Before we begin, allow me to introduce my credentials. I am, unequivocally, soft. I run a poetry night, own a boxset of Richard Curtis movies and consider crying a hobby. So if anyone’s in the position to make a call on whether or not rugby has gone soft, it’s probably me. I’ve almost forgotten what it was this week that prompted the easily-uproarious rugby community to ask again whether “rugby has gone soft”, but it doesn’t really matter, and frankly, I don’t really care, because the thing that bothers me is not the answer, but the question itself.
As a sport built by the English upper classes, rugby is naturally very hung up on the idea of maintaining its’ own reputation. Rugby is honest, fair, brutal, and definitely not soft. These are the values of the game, and they must be followed. Rugby players must act like gentlemen. This ranges from simply calling the referee “Sir” to, as once happened to me, holding the door open for the entire Georgia U16s squad without complaint or even one of them acknowledging you (To be fair, in comparison to their forwards I was about the size of a Cheerio). Rugby players must be calm, collected, and not let their emotions get the better of them. Mike Brown, as a man not a player, is almost entirely shunned by the English rugby community because he went to a state school, gets angry, and looks like he probably enjoys the Fast & Furious movies unironically. But above all, rugby players must be tough and maintain a stiff upper lip. That clip of Sean Lamont rolling his dislocated shoulder into place and getting back into the defensive line? That’s not one-off macho shit. That should be the norm. That should be how we all respond to agony. If any of these rules are broken, rugby will die. The moment players aren’t faking concussion tests to get back on the field at the risk of their long-term health, everyone who bothered to work out which channel Sky Sports shoved the rugby on this week is turning right over to kabaddi.
If you want an idea of just how frail rugby’s sense of self is, try, outside of Six Nations time, to have a casual conversation with someone who has a passing interest in sport about rugby. Within sixty seconds, I can guarantee, at least one of you will begin to explain just why you prefer the sport to football. Inside ninety, someone will mention either how rugby players respect the referee or footballers get injured so easily. By the two-minute mark, just as the conversation is winding down, you’ll remember reading this paragraph months earlier and start to feel slightly uneasy about how spot-on this prediction was. It’ll be a Monday. You’ll be wearing Thursday socks. Rugby is so insecure that the referee can literally penalise a player for “acting against the spirit of the game”. You will conform and contribute to rugby’s sense of self-worth, or get whistled off the field by a schoolmaster with too much time on a Saturday afternoon. “Red card. Sorry mate, you’ve done nothing against the laws, I just think you’re being a little bit too much of a cunt”.
I’m not saying that players abusing referees isn’t out of line, or that I’m out-of-hand against “ungentlemanly conduct” being penalisable, but it just serves to illustrate the point. Rugby has a reputation to uphold; it is of the upmost importance to rugby itself that rugby is not seen as soft. Nobody outside of rugby circles is even questioning if rugby is soft or not, because any ‘softening’ is always going to be relative. Technically, a trip to ASDA could involve an eighteen stone Tongan smashing his shoulder into your neck, but I’d say the chances of that happening during a rugby match are far higher. Football, NFL, whoever the main ‘rival’ is this week simply doesn’t care if rugby is soft. The only other people who do care are rugby league fans, and that’s just the pesky little brother looking for a stick to get back at their more popular older sibling. The game is actually getting more physical. Collisions are bigger and harder than they’ve ever been. The increasing rate of injuries reflects this. One study found that playing one international rugby match nowadays has the same impact on the body as being in a car crash. Players are doing this six weeks on the trot. But, because now that shoulder to the neck would get the aforementioned Tongan a guaranteed card (Or at least thrown out of the bread aisle), the game has gone soft.
Just as American Football (More than ever right now) is a sport dominated by bullshit patriotism and the idea of the American Man, rugby is a game stuck in the trap that is bullshit masculinity. Rugby is a game built on the stiff upper lip, on playing on when you’re angry, or sad, or suffering a fractured skull, and not letting any of it show. Tears are only allowed during the anthems, and even then only on your first cap or a World Cup Final. Showing elation makes you an arsehole. Mental health is irrelevant, it’s your reputation that matters. Dan Vickerman’s tragic suicide last year should have been the wake-up call that rugby needed to reflect on this. He was suffering from depression, and felt he couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Seeing the likes of Andy Powell and Duncan Bell, as recently professional players, speak openly about their own struggles with depression is the start of a revolution that needs to continue. Watching Alex Cuthbert and Florin Surugiu cry on the pitch made me as proud as any underdog win during the 2015 World Cup. Crying isn’t soft; it means something matters you to. Cuthbert had given all he had to the thing that meant most to him, and it wasn’t enough. Surely that is acting very precisely in the “spirit of the game”? When he began to well up last year after blowing what would have been the winning try against Japan, I heard someone a few rows in front in the in-my-head-still-known-as-the-Millennium Stadium shout “Man up Cuthbert, you’re shit”. Frankly, being able to cry openly in the company of 80,000 strangers and a camera crew is about the bravest, manliest thing I can think of. Crying is one of my favourite things to do, and even with the help of my Richard Curtis boxset I fear I wouldn’t be able to do it. The longer we reinforce the idea that rugby being seen as ‘soft’ is a problem, the greater the pressure on every rugby player and fan alike to hide the parts of themselves they may consider such. Because at the end of the day, we’re all at least a little bit soft. Ross Moriarty’s favourite film is Forrest Gump, for crying out loud. One of the very values rugby prides itself on so much is being inclusive to all, and with rates of depression and suicide at an all-time high amongst young men, it’s high time we accepted that ‘being inclusive’ means more than just shape and race.
I can barely remember why we had to have this debate again this week, but I can guarantee it won’t be the last time. Now, I’ve played most of my rugby as a winger who can’t tackle, so maybe I’m the wrong person to judge whether or not rugby has gone soft. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t, but at the end of the day, we as a rugby community just need to stop caring so much about the question.