Controversy marred the end of a sparkling Rugby World Cup tournament at the weekend as footage emerged of extraordinary scenes after the Final, which New Zealand won to become the first team to retain the trophy. If you have been on radio-silence for the last few days, you may be asking what happened to sully an otherwise assured performance from the Kiwis – did a video replay spot foul play? Did a coach or player make a silly comment in the post-match interview? Was there a punch-up in the tunnel?
No, it was far worse than that. An act of unparalleled generosity threatened to derail the global template of how we conduct ourselves. I shall summarise the scenes for those that are still, somehow, unaware. New Zealand went on a lap of honour. A young lad named Charlie charged on to the pitch to congratulate his hero Sonny Bill Williams. A steward tackled the youngster. Sonny picked up Charlie and embraced him. They wandered back into the crowd together to find his parents. Then Sonny gave Charlie the winner’s medal from around his neck. Social media lit up like a premature firework. Most onlookers lauded the rugby player for his calm response and extraordinary gesture, with only a few brave voices questioning whether it was sending the wrong message to youngsters across the globe.
Let’s analyse those few seconds in detail:-
Did Charlie do anything wrong? No, that is how youngsters are programmed to learn about their world. Without testing the boundaries they don’t know where they are, and in the overall scheme of things, trying to hug your hero is not testing those boundaries in the same way as, say, taking a knife into school or stealing a car.
Did the steward do anything wrong? No, he performed his role with diligence, tackled the lad without hurting him, and then reacted with restraint despite his training and instinct clearly telling him to remove the intruder.
Did Sonny Bill Williams do anything wrong? No, he had worked hard over the years and put his body on the line until the final whistle of a hard-fought victory for that medal, and in giving it away he showed possibly the most humble action we have witnessed in the history of sport.
So in the heat of that moment I truly believe that none of the participants could be faulted for their actions. But what about the future? Critics argue that those events have sown the seed of a twisted inspiration for the younger generation – break the rules and get rewarded. You would be forgiven for thinking from that stark statement that Charlie was pictured emerging from a looted shop clutching a new TV, rather than a gold medal that had been gifted to him. The difference, of course, is that I don’t think Charlie rushed on the pitch to beg for the medal, and I’m pretty sure that he didn’t have the intention of trying to steal it from the 6’4” and 17 stone Kiwi bruiser either.
Was it a dash for instant fame in a media-savvy new world? That is a little less easy to gauge, but I want to believe that he simply got carried away in the moment and rushed onto the pitch because he was close to his hero. As adults we have adopted social norms that say we stand in line for selfies and autographs with our heroes, and allow them personal space to enjoy what is left of their privacy, but Charlie is 14 years old.
There is a bigger issue to address, though, in amongst the feelgood factor that washed around Twickenham that night and spilled into the news headlines through the conduit of social media. There must have been hundreds of other kids in the stands that night that wanted to rush onto the pitch, but they observed convention and stayed where they were. Their parents may indeed have told them that you must follow the rules in life to get your just rewards. It is easy to dismiss this as a spontaneous act of youthful exuberance, but where do you draw the line? If two kids rushed the pitch should they both be allowed an audience with their heroes? 20? 200? What if the adults joined in? What if 80,000 excited supporters spilled towards the pitch and caused a stampede? Rules are there for a reason, you know, and the voices of the minority that viewed Saturday’s events critically would be entirely vindicated if there were to be a future tragedy.
I’m not dismissing these worries – crowds that get out of control can be dangerous beasts, as too many victims have learnt over the years. Health & Safety executives and risk assessments are much-maligned, but the stewards at sporting events are there in our best interests and I appreciate their presence. You could see the security guard in the footage was slightly panicked by the mini pitch invasion, and I’m sure it’s not an easy job, but let us not get things out of perspective either. As usual, it is a question of degree. For many years I was accused of being too black and white, and now I flounder around in shades of grey (the colour, not the book). As far as I’m aware, nobody else tried to enter the playing arena on Saturday night. If they had, I would have confidence in the stewards handling it appropriately. And if the stewards didn’t handle it, I think the All Blacks themselves would have had a pretty good go.
The more intriguing question is what I would want for my two boys. I have raised them to be polite and obedient young men, respectful of authority. And now I worry that, in today’s competitive society, I have done too good a job. Would they stand on the sidelines following procedures whilst somebody else grabbed the gold? I think so. Will they stifle their spontaneity and creativity to adhere to the rules? Probably, to an extent, as that is part and parcel of growing up in society. Will they seize those special opportunities that present themselves oh-so rarely and fleetingly, grab those unique life moments with both hands and not let go? I hope so, depending on the context, but of course context is a tricky thing for a teenager to judge.
We all make mistakes, including us restrained adults, and even dear old Sonny Bill Williams too. Part of me wants my boys to occasionally lose their inhibitions, test their boundaries, develop their own sense of right and wrong, and yes, sometimes get it wrong in the process of doing all that. I’m not advocating anarchy here, and I’m sure over the next few years that statement will come back to haunt me, but for the record I think my two boys tread that fine line between respecting others and expressing their individuality with a growing confidence. It is part of their rites of passage to becoming men. Men that can make their own decisions, take situations by the scruff of the neck, and do absurd things like giving away World Cup medals they’ve just won.