A few weeks ago saw the conclusion of rugby’s 2016 6 Nations Championship and once again we were treated to five rounds of intense and physical confrontations over 6 weeks.
It’s one of the few times in the year when football has to take a back seat to another sport – at least this is the case in the UK. During the final weekend, I was in a bar watching the Ireland vs Scotland game with my old friend Arthur Guinness.
The bar has several screens and all of them were showing the rugby. All bar one – a smaller screen in a corner that was showing the Swansea vs Aston Villa game.
And watching these two sports side by side with the Guinness oiling the cogs in my head got me thinking. It wasn’t a question of which sport was better, but where the Iron Qualities were.
Growing up, football was a central part of my childhood. It was Magnetic North and I was a compass. I never had a choice, it would always attract me.
Little Bo used to play jumpers for goalposts late into the evening. In the summer when there was still some natural light well past 10pm, we would play first to 50 goals and go home covered in grass stains and mud.
Rugby was something that was always in my peripheral vision, never quite getting to the centre stage. A little like a recurring extra in a soap opera with a non-speaking part.
My school tried to force it on us for a period and I even made the school team. But we were beyond shit; we got smashed every time we played, I didn’t understand the rules and the whole experience was lost on me.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate the merits of rugby more and more. And watching these two sports side I got thinking about the old arguments rugby folk tend to bring up when comparing their chosen sport to football
Footballers falling over at the slightest nudge; writhing dramatically in apparent agony when someone goes in hard on them with a good, solid tackle; or worse – going down when nobody touches them. There is a growing sickness in football.
Laurent Blanc – a former France international – knows all too well about this sickness. He earned a suspension and missed the 1998 World Cup final after Croatia’s Slavan Bilic appeared to overreact when Blanc made contact with him
Four years later at the 2002 World Cup, Turkey’s Hakan Ünsal was sent off for kicking the ball at Rivaldo, only to see the Brazilian go down like he’d taken a shot from Rocky Balboa.
It’s cheating – pure and simple. An attempt to con the referee into thinking you have been seriously fouled.
On the flip side of this coin in the rugby world, there is the famous story of former New Zealand captain Buck Shelford. He made his debut for the All Blacks in a test series against France. In his second game, the French decided to give him a hearty bienvenue to international rugby by:
- Knocking him out with a flying headbutt
- Performing some emergency dental work with a swift boot to the face, removing three teeth
- Doing the Moonwalk on his groin area while he was grounded, ripping his ballsack which then had to be stitched up
No – I haven’t been drinking that Peruvian hallucination tea, this is all true. All these things happened to one man in one game, although I’m not sure about the Moonwalk part – it might have been MC Hammer dance.
Records show that Shelford continued the game. But don’t ask the man himself – his memory of the event is a little hazy.
In the history of rugby, this isn’t an isolated incident. The game doesn’t generally stop for injuries and it’s common to see physios on the field of play patching guys up. So if you go down injured, you’re hurting your team’s chances too.
It’s a much more physical game than football and this spirit of putting your body on the line and pushing through the pain barrier is entrenched in players’ psyches.
Fighting and confrontations
I remember seeing clips of old football games from the 70s where players would go in hard on each other, square up and have the occasional boxing match. These things happen in the heat of the moment. Sometimes we lose our composure.
Today, we get players touching heads, one player moves his head towards the other player’s who then goes down in a heap.
The physicality from bygone days has been lost and we are now left with deception, exaggerated reactions to physical contact and some truly embarrassing attempts at self-defence.
The technical term for it in the game is ‘handbags’ and it’s literally ridiculous. Literally.
Rugby players on the other hand generally put up with a high level of physicality as part of the game but when things kick off, they really do KICK OFF. There is no overreactions or ‘handbags’, just good old fashioned fist-on-skull action.
The individual vs the team
Time and time again I’ve seen football players get substituted in a game and before they’ve even left the pitch, they are throwing a hissy fit. Shaking their head in disbelief and mumbling profanities to themselves, they trudge back to the bench, sit down and start throwing stuff around and looking grumpy.
I’ve seen behaviour like this before…from children at nursery school when they had a boo-boo or one of the other kids snatched their He-Man toy off them.
In rugby, players go off…and that’s it. In fact, because of the much higher number of subs allowed in the game, you barely notice players going off or coming on and players tend not to take it as a personal slight.
Abusing the officials
Picture the scene…Barcelona vs Real Madrid. Luis Suarez charges through on goal, gets into the penalty area, gets chopped down.
The ref blows his whistle, awards a penalty and gets surrounded by a bunch of hot and angry Madrid players getting right in his face telling him what a moron he is.
We say and do things in the heat of the moment that we later regret. But this kind of institutionalised abuse towards authority figures is bullying. Getting up close and personal and putting the ref under pressure to make decisions that are favourable towards your team.
And the ref – well he’s just a man, watching a game going at 100 miles per hour and having to make a decision in a split second.
Rugby has video replays to help officials with key decisions. The football powers that be have dragged their heels on video technology that would greatly help refs for years; and they will continue to do so for years to come.
In rugby – and indeed most other major sports, video technology promotes a level of trust and respect between players and officials. It’s accepted that the right decisions will be made and ref abuse is kept to a minimum.
Saying that, before video replays were introduced to rugby, any player who gave shit to a referee was either sent to the sin bin or sent off. No arguments. No hesitation. That level of ref respect is engrained in the sport and hasn’t been eroded…yet. It’s also not uncommon to hear “yes sir” when players speak to the ref. Respect, not bullying
Rugby & football on the Iron Qualities scale
Those are just a few of the things I was thinking about that day. And the question that kept coming back to my mind wasn’t “which sport is ‘better’?” – no, it was “where are the Iron Qualities in all this?”
And if we put the sports of rugby and football on the Iron Qualities scale, it looks like it would tip overwhelmingly in favour of the egg-chasers. If you took any of the behaviour so often seen on a football pitch these days and transferred it to real life, you would be in trouble.
- Someone slaps you in the face and you go down claiming whiplash and suing. Will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror at night knowing you had acted authentically?
- You’re in a crowded bar and making your way back from the toilets, you bump into someone who accuses you of spilling their beer. He gets right in your face and diplomacy isn’t going to work. If you fight like a footballer, guess what….you’re getting knocked out
- You get passed over for a promotion or replaced on a piece of work. You can either a) cry about it; b) accept it; c) figure out WHY it happened to take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Which option demonstrates the Iron Qualities??????
But here’s the thing – I have grown up surrounded by football. It is sown into the fabric of our society. It’s the simplest thing: I kicked a £2 plastic ball against a wall when I was 9 years old and fell in love. Unconditionally. A ball and a wall – that’s all it takes.
Football at its best is art
The ability of teams to string quick accurate cutting passes together is a manifestation of sporting harmony – the combination of players on the same wavelength producing a pleasing effect.
Football and rugby both produce this effect but football tends to be more free-flowing.
Rugby is often dominated by team strategy and tactics. The coaching staff create blueprints for how they want their team to play and this is then drilled and practiced ad nauseum. Tackling in the sport brings momentum to a halt and allows both teams to get set for the next phase, which they will have drilled over and over again in training.
It is very much a team sport – with the strength of the pack being much more important than any one individual.
But football, more so than rugby, provides a canvas for the solo artist. One player can make – or break – a team. Or even the entire club.
One player has the potential at any time to completely turn a game on its head with a moment of genius or a massive cock-up.
One player playing at his peak and profoundly effecting a game is like an artist possessed and in the zone slashing his paintbrush across the canvas as he creates a masterpiece.
Growing up, I remember them all: Ronaldo, Scholes, Zidane, Laudrup, Pirlo, Bergkamp
I went to Milan once – a cathedral of football where you can still occasionally hear echoes of past greats like Meazza, Mazzola, Ronaldo, Maldini, Gullit and Van Basten.
Amongst its cobbled paths and alleyways it holds two marvels of human creation – The Duomo Cathedral and Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’.
If rugby is the team of men who built the Duomo, then football is The Last Supper.
The Duomo is a triumph of architectural design and construction teamwork – it has been rebuilt, reconstructed and enhanced many times over the years. Much like a rugby team on offence, progress is halted, attack is redirected in phases and as a team, there is eventual success.
The Last Supper is a fragile, multi-layered, fading symbol of one man transcending the limits of human imagination. On first appearance, it might appear underwhelming. The fact that is was painted on a thin wall and exposed to the elements of nature, it has deteriorated badly and very little of the original is left.
But the more you look, the more you see. This is one of the most beautiful creations in human history and shows what one man can do given the right motivation and conditions.
So…the Iron Qualities??
As a man, you keep trying to move forward and progress like a juggernaut. You will get tackled and taken down. Often, you will have to take a few steps back to make long-term gains. But when you get tackled, when you suffer an affront or when you get called out for doing something wrong, you take it – authentically and like a man. Move on. And keep moving forward.
And just like those footballing geniuses who shone for their teams, you nurture your ability to do something special, something different. You can be the difference-maker because you have the Iron Qualities.
And while you have the ability to shine yourself, you take responsibility for surrounding yourself with other men of the Iron Qualities and working together with them as a team to drive forward in that search for self-improvement and success as a man.
Neither football nor rugby are better than the other. They are both sports with their own individual merits. The secret in all this is to take the best qualities of both sports and apply them to your everyday life. Then you’re in Iron Qualities country.