Ah yes, another weekend of devastating, hard-hitting, gulp-taking European Rugby. Worth a celebration? Well no, apparently not. Messrs Burns and Itoje were roundly castigated for their attempts. Probably best we keep things respectful. Leave ostentation to others. No gloating. It’s not us.
There’s always been a self righteousness to this sport of ours. Maybe its over-officious nature brings a certain class of individual to bear. “Laws not rules!” is the strap-line we have printed on those invisible t-shirts. The rugby fraternity is pretty quick to cast aspersion, look down our noses, tell others how superior we are.
And so we were again as Bath’s Burns sashayed through, only to have his pants pulled down in front of a despairing home crowd. He’d kissed the ball (shake of the head), stuck a finger in the air (tsk tsk), revelled in the joy that scoring a winning try at home in the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup can bring. Shame on him. We’d never do that. (Which is a hilarious concept when you think about it: I mean, we would have to get a contract first; then get picked; stay on the pitch; and finally muster up all sorts of skill and ability to get through the gap in a fading French defence…) But yeah, we’d definitely not do that.
Aren’t we missing something? So keen to dispel the hubristic action, we ignored the real ingenuity here. It was brilliant from Maxime Medard. He chased a lost cause: in a split second, he’d recognised the potential of a materialising situation and took his chance. The only mistake Freddie made was to forget a cobra like Medard might strike. In a lesser game, few would have thought as quickly as Medard; fewer still would have had the pace to make up the ground.
Burns was hurting. His kick against the upright moments earlier had blotted his European copybook. And as he paraded beyond the Toulouse defensive line, he thought he’d made amends; thought the script had him as a vengeful hero, not a double villain. No wonder he was happy. No wonder he just took a second to enjoy the moment. Rugby is so cruel, so undeniably heartbreaking for so much of the time: injury spells, loss of form, the short shelf life; let him just stop and smell the flowers…
The flowers are dead.
Did Burns mean to get pilfered? No. Did he allow it as a possibility? Yes. Was the mistake equal to the punishment? Not for me. The genius of Medard has been forgotten in our desperation to chastise Freddie, but that’s what I mean. We do enjoy taking the higher moral ground. Even if it means not appreciating talent.
Which moves me to Maro. Raising his arms aloft sarcastically with a Glasgow team that didn’t know the referee had already stopped the game. With eyebrows arched and lips pursed, many fans distanced themselves from an action that was labelled cheap. Unsportsmanlike. Not a part of the game.
Which game? Because the one Maro was involved in was fierce. Bones were breaking, skin was being split, resolve was reeking into the Scotstoun sky. England versus Scotland (as it undoubtedly was, despite the other nationalities involved) is an auld tune, discordant and jarring, blood-lusty and irreverent, it seems to push people into new realms of possibility. Saracens were having their mettle tested in an incredibly physical game. This was Test rugby in everything but name and when you are in that sort of firefight, you throw what you can. Even stuff you shouldn’t.
What Itoje did may not have looked very kind, but, you know, sometimes sport isn’t. Show me a world class sportsman and I’ll show you them being unkind. Winning will often mean avarice, malice, open hostility. Amongst the chaos and tumult of a top class European rugby game, any edge is worthy. Anything you can do to motivate yourself or demotivate the opposition, bring it. Because if you don’t, they might.
Itoje was titanic against Glasgow, he’s been excellent of late, giving everything to help Sarries overcome an obstinate Warriors team away from home. The amount of effort and exertion that must have taken is almost beyond comprehension, and yet, priggishly, from the sideline, we want to throw in ‘And could you be nice..?’ Seriously?
To be as good as these players are trying to be, doesn’t deserve our disapproval. Mistakes will happen, mis-steps will be taken. Ask either player if they approve of their actions in the cold light of day, and of course, they’d shake their heads. And I’m not asking you to condone the actions of either, I’m saying let’s put it all on the scales; let’s not be too quick to judge, or dismiss. These boys play rugby in an environment, and at a level, on which I cannot look down. Maybe we could all give that a go.