Have rugby’s anonymous social media warriors forgotten it’s only a game? | Robert Kitson
Sport and social media should, in theory, be a match made in heaven. After, or during, a big game like Wales v England it is always interesting to see or hear what others are thinking. If the mood takes you, you can even lob in some observations of your own. Well done to Wales. Where did England go wrong? Who might be to blame for the outcome? A few choice words, a tap of the finger and the entire world can enjoy the benefit of your wisdom.
Or maybe not. With each passing week it seems that diplomacy and decorum on social media, regardless of which sport is involved, is disappearing the way of loom weaving and penny farthings. When an England rugby player receives online death threats for the supposed sin of not applauding the opposition off the field and a BBC reporter is abused for posing entirely pertinent questions to the beaten captain, it is time for everyone to put down their over-heated phones and pause for a moment’s reflection.
Has everyone forgotten that, ultimately, it is only a game? Yes, of course it matters who wins but a little grace in victory and magnanimity in defeat goes a long way. And whether or not Ellis Genge, England’s replacement prop, visibly displayed the latter how can that justify the hate mail it has subsequently generated? Not everyone, either, likes seeing England captains at the sharp end of direct post-match questions but in which parallel universe does that excuse the misogynistic, spiteful bile directed at the BBC’s Sonja McLaughlan?
As mentioned in these pages only last week by the Dragons’ winger Ashton Hewitt, there is one easy way of stemming this tide of unacceptable filth: forcing the sender’s identity to be made public. If their mum, partner or employer – and the police – knew what they were posting, plenty of keyboard warriors would soon change their tone. Any right-minded person would regard that as progress: free speech is a wonderful thing as long as people put their names to it.
More complex, clearly, is the wider subject of online finger-pointing. There are weekends when professional sport can start to feel like a mean-spirited game of Cluedo. So was it Pascal Gaüzère with the lead piping in the conservatory? Or the miked-up McLaughlan with the revolver in the lounge? We have become such a judgmental society and rugby, on a big Six Nations weekend, makes a juicy target.
But why the increasing rise in uncontrollable anger, vitriol and hatred? Maybe lockdown has exacerbated people’s frustrations. Then again, maybe not.
Just imagine the howls in a packed Principality Stadium had Gaüzère’s first-half calls instead gone against the hosts. Even having the light-hearted temerity to observe, within a piece clearly extolling Wales’s virtues, that Gaüzère might now eclipse Nigel Owens’s popularity locally was to set the blue touchpaper ablaze.
This is not to say the media are soft-hearted angels. The difference is they are trained professionals or former players who understand the difference between fair comment and gratuitous, personal insults.
Every decent sports journalist understands players are generally trying their hardest, that even participating in a Test match requires unusual talent and that criticism, if applicable, needs to be fair, measured and, hopefully, constructive. Maybe that unspoken code needs to be projected more widely.
It may also be time for rugby to rethink its communication strategies in this frenziedly opinionated modern world. One current international player was in touch at the weekend to ask me to let McLaughlan know that her questions to Owen Farrell were “absolutely on the money” and “what the public wanted to hear”.
Rather than shooting the messengers, his view is that rugby needs to encourage more honesty from players in front of a microphone, as opposed to media-trained platitudes. If that is all rugby offers, he reckons, the sport will forever struggle to grow its audience.
It is an increasingly relevant discussion point. If individual unions simply retreat behind the walls of their tame in-house digital channels, only to emerge occasionally to mutter a few inanities to a jaundiced public, perhaps they should not be entirely surprised if the divide between players and fans widens and increasing disrespect begins to ooze from the cracks?
With a dressing room full of interesting, diverse individuals, England would particularly benefit from a deliberate change of tack. As things stand some of Eddie Jones’s past remarks about the Celts have clearly not been forgiven and there are days when Farrell could give a recalcitrant clam a run for monosyllabic responses. Trolls will be trolls but now would be a good time to reset and banish spiky, standoffish perceptions. Tell Farrell to present McLaughlan with a bunch of flowers next time she interviews him, ask Jones to send Fabien Galthié a pre-match bottle of decent English sparkling wine. Spread some more love and happiness and it might even help to cleanse Twitter’s darkest recesses.
Amid the fallout from Cardiff, one aspect that will particularly concern Eddie Jones is the impact of his bench. Barely a week goes by without him saying how important his so-called ‘finishers’ are going to be: against Wales, however, he declined to use two of his six available forward substitutes George Martin and Will Stuart, and did not employ Ben Earl, Dan Robson or Max Malins until deep into the game’s closing stages. As in the same fixture last year at Twickenham, Wales finished comfortably the stronger of the two teams. Perhaps if Jones quietly reverts to the word ‘replacements’, the term still used by Wales, when he announces his lineup to face France on Saturday week they will be revitalised.
One to watch
Just an observation but playing for their Premiership clubs the previous weekend did little to dilute the effectiveness of Callum Sheedy or Louis Rees-Zammit for Wales against England. Scotland’s Stuart Hogg also had a fine game at Twickenham the week after turning out for Exeter at Worcester. With England in need of regaining some momentum, maybe they should request a handful of carefully policed Covid dispensations for this weekend and allow some of their fringe backline options to get some more game time.