“Rugby, it’s different.” So read the caption accompanying a picture posted on social media of two opposing players sharing a beer after last week’s Champions Cup final. It was misguided at best and widely criticised for the smug attitude that continues to blight the professional game. Fast forward a week, to the colossal wreckage caused by Friday’s cancellation of England’s match against the Barbarians, and it can be said with certainty that rugby is different all right.
In what other sport would professional players – a former national captain no less in Chris Robshaw – behave so brainlessly? So selfishly. The knock-on effects are catastrophic for the Rugby Football Union, for the Barbarians and not great for Eddie Jones and his England side either. But the ramifications stretch far wider. Think of the Welsh youngsters who dashed to central London on Friday to make up the numbers. The stadium workers and freelancers who now miss out on much-needed income. The supporters who have waited nearly eight months to see England in action.
Unsurprisingly, a video surfaced on Saturday of Robshaw and a sizeable Saracens contingent in the pub. They went to an Italian restaurant for good measure. Martin Johnson once said: “Rugby players drink beer, shocker” after the dwarf-tossing scandal at the 2011 World Cup. At least Robshaw and co apologised – even if there was something jarring at the way they did so in unison on social media – but it seems to be a maxim by which too many still live. For there was a depressing inevitability that once the international programme began this sort of thing would happen. The only surprise is that it came so soon.
The Barbarians are beside themselves the match has been called off as the RFU “evaluates the legal and financial implications”. The invitational side will take a while to recover from this and their anger at the mindless behaviour of their players is entirely understandable. You could question the wisdom of sticking with their usual Park Lane hotel but the blame lies entirely with the players who breached the protocols and the trust of the Barbarians, who could not have made their rules clearer.
The Barbarians were already growing weary that they are endlessly tarred by the boozy brush; that the drinking sessions were all for which they were known. That is now a reputation even harder to shake for an institution that has challenges staying relevant in the cluttered modern calendar. It took only a cursory glance to see how hard it was for them to put together a competitive squad in Covid times and the hope must be that this episode does not tarnish the Barbarians’ allure.
For the RFU it is nothing short of calamitous. The chief executive, Bill Sweeney, recently told of a £122m reduction in revenue resulting in a loss of £46m – increasing to £138m reduction and a £60m loss if next year’s Six Nations matches take place behind closed doors. No doubt broadcasters and sponsors will want a hefty rebate, meaning the union may be out of pocket by up to £1m, but again, the consequences do not stop there. The union is lobbying the government for financial assistance and to let crowds back into Twickenham but not even the players can stick to the rules and those in parliament – stung by the backlash over images of enormous crowds at the Cheltenham Festival and other sporting events in March – are evidently wary.
In Jones’s case, he now has a sizeable problem. England have a habit of underperforming in their opening matches of campaigns and they will now head to Rome undercooked. Admittedly, they have never lost to Italy but in all likelihood they will need to rack up a considerable score if they are to end the day as Six Nations champions. Jones has also been denied the chance to cast his eye over a clutch of promising youngsters for whom it is hard not to feel sympathy. Equally so for those Barbarians who stayed put at the team hotel.
In the short term, the RFU will no doubt throw the book at the players who breached protocols and England will reconvene on Mondaytomorrow, most likely with an additional reminder of the need to follow protocols. International rugby is back but we now look forward to the coming six weeks with trepidation.
One match has fallen by the wayside, how many more will follow?