Aidan Smith: Rugby needs to stop copying football’s excesses

Ah, now it makes sense. Now I know why Tadhg Beirne, the most ridiculed man in rugby, crashed to the ground at Murrayfield last Saturday. He does this every 30 March. Look at his Twitter feed for the same day last year. There’s a photo of a smashed-up bed, struts everywhere, a right mess, and this was his whinge: “Always good when @Airbnb delivers … supposed to be 5 star #cantsleep.”
Munster's Tadhg Beirne receives treatment
 during the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Edinburgh. Picture: Gary Carr/INPHO/REX/ShutterstockMunster's Tadhg Beirne receives treatment
 during the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Edinburgh. Picture: Gary Carr/INPHO/REX/Shutterstock
Munster's Tadhg Beirne receives treatment during the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Edinburgh. Picture: Gary Carr/INPHO/REX/Shutterstock

What a slapstick life the Munster lock leads! I don’t know if Beirne earned a reduction on his bill for the broken bed but we all know that he earned his team a game-defining penalty against Edinburgh in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals. Beirne bumped shoulders with Pierre Schoeman, tumbled melodramatically and stayed down for treatment. Edinburgh had just been awarded a kickable penalty but the referee, surveying the apparent carnage, reversed the decision and Munster went on to win the tie.

I’ve got two questions for you this week: 1) Why can’t rugby stay as rugby and stop copying football’s excesses? 2) Why can’t football stay as football, 1967 version, when a far more crucial Old Firm game than the one last Sunday ended in humility and hugs?

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Rugby first. Beirne’s actions have been defended by team-mate Conor Murray. “The first time I saw it was in slow motion and it looked like he went down quite easily,” admitted Murray. “But, real time, it’s a penalty. It’s more than an elbow tip, it’s a shoulder. We’re aware there’s a bit being made of it… but maybe if he didn’t stay down the ref might not have gone back and looked at it.” Then Murray added, presumably tongue firmly planted in his cheek: “I’ll give you Tadhg’s number if you want to ask him how badly he was hurt.”

This is drivel. Whichever way you look at the incident, the contact was in no way sufficient for Beirne to collapse as if he’d been struck by a flying road compressor. The “hit” wouldn’t convince if it was accompanied by a giant comic-strip bubble reading “Kerr-pow!” It wouldn’t convince if it was accompanied by the Benny Hill theme music. It wouldn’t convince if Beirne was wearing Norman Wisdom’s cap, back-to-front. In the traditional settings for a falling-down gag, Beirne’s effort would simply be deemed too risible, too ridiculous.

More and more, rugby players are indulging in the sort of gamesmanship – the Sunday name for cheating – which happens every week in football. These sly moves began, I think, with obstruction of an opponent running past in pursuit of a kick. Nothing outrightly blatant, just a little nudge or block. The first player I noticed doing this was Owen Farrell.

Feigning injury ramps up the slyness, and the comparisons with football, some more because the sadly obvious next stage for rugby is these big, tough guys – Beirne is pushing 18 stone – rolling around on the turf and completing 12 full rotations like Neymar. This would be horrific. This would be ba’-on-the-slates time for the noble game. Richard Cockerill, the Edinburgh head coach, agrees. Of players acting like they’ve just been shot he says: “If we are going to do it, let’s all do it and get rewarded for it. [But] where do we end up? We end up on the slippery slope. I would prefer our players to stand up, be robust. If [Beirne’s plummet] had happened 15 years ago, you would be embarrassed, wouldn’t you? Even your own team-mates would be laughing. It is happening all the time now. If you are not [hurt], get up and get on with the game. The respect starts to fall away if you don’t.”

If the most comical footage posted on social media last week was of the man from Munster imitating Herman Munster with his bootlaces tied together and spun round a few times, then the sweetest clip was of John Greig and his fellow Rangers players congratulating Celtic on winning the league 52 years ago. ‘Sweet’ and Greigy, pictured, and the Old Firm don’t normally go together but they did that day, Celtic collecting the point they needed to complete the second part of the first domestic treble by any club for 20 years and a few weeks later there would be the greater glories of Lisbon.

The Gers had just won through to their own European final, the Cup-Winners’ Cup, so perhaps they could afford to be magnanimous in defeat. Or maybe they would have been like that anyway. Maybe Ronnie McKinnon would have embraced Jim Craig like a long-lost friend anyway, and maybe Dave Smith would have done the same to Willie Wallace and maybe Davie Provan would have lifted wee Jimmy Johnstone off his feet like Jinky was his son and he’d just scored a spectacular goal because that’s what football was like back then, and how footballers were with each other. Jinky, by the way, netted both Celtic goals in the 2-2 draw, the second being the thunderbolt from 25 yards with his left foot generally regarded as the best of his career.

The clip was posted as an antidote to last week’s kerfuffle at Celtic Park: all that goading, the screwed-up faces, the pushing and shoving and the lashing out, with no regard for the impact this would have on rival fans who fought in the Merchant City afterwards, which must have thrilled the happy shoppers, or the kids hoping to pick up a few tips from the professionals.

My first reaction to last Sunday was not to be too hard on the players. The world is a meaner place; we may not like that but it’s true. These guys were there to compete in a football match and their passions had got the better of them. Compromise wasn’t expected; our politicians would provide that during Brexit, wouldn’t they? (Aye right).

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But the ’67 footage changed my mind. How much must it have hurt Rangers to concede the championship at their own ground in front of a 78,000-strong crowd? And yet look at the reaction of their players at the final whistle, the brilliant decency of it. Scanning reports of the game, I note that the conditions were atrocious, a veritable quagmire. Hang on, was this the famous Old Firm game where Willie Henderson lost a contact lens in the mud and Tommy Gemmell found it? That would be too much, and too much yearning for a better world, to hurl at the current lot.