Fair play, Billy
February 13, 2013
Wasps celebrated a moral and an actual victory at The Stoop%]
There was a moment last weekend that restored my faith in sporting humanity. It wasn't dramatic. It didn't occur on one of the bigger stages in Edinburgh, Paris or Dublin. It happened at The Stoop.
One minute and twenty-five seconds were left on the clock with Wasps leading the champions of England 17 points to 16. Harlequins had won their last ten games in all sorts of competitions. Nick Evans had placed the ball on the tee and was focusing on where he was going to kick the penalty thereby extending his side's unbeaten run to eleven and breaking Wasps hearts for the second time in a season. It's what we have come to expect of the Mighty Quins.
You could have heard one of Austin Healey's false eyelashes drop. Then out of the silence two booming voices started bellowing "Come on Wasps!! Come on Wasps!!" The aim of the Black and Gold clad bellowers was obviously to disturb the concentration of the Kiwi master marksmen and thereby do their bit to secure a famous victory for their side, Wasps first at The Stoop for six years.
At this point, as I peered out of the ESPN kebab van, gripped by the tension as all who were there were, I saw Wasps mountain-range-inous No.8 Billy Vunipola, fix his focus on the area of the stand where the hecklers were doing their thing. He shook his head in the reproaching manner I adopt when my children are about to tip the entire contents of the dressing-up box on the floor just before bedtime. Then Big Bad Marauding Billy simply raised his hand to silence them. In that instant, my faith in the true honour of sport had been replenished.
The man obviously has an innate sense of decency, of fair play, seen all too rarely in modern sport. Rugby, I like to think, by and large, breeds men of substance and character. Even so, cheating is now in the very fabric of how the game is coached and played. Slowing the opposition's ball down in particular is an applauded part of the skill set. I know I am coming across a little Bertie Wooster here, as I peer at the world through my rose tinted monocle, but it's cheating. Players get away with what they can.
Come with me, if you will, on a short journey to my parallel universe. All the professional rugby union players on my planet, called Urjoking, have just gathered at the Ferret and Gerbil Free house where the beer is actually free. With a unanimous verdict they have just passed a vote to police the game themselves, the key tenet being Law 4.2 "No player shall wittingly contravene the laws of rugby union." It has been decided that if they do they shall say twelve Hell Warrens and then post "I will not cheat" a thousand times on their Twitter page.
In my world we do not have to rely on the eyes and interpretations of a referee. In my world players would be honest to a fault. James Haskell, for example, would fess up that he did try a little flick of his foot on extricating himself from the ruck at the Aviva last Sunday. He would feel so terrible about it that he would tell the ref he would like to go and sit in a corner for ten minutes, reflecting, insuring it would never happen again. The upshot of all of this, in my Nirvana, is no one attempts to slow down the opposition's ball, we get more flowing and open rugby, fewer shrill blasts of the referee's bassoon, a better spectacle and a more exhilarating game for all concerned.
Oh, and if my code of practice was adopted across the sporting board England would contest the 1986 Football World Cup semi-final in Mexico, the Republic of Ireland would qualify for the 2010 tournament and Diego Maradona and Thierry Henry would take themselves off to Broadmoor to do time, where they'd share a cell with lifer Lance Armstrong.
Pigs are flying in the skies above where I am penning this, but others have had a dream - and their dreams came true. As a schoolboy I was at the heart of a similar incident to the one at The Stoop involving Nick Evans. You could argue there was less as stake and my kicking percentage was fractionally lower than the Kiwi's 77% (my estimated percentage: 17%). I was attempting a crucial conversion from five yards inside the touchline. If I slotted it we would have beaten one of our closest rivals for the first time in centuries.
As I eyed my focus point and prepared to strike the ball a group of boys from the opposition school, watching from the touchline, started blowing really loud raspberries. I love a raspberry. The Two Ronnies Phantom Raspberry blower sketch from the 80's is perhaps my favourite snippet of television of all time. (YouTube it, but it appears it does date, as my children didn't find it as funny as I thought they would.) To this chorus of raspberries I hooked my kick and it landed in another county. To the amazement of me, my team-mates, everybody watching and to the consternation of the opposition and their supporters the referee ordered the kick be taken again. There must have been a Raspberry Distraction sub-section in the rule book I wasn't aware of. This time, blissfully raspberry free, it sailed between the posts.
Allowing Nick Evans to retake his kick would have caused a mini-riot but at least Billy V had a clear sense of what is fair and not fair, what is sporting and what isn't. A bit more of that at the heart of the game and we really might be onto something.
N.B For the purposes of this article Billy Vunipola's perceived lack of loyalty concerning his departure from Wasps for Saracens next season, has been rigorously ignored.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Mark Durden-Smith is the lead presenter for live Aviva Premiership Rugby on ESPN
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