What we can take some comfort from is that, as yet, violence hasn’t spilled over into the ever-increasing crowds that attend rugby matches. Each season the Guinness Premiership announces that crowds are on the up, and yet opposing spectators remain unsegregated, drinking together and exchanging what is, for the most part, good natured banter.
So, can we sit back and give ourselves a hearty pat on the back for the fact that the malignant tribal hatred that permeates through supporters of professional football clubs has not crossed over into rugby? Well, frankly, no we can’t. We really can’t afford to be complacent, and one look at what’s been happening in Rugby League recently shows why.
The pitch invasion and subsequent fighting between fans of Hull FC and Hull KR at the weekend following the local derby should serve as warning to us all. With Hull FC’s Kirk Yeaman allegedly head-butted and Lee Radford spat upon in flashpoints with Hull KR supporters it’s a worrying sign, and neither is this incident the one-off picture that officials are trying to paint.
Despite officialdom's attempts to depict Rugby League as a family friendly sport, earlier this year police made several arrests when violence broke out amongst rival fans at Northern Rail Cup Rugby League match between Workington Town and Whitehaven and, back in 2000, Hull fans were again involved when they invaded the pitch and uprooted goalposts following a Challenge Cup semi-final defeat to Leeds. The Rugby Football League pledged to take tough action at the time but, seven years on, there’s clearly still a problem.
In the Australian NRL the problem is even worse with a string of violent incidents over the last few seasons involving people attending NRL matches leading to much unwanted bad press, causing the NRL and any clubs involved any number of headaches and with fans of the Canterbury Bulldogs in particular being singled out.
For us Rugby Union types it would be very easy to dismiss such incidents and claim that the traditional rugby supporter would never indulge in such behaviour, but any such complacency would be misplaced. We are not immune from unsavoury incidents, as the Trevor Brennan episode in Toulouse recently clearly shows, and some of the verbal abuse of players and officials at Guinness Premiership games is borderline enough to suggest that we’re not a million miles away from this escalating into something serious. You see, whilst growing the game and expanding the audience is good for the coffers of both club and country, the problem is that many who will now come to rugby matches will not be “traditional” supporters but will have been schooled in how to behave by going to football matches.
So my message here is simple. Set an example, be vigilant and make sure that the idiots do not take over. The atmosphere at a rugby match is unique and is too important to lose - one need only look to the superb example set by the Irish at Croke Park in March for evidence of that.
Here endeth the lesson :)