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Sports

Wrecking Rugby

Are professionals ruining a perfectly great game?

By Richard Warnica 12 Jul 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a free-lance journalist and former senior editor at The Tyee.

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"Do you see that? That is the definition of Irishness."

Paul Kilkenny, from Galway city on the west coast of Ireland, gestures towards a booth crammed full of his countrymen. At half past twelve at night, the six young Irishmen are decked out in a colorful array of rugby jumpers. One of them, sitting directly across from us, has his face buried in a basket of French fries drenched in what Paul says is the Irish way -- in ketchup.

We are stuffed, along with a harried array of ex-pats from the British Islands and New Zealand, into a booth in a Vancouver West End pub, having waited in line and paid 15 dollars to watch a game being played half a world away, in the middle of a New Zealand winter.

For more than a hundred years, almost as long as people have been playing the game, a collection of the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have agreed to spend one in four summers touring a foreign country. The Lions, as they're known, play local and provincial sides before culminating the tour in a series of "tests" against the opposing national team.

'Bloated' new professionals

Before rugby went professional ten years ago, Lions' tours were the biggest stage in the game. But a decade into the big money era, the Lions, bloated with players, coaches, money and spin are limping their way into Wellington. Newspaper columnists and former players back home are lamenting their form and questioning their very survival.

Coinciding neatly with the ten year anniversary of professional rugby, the Lions' tour is raising questions about the nature of a game once rooted in community and socialization: not only in its traditional homes in the southern hemispheres and the British Isles, but also in small established outposts like BC.

The debate over professionalism in rugby is almost as old as the game itself. Not long after the Rugby Football Union codified the rules of the game in the 1870s, a group of working class clubs in northern England broke off over player compensation.

The better off clubs of south and central England wanted the game to remain strictly amateur. The northern clubs, concerned about missing work and losing wages because of games and injuries, insisted on paying their players.

As a result, the northern clubs founded a rugby league to compete with the established Union. Eventually League adopted its own set of rules. The two codes continue to compete to this day.

Rugby Union, meanwhile, remained amateur for another century. It wasn't until the unprecedented media success of the Rugby World Cup in 1995 that the game went professional.

Held in South Africa, the tournament was billed as a coming-out party for the post-apartheid nation. When Nelson Mandela appeared at the championship game wearing the jersey of (white) captain Francois Pienaar the sport made headlines like never before. Players soon became restless for their share of the money earned by the lucrative sport. Later that year the International Rugby Board voted to make the game professional.

Canadian conundrum

BC is home to the largest, most active rugby community in Canada. The bulk of the national men's team either lives or plays in Vancouver or Victoria for most of the year. And judging by the crowds lined up outside the Soho to watch the Lions, and packed into the Frog and Firkin a week earlier to watch on tape delay, it isn't just players enthusiastic about the game.

But professionalism has had a distinctly mixed effect on the game here. At the national level, Canada has increasingly struggled to compete with the fully professional nations. In the 1991 World Cup, Canada made the quarterfinals before falling in a competitive match to New Zealand 29-13. Twelve years later at the 2003 World Cup, Canadian coach David Clark admitted defeat to the All Blacks before their preliminary game even started. Canada lost 68-6 en route to a 1-3 record at the Cup.

Canadian players are in a conundrum. The amateurs have neither the training nor the competition to compete with the professionals. The professionals on the other hand can't always afford to leave their clubs to play for Canada, and when they can, they rarely have much time to train with the team.

The governing body of the sport, Rugby Canada, has also looked distinctly amateur at times in the professional era. In 2001, the entire national team threatened to go on strike when popular coach David Clark was fired by the board.

At the time, Vancouver Sun columnist and long time rugby player Stephen Hume vented that "almost overnight, a bunch of bumbling sports bureaucrats have made Canada an international laughingstock."

Eventually the board backed down and re-hired the coach.

More recently, furor erupted when a training program for under-23 players, based in Victoria, was shut down by the national board. Chris May, a former player with the program called the decision "an unexplained, irrational and cowardly act" in an editorial on the BCrugbynews.com.

On July 7, Rugby Canada again reversed the controversial decision. This time, they agreed to re-form the program as an under-21 team to re-start in January 2006.

Beefy

Internationally, professionalism has meant much beefier rugby players according to a BBC survey commemorating ten years of professionalism published this March.

The average back (generally the smaller, faster players) is between ten and fifteen kilograms (22-33 pounds) heavier today than ten years ago, according to the BBC report.

And it isn't just in the professional ranks that rugby players are bigger. Waiting in line before today's game, Mike Woodbridge, a player with the Rogues, a Vancouver rugby club, got into conversation with some of the men around him. Mike is a 6 foot 7 inch 240 pound former football offensive lineman. Eyeing him up and down, one of the men told him he'd be pretty good at rugby, if he got some shoulders.

The stronger the players and the more they play, the more they get hurt. The conclusion of the BBC report was that the game faced a crisis of wear and tear as ever more muscular bodies slam into one another all the more often. The fear is that players will break down after only a few years in the game.

Jonny Wilkinson, two years ago considered the world's best player, is now past his prime. A series of shoulder, arm and leg injuries have worn the English superstar down. He's 26 years old.

Rugby glitz

Size isn't the only way rugby players have changed. While it can't be measured in pounds gained or lifted, doing something for a living, day in day out for a paycheck, is inevitably different than doing it for pleasure or pride.

As kickoff got closer and the crowd drunker, the camera in New Zealand, panned over Gavin Henson, a Welsh star, whose exclusion from last week's game had caused uproar in Wales. But it was Henson's distinctive look, rather than his relative abilities that had the crowd talking. "In rains more in Wales than it does in Ireland," said Paul. "How on earth does he have a tan like that?"

Henson, at 23, is part of a generation of players whose entire elite rugby experience has been in the professional era. Unlike players ten or twenty years ago, Henson doesn't have to return to the office or the shop after a game. The only real job he's ever had has been professional rugby player.

And in a game known more for facial scarring and cauliflower ears, Henson is the exception. He happily admits to shaving his legs and using St Tropez fake tan cream. His relationship with Welsh pop starlet Charlotte Church constantly graces the Welsh tabloids and soccer legend David Beckham recently complained that Henson was pinching his gay fans. "I think I have lost a lot of my gay fans to Welsh rugby star Gavin Henson," Beckham said. "It is a shame as I really love them."

Gravy train

Henson didn't play last week in the first test against New Zealand. When the Lions lost, badly 21-3, anger at English coach Clive Woodward exploded. Woodward has been criticized for a myriad of sins: selecting the wrong players, playing the wrong tactics, but mostly for the clinical, professional attitude he has brought to the team

When the first Lions tour embarked for New Zealand, they had 20 players, a coach and two managers. When all is said and done this edition will have had 51 players, 26 coaches, innumerable assistants, analysts and, most controversially, one Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's long time press officer. Campbell was publicly accused in the run up to the Iraq invasion of "sexing up" the case for war.

Campbell's inclusion on the tour as "media advisor" has been almost universally condemned in the press. "What on earth were Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell and his former Downing Street press office colleague Ben Wilson doing on the trip in senior media roles?" asked British journalist Andrew Baldock in a column on the Planet Rugby website. "Their combined knowledge of rugby tours -- history, legacy, players and all that -- wouldn't fill the back of a postage stamp."

Lions' tamers

As the night progressed, the Irishmen became quieter and quieter. By the time they slunk out of the bar at 2:30 in the morning, their team had been thoroughly outclassed by New Zealand. The final score: All Blacks 48, Lions 18.

The most well trained, well paid and minutely organized Lions team in history was destroyed. In their wake, they leave questions about the place a distinctly amateur tradition like the Lions has in the professional game.

But for Paul Kilkenny, next week's final episode of the three part series offers some hope of a decent contest. This week should see a pretty good game, he wrote in an email, because half of last week's Lions team is too hurt to play.

Richard Warnica is on staff of The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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