Aidan Smith: Imagine if rugby was to copy football's diving

Winston Churchill looked like he might have been useful in the front row, at least back when props were waddling hippos and forever dragging their fat bottoms round the park, never quite catching up with the next ruck. And it was the great man who once said that rugby was 'a hooligans' game played by gentlemen'.
Harry Kane reacts to being fouled during Spurs' match with Liverpool.  Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesHarry Kane reacts to being fouled during Spurs' match with Liverpool.  Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Harry Kane reacts to being fouled during Spurs' match with Liverpool. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Now, I’m not sure if it was old Winston who added the next bit – that football was “a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans” – but somebody did and it stuck. Right through football’s so-called golden age when Dave Mackay grabbed Billy Bremner round the throat and Bremner kicked Ron “Chopper” Harris in the goolies and Harris kung-fued Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter and Hunter flung a haymaker at Frannie Lee as both were heading for an early bath.

Meanwhile in rugby where there was legitimate clobbering and the sort of biff-bang which would make jessie-ish footballers squeal, an instance of quiet and unshowy sportsmanship would pop out of the muddy battlefield like a brave little crocus before spring had properly arrived. One such emerged during a Scotland vs Ireland match at Murrayfield and, consulting Kenneth Bogle’s indispensable doorstop Scottish Rugby: Game by Game, I reckon it must have been the 1973 encounter in which the craggy Irish full-back Tom Kiernan bowed out on 54 caps – but not before sticking up a hand to signal a Scottish drop-goal attempt had flown between the posts.

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Kiernan was running back hoping to retrieve the ball in a ding-dong match in which the lead changed hands six times. He would have wanted to spark another Irish attack. But conceding the points was a matter of honour. Bill McLaren praised his actions in commentary and I’ve never forgotten them. Scotland scored with three drop-goals that day on the way to a 19-14 victory and Kiernan might even have been acknowledging Dougie Morgan’s late clincher.

Who would do such a thing in football, then or now – admit, say, that a shot had crossed the line and there was no need to consult VAR? But who would do such a thing in rugby now? Since the advent of professionalism, rugby has got more like football. More cynical, with more conniving. Meanwhile, British football, or maybe just English football, has got more like … what? Continental football? Football played by tricky foreigners? The melodramatic Latin version? More on Arsene Wenger’s diving claims shortly, but first, the “contrived behaviour” of Alun Wyn Jones, pictured, against Scotland in the Six Nations’ opening weekend.

This was England head coach Eddie Jones’ withering comment on his namesake trying to stop Finn Russell’s conversion of Peter Horne’s consolation try. The Wales captain wanted to know if there had been an infringement. He did this while standing over the ball. If the conversion was taken the try could not be reviewed. Jones accused the skipper of intimidation. “I thought that was right out of order,” he said. The player’s actions had been “borrowed from another sport”. Rugby could not have the likes of Alun Wyn Jones refereeing. The integrity of the officials had to be respected.

Strong stuff, and of course it would have been designed to put yesterday’s referee for England vs Wales on his guard. Was this not contrived behaviour of a different kind? Rugby may have a problem with players wanting to referee but another issue would seem to be coaches briefing referees before games. None of this is new. Rugby has been getting more snide, more footballesque, for a while. And coaches in glass-fronted boxes shouldn’t throw stones. England are not competing with the big boys and laying down challenges for the next World Cup by being absolutely Corinthian.

In Owen Farrell they have one of rugby’s perishers. Unless he plays for your country, of course. He likes the midfield rough and tumble, does Owen. He likes it so much indeed that when there really shouldn’t be any, when the ball has gone, he’ll loiter on the outer limits of the laws of the game with tackles which are borderline late or else with one of those little nudges given to an opponent chasing a kick as the man flies past which have become his sneaky trademark. And he’s also developing into a fine referee.

In England’s autumn Test against Australia, the Wallabies looked to have scored a pivotal try. But, as the Welsh recalled, hitting back at Eddie Jones, Farrell persuaded the real referee to disallow the score, claiming: “It’s as clear as day, mate!”

It’s no longer as clear as day in rugby. Players will seek to gain advantage any old way. Time-wasting exists here, too. But rugby is not yet football and hopefully never will be. Imagine if simulation crept into the sport. That would surely be the end for rugby, whether you’re part of the bloodthirsty constituency which loves the big hits or wince at the bravery which you’ll never possess.

English football has been wrestling with the issue for years. It dates from the first big influx of foreigners. These guys arrived with their slow-release pasta to revolutionise the football diet, only to trip over strands of spaghetti and claim for fouls. Thank goodness our boys will never stoop that low, chorused pundits and fans.

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And now? Well, if there was a World Cup of diving this year, Wenger reckons England could win it. In the wake of the recent controversy involving Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Deli Alli, he says: “There were tremendous cases when foreign players did it, but I must say the English players have learnt very quickly and they might even be the masters now.”

Ouch. Alli, like Farrell in rugby, has been building himself a nice little notoriety for a while. Maybe he would argue, just like his counterpart, that you have to be more streetwise than a Brazilian or an All Black to win a real World Cup. Kane on the other hand has been held up as a standard-bearer, and almost a paragon of virtue, and as the big tournament in Russia approaches so his involvement in this row will surprise some and dismay others.

But then there aren’t too many Tom Kiernans around these days, in either sport.