Aidan Smith: Rugby fails to admit it is at fault

Joe Marler was clearly heard calling Welsh prop Samson Lee gypsy boy but the authorities cleared him of racial abuse. Picture Getty

Joe Marler was clearly heard calling Welsh prop Samson Lee gypsy boy but the authorities cleared him of racial abuse. Picture Getty

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Retired to a sleepy corner of south-west France, my father-in-law remains active in all sort of ways, not least in blowing up molehills in the garden
 and firing off letters to newspapers when the world appears to have gone mad. He’s not big into sport unless you count bridge, but I wouldn’t be surprised if an incident last week appalled him sufficiently, possibly to the extent of sending his correspondence via the tubing and controlled explosions that do for the moles.

Certainly that wasn’t a good week for the sport of kings, with the Cheltenham Festival being battered by thumping headlines of war-declared dimension, one of which shrieked: “The death of shame!” This was the reaction to a couple of bold lasses exposing themselves from a balcony while nearby some footballers urinated into their beer glasses and tipped the contents over the side.

But it wasn’t a good week either for rugby, the sport which is supposed to be a thug’s game played by gentlemen. Joe Marler, the England prop, was cleared of racially abusing Samson Lee despite admitting he called his Welsh opponent a “gypsy boy”. So which great English arena has just sunk further into the mud – Cheltenham or Twickenham? It has to be the latter.

For the abuse – disgusting – and for the leniency shown to this idiot, which was just bad, rugby stands accused of being a sport which thinks it knows best, which thinks that by declaring a bothersome issue “closed” everyone will promptly shut up, and which operates with a different moral code, which doesn’t seem to be any code at all.

By the way, can I call Marler an idiot? Will the offender take offence? I don’t see how he can. He knows what he did was pea-brained, as well as ignorant and nasty. Frankly, idiot is him getting off lightly but the bigger idiots are rugby’s mandarins, specifically the Six Nations disciplinary committee, although England’s head coach Eddie Jones doesn’t come out of this brilliantly, and neither does his Wales opposite number Warren Gatland.

Gatland was the one who initially passed off the abuse as “banter” until there was some nippy backtracking. Jones, after Marler’s reprieve, accused the Welsh of trying to disrupt red-rose Grand Slam hopes when they expressed “surprise” at the ruling and asked World Rugby to look at it. “Everyone is keen for England not to win the Grand Slam, let’s be real about it,” snapped Jones. “Wales will be happy if we don’t win and they will do anything to upset our preparation. Why else would they do it [question the judgment]?”

Well, Eddie, strange as this may seem, the Welsh might not be drunk with deranged obsession over your attempts to bring enough basic organisation to England so that the hugely wealthy rugby nation can achieve what they’ve clodhoppingly failed to do for 13 long years and suppress the rest of the northern hemisphere. Wales might actually dislike what your man said, the acceptance that the abuse was uttered “in the heat of the moment” and the quandary the sport now finds itself. In rugby terms, this is the equivalent of a hospital pass on a gluepot pitch: the tryline of the moral high ground seems a long way off now.

Rugby has always claimed the high ground over football. Its well-educated supporters believe in its superiority and point to those well-educated practitioners on the field of play who, the referee’s microphone confirms, never whinge or even quibble at decisions and stand to attention listening intently when the official calls for increased observance of the rules. This is undoubtedly impressive but now the mic has picked up something horrible. We are supposed to be just as impressed by Marler’s apology to Lee at half-time, and by Jones reminding his loosehead after the game of his responsibilities. But surely the abuse demanded an exemplary punishment.

Marler’s misdemeanour did not leap from the back pages to the middle of the papers, where the big beasts of hell-in-a-handcart outrage lurk, but those of the Cheltenham chumps did. These were, in the googly eyes of the star columnists, “marmalade-droppers”, and written up as such. The girls were wanton exhibitionists, disciples of the worthless cult of Kardashian, reality-show trollops at best. The behaviour of the footballers, meanwhile, made one writer lament how players had lost the sense of decency they had in his youth when they wore a shirt and tie away from the pitch and used public transport.

Now, the photos were bad and I would find it difficult to defend one of the culprits, James Collins, for a lapse of judgment at the racecourse, given that he made them all the time in the penalty-box during Hibernian’s disastrous relegation season despite his boast about how he was going to overhaul predecessor Leigh Griffiths’ goal tally. Hibs have had many non-scoring strikers and Collins was one of the most dull-witted and leaden-footed. Isn’t football, though, always blamed for the decline of civilisation as we know it?

The game’s been an easy target for a while and certainly players continue to not help themselves with their ridiculousness, sleaze and, occasionally, criminality – from bleating about their clubs not baking them birthday cakes and tweeting photos of expensive cars when they’re performing abominably at the bottom of the league to the offences of Adam Johnson. But they’re not the only men behaving badly.

Cheltenham has been a parade of excess for a while. It’s not much cared who these punters are, or how gaudy, just so long as they come and splash their dosh. After this year’s first-day crowd hit a new record of 67,000, one old-timer saw fit to write: “It is hard to say this without appearing a dreadful snob, but Cheltenham used to be exclusive.” Not any more.

At least Collins and his co-piddler, Samir Carruthers, apologised. Indeed, their remorse continued for quite a few paragraphs and you hope they composed it themselves. This contrasted sharply with the curt and arrogant way rugby dealt with its dirty kit. Wild horses – even if they’d win me a few bob – wouldn’t drag me to Cheltenham. Meanwhile Joe Marler, although he gets away scot-free, will struggle to shake off the tag of being a stupid oaf.

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