I have but a passing interest in the Rugby World Cup; any matches I will see will be - like the second half of yesterday's opener between France and Argentina - purely by chance. The main reason for my apathy is because I don't have any rooting in the sport and also because I have no affinity with Irish rugby or the Irish rugby team. This is due to reasons of class and region; too often the Ross O'Carroll-Kelly side of Irish rugby is all I can see (and please don't mention the working-class rugby heartland of Limerick, this is merely the exception that proves the rule). There will of course be people that will accuse me of pettiness, small-mindedness and having a chip on the shoulder, all of which I am perfectly ready to admit to and none of which cause me sleepless nights. But I have numerous friends who have an almost violent dislike of football - which doesn't cause me any heartache - and I don't have any plans to send Irish rugby followers to the sporting Gulag whenever it arrives. This year I even intend to avoid spiteful reflexes such as the one that made me chuckle when Ireland were knocked out of the 1999 World Cup by Argentina. But even if I did the same again, there would be nothing wrong with that; real sports supporting thrives on spite, schadenfreude and ill will. Living in France is also frustrating for an Irishman indifferent to rugby as the average Frenchman's conception of Ireland involves nothing more than Guinness, imagined anglophobia and rugby mainly because Ireland's number four sport is the only one that we play les bleus in on a regular basis. Some French people have even expressed surprise that Ireland have a football team, finding it strange that the world's most popular sport might also have a foothold in Ireland. I have thus taken to passing myself off as an Icelander to avoid inane, patronising chit-chat with strangers I have no desire to talk to.
It is also perplexing to watch the International Rugby Board's attempts to dress rugby up as a world sport when it is nothing of the sort; to put it simply, having twenty teams in the finals is a farce. There is no justification for having the amateurs of Portugal face the All Blacks. For there to be sport there has to be a semblance of competition; while there might be one or two flailing teams at every football World Cup, none of these are San Marino, the Faroe Islands or American Samoa. The IRB, of course wants to popularise the sport in previously untapped territories, but there is more chance of Sébastien Chabal fitting into my Levis than kids in Portugal, Georgia or Sweden suddenly throwing aside footballs or hockey sticks to play rugby. But the IRB's padding-out of the tournament probably has more to do with vanity and hubris of the sort that has prompted them to impose disgraceful conditions on photographers covering the tournament, limiting each photographer to fifty shots per game, with the IRB retaining all rights. Even FIFA wouldn't have the brazen cheek to do this. Most of the world's major photo agencies have decided to boycott coverage of the tournament and the IRB have since been forced into a climbdown.
What amuses (and irks) me the most about rugby folk though is the way their class prejudices are instantly crystallised when comparing rugby to football. While I don't begrudge people thinking their sport superior to others (and I don't think that football is necessarily superior to rugby, merely of broader interest) why must every rugby person I meet feel the need to stress the virtuousness of rugby players vis-à-vis footballers? Of course footballers earn obscene amounts of money (though often only at the very top) and there have been many involved in disgraceful behaviour, but these are the stories that attract tabloid interest. For every Lee Hughes, Craig Bellamy, Joey Barton, Lee Bowyer et al there are dozens of ordinary footballers (making comfortable livings) who live decent lives away from a media glare uninterested in such ordinariness. Rugby players are similarly absent from that media glare because, as Germaine Greer observed in a piece on spit-roasting a couple of years back, they have less money. There have been a number of ugly incidents involving rugby players, such as the murder by former French international Marc Cécillion of his wife at a party as well as others enumerated here, but these prove nothing other than the fact that rugby players, like footballers, are sometimes prone to bad behaviour and the odd enormity, which being middle-class is no barrier against happening.
Rugby players are also supposed to be more intelligent than footballers, a generalisation which is questionable unless one is the sort of person that confounds formal (often private) education with intelligence. There are many rugby players that are indeed bright and articulate, and there are also footballers past and present such as Jorge Valdano, Lilian Thuram, Billy Bingham, Oleguer Presas, Dominique Rocheteau, Liam Brady, Javier Zanetti, Michel Platini and Martin O'Neill. I would wager that the majority of players of both sports are not the most intellectually-inclined, something that wouldn't be too surprising as they are not employed to be so. Rugby players are not, by necessity more intelligent, their accents are merely more middle-class.
French rugby folk (who, I have to admit, I find generally more likeable than their anglophone counterparts) also have an annoying tendency to equate the French rugby team with 'true' Frenchness in a way that veers dangerously close to Le Pen's xenophobic creed of français de terroir. I have heard countless times about how the French rugby team is closer to the hearts of French people than the football team is, which as well as being unquantifiable is also suspect, as there are wide tracts of the country where rugby doesn't exist at all. But I suppose there are some French people that view French football, traditionally the pastime of immigrants - initially Spanish, Italian and Eastern European and later African and North African - as not 'truly French'. Interestingly, the Vichy régime banned Rugby League in France and forced football to revert to amateurism as a means of promoting the more nationally pure code of Rugby Union. It is unfair to tag all French rugby - which has traditionally had a rural, left-wing base - in this way but there nonetheless exists a blind spot regarding the so-called mythical place of rugby in French society. I also wonder whether the French XV, should they crash out at the opening stage, which is now a real possibility, will be derided in the same way as the football team were when they were knocked out in Korea five years ago? I remember French people turning on their erstwhile heroes, calling them overpaid, lazy and ungrateful. What moral shortcomings will the rugby team display if they fail?
French business magazine Challenges has on its cover this week French manager - and soon to be Minister for Sport in Nicolas Sarkozy's government Bernard Laporte, with the headline "Rugby Spirit - XV Values for Business". Aside from the fact that it's hard to imagine footballing proles such as Arsène Wenger or Guy Roux used on such a cover, one is reminded that Laporte has been implicated in a campaign of public intimidation of Socialist councillors in his fief of Arcachon who had the temerity to oppose planning permission for a number of his business interests. Sound values for business perhaps but not the ones that business would be too keen to trumpet about either. Nice to see that rugby managers can be every bit as dodgy as those famed duckers and divers Alex Ferguson and Terry Venables.
So there's my bit on the skewed value systems of rugby and football and the double-standards inherent in most rugby folks assessments of the personnel of each sport. Nobody likes a moaner so this will be the last post on the rugby for the duration of the 'world' cup. I hope that those planning to enjoy the rugby do so but please desist in the future from silly value judgements about the relative virtues of rugby players and footballers. Both, despite the efforts of some in their respective sports to elevate them to godlike status, are all too human. Sometimes depressingly so...