As the boos rang out at Twickenham on Saturday, the issue of cheating in sport once again took centre stage. For the past few days I have been trying to work out why I saw this as a valid and ingenious attempt to stifle the English creativity, whereas on other occasions I have been furious with the perceived injustice of various misdemeanours.
It is not obvious to me that Italy were cheating, and I’m not sure the definition is useful here anyway. They were certainly playing within the laws of the game (they had alerted the referee beforehand to their ploy, and even received advice on it!) but in sport we have this romantic notion that we should also play within the spirit of the game. Witness the acrimony following Australian cricketer Trevor Chappell bowling underarm to defeat New Zealand in 1981. That infamous incident led to a rule change, and although it wasn’t strictly cheating it was rightfully criticised as unsportsmanlike.
So did Italy’s actions also bring the game into disrepute? I can’t help feeling that the frustration voiced so vociferously at Twickenham was partly that they had thought of it first (England tried it in the second half, to some ironic cheers), and the outrage sits uneasily against the backdrop of so many illegal and sometimes brutal indiscretions that undoubtedly occur yet regularly go unnoticed and unpenalised and many would argue are ‘part of the game’.
Surely it is up to the law-makers to set the agenda (it will be interesting to see how the rugby authorities respond now) and the players to exploit any chinks within that? You could argue that putting on an extra defender and keeping the ball in the corner is against the spirit of football, but you would want your team to do it if they were 1-0 up in the last minute of the World Cup final.
Is my lack of anger simply that England finally worked out how to deal with the Italian tactics and went on to win the game – the ‘no harm done’ argument? I don’t think so. If that were the case the message would be that it is okay to ‘cheat’ as long as you lose, a curious moral maze to untangle for your kids from the touchline this weekend.
One argument is that the innovation spoiled the spectacle, but I disagree. Great rugby matches don’t have to be high-scoring or even free-flowing affairs; to me, that’s one of the main attractions of the sport. It was refreshing to see England utilise their forward power to pick and drive, punishing the opposition for not contesting the breakdown. Part of the enduring fascination of sport is that each exam paper is different, and adapting to change is often the key to success.
The real question is when does bending the rules become cheating? The doping of Russian athletes – cheating of course; Sir Bradley Wiggins taking medicine for asthma – er….fine? Phoning opposition players in the middle of the night to disrupt sleep – out of line; Cambridge United of the 1990s putting down sand in the corners of the pitch to hold the ball up – ….home advantage? Jody Scheckter dousing his trainers in oil for the Superstars squat thrusts – outrageous; Brian Jacks wearing plastic toe caps – ….no problem?
Two bitter moments from other sports have helped me gain clarity on the issue, and those that know me well could probably guess the two I am about to cite:-
1) Brookline, USA (Ryder Cup 1999) – boorish and disgusting behaviour from the partisan home crowd, with most of the American players ignoring or even encouraging the antics, overturned a significant overnight lead for the Europeans
2) Golden Freeze v Carvills Hill (Cheltenham Gold Cup 1992) – shame on Jenny Pitman for entering the 150/1 no-hoper and stalking horse Golden Freeze specifically to hassle and disrupt the favourite in order to help her other runner; the jumping of Carvill’s Hill went to pieces and he never raced again
Supposedly no rules were broken in either of those atrocities, but that didn’t stop them leaving a stain on their respective sports that cannot be washed away by the passage of time, a stain that just wasn’t apparent at Twickenham. Yes, Europe lost the Ryder Cup and Carvills Hill lost the Gold Cup, whereas on Saturday England won the rugby match, but it’s really not as simple as that.
Whatever the rules say, sporting contests are filled with thousands of moments of interpretation and subjectivity, thousands of actions that can be viewed favourably or not, thousands of opportunities to judge right or wrong. If we have a rulebook a thousand pages long there will still be grey areas and new discoveries.
It comes down to where you place the line, and whether you believe it to be crossed. I can’t define that line precisely, but I know when it has been crossed, and it wasn’t last Saturday.