Saturday, 12 October 2013

Sport And Sportsmanship No Longer Share The Same Bed

If you don't like sport then look away, for this is a short and sharp 'rugby rant'.

More precisely it is a commentary on the sad reality of contemporary sport which in many cases now seems devoid of its one important quality, 'sportsmanship'.

I remember with great affection attending the 1956 rugby match between the visiting Springboks team from South Africa and my home province Taranaki.  Resplendent in my amber and black knitted hat which my mother had spent many hours producing, I went with my father to stand on the terraces to see the match.

It was cold as only a Taranaki winter can be but I soon warmed up jumping about with excitement at every flowing movement of the game.  And there was plenty of action, the provincial mascot (a bull called Ferdinand) leaping around with equal vigour.

The 1956 rugby match between Taranaki and the visiting Springboks team
Nobody really gave Taranaki much of a chance of winning but it was team spirit and the home crowd support that saw them match the tourists and produce a very creditable draw.  Several of this provincial team's best performers later went on to become All Blacks.

But this was just one such regional match amongst the many over the years that I enjoyed.  The noticeable difference between then and now being that these earlier players gave their all were part of a wonderful amateur code, unsullied by trappings of so-called 'professionalism'.

Fast forward fifty plus years and we are are in a different era when it comes to sport and what constitutes sportsmanship.  In my day no individual was bigger than the game itself even if you were a star player.  If it was a team sport, you were part of the team and did your best by them for the greater good.

Nowadays it is quite apparent that sport and sportsmanship are diverging markedly. It is all about how much money one can make as a sportsman, or sportswomen.  The impact of any personal decision upon a team is a secondary consideration if at all, to be disregarded if the the money is right.

Being a great athlete does not automatically equate to being a great sportsman, if sportsmanship and the team are measures of one's success both on and off the field.  

In my day our ambition was to play for our province and if you were good enough receive national honours.  A hefty pay packet was never the motivation nor even a consideration.

This past week we have witnessed the less than edifying spectacle of a New Zealand athlete holding both the NZ Rugby Union and the Australian based National Rugby League to ransom as he dithered between accepting one contact offer or the other.  This same player also displaced another who had been previously selected to represent New Zealand at the Rugby League World Cup.

Let's be frank about this - no player is greater than the game itself. This athlete chose to play league in the end so cut him adrift and forget about chasing or signing him in the future.  There are other younger players coming through who should be nurtured and the money that was on the table over this contract offer could be put to better use.

The media (who are making such a meal out of this turn of events) should also be reminded that just last week they were describing the rugby test between the All Blacks and the Springboks at Ellis Park in South Africa as "one of the greatest ever".

The aforementioned player was not in the team and did we suffer as a result?  No we did not.  

The Ellis Park match was great game because it was hard fought, both sides giving their all for the team and because of the sportsmanship shown by the South African captain when an official's error could have jeopardised the opposition's chances.

Today's editorial in the New Zealand Herald neatly sums up the actions of the player I referred to above:
"Williams has good instincts on a rugby field. On the wider field of life he leaves a lot to be desired."

And that is the lesson that sport should be teaching us - sportsmanship is all about consideration for others and working hard for the collective good.

And, if you are a rugby player like I was, surviving eighty minutes in the forward pack on a muddy field was foremost in one's mind!

The author (circled) played representative provincial rugby for Manawatu Juniors in the late 1960's and was part of the championship winning Palmerston North Teachers College teams in 1967 and 1968. Prior to that he played most of his rugby at New Plymouth Boys High School where he was a boarder.
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