Rugby, race and banter with Warren Gatland

BIG sporting moments have always produced big talking points – and as Wales coach Warren Gatland has acknowledged the number of cameras and microphones in modern sport ensures a plentiful supply of material to discuss.

But I felt unease as soon as I saw and crucially heard the video of England prop Joe Marler calling his Welsh opponent, Samson Lee ‘Gypsy boy’. It was an unacceptable comment and in light of Welsh defeat it was always going to receive the attention of aggrieved Welsh rugby fans.

And that’s what made me uncomfortable. How much of the inevitable anger would be fuelled by genuine disgust at Marler’s comments and how much of it would be point scoring by Wales fans in light of the team’s Six Nations defeat? Then Warren Gatland stepped into the row.

“It was just a bit of banter, as far as I am concerned,” was Gatland’s ill-considered opinion three days into a row sparked by Marler’s words. A remark the game’s governing body’s regulations stipulate carry a minimum four week ban.

Gatland, in a clear damage limitation statement ordered by his employers the Welsh Rugby Union, has since tried to explain his “banter” comments as a clumsy attempt to downplay the situation. In his carefully worded statement the former front-row forward tried to claim he’d simply put his size 9’s in during his regular press conference.

Gatland, said his statement, had wanted to protect his player, who everyone can agree, has been unfairly thrown into the centre of a row about a unpleaseant aspect of British life. Some call attitudes towards Gypsies and Irish Travellers Britain’s last remaining ‘acceptable prejudice’.

Except the New Zealander’s prepared, written statement, is betrayed by his bar-room bore press conference persona. With the Welsh media assembled in front of him Gatland very much wanted to talk about an aspect of modern life he clearly has no time for.

With a hint of nostalgia, Gatland bemoaned that such things could no longer be “sorted out with fists and stuff” and made it clear he felt there had been too much sensitivity among those who since Saturday have been discussing what he believed was simply “banter on the rugby field”.

Then like a bargain basement Donald Trump, Gatland made probably his most revealing statement. Asked, presumably in light of his comments about “fists and stuff” if the game was in danger of being “sanitised”, Gatland replied: “I think it’s not just in sport. In every aspect of life, people get so PC and just make massive issues about things.”

I can’t recall a single other time Gatland has commented on anything other than rugby, unlike some of his predecessors. Mike Ruddock, although he said little, gave his public endorsement to the Labour Party while Wales’ first Kiwi coach, Graham Henry, would comment on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in his Welsh Mirror newspaper column while preparing for the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

As Welsh fans took to social media to show their support for Lee, I wondered how many had also defended former Cardiff City manager Malkay MacKay’s less than racially sensitive “banter” which had upset some young black players during his period at the club. In sport it seems the colour of a man’s shirt is often of more significance than anything else.

Gatland of course isn’t the first person since Saturday’s video nasty appeared to vent his frustration at the PC brigade. While I had expected a backlash , if not from the coach, I can agree with him about the “massive fuss” it has created and the need to “move on”.

For many ‘move on’ will mean either brushing the incident under the carpet or recording it as duly noted and assuming Marler is banned, as it seems he must be in line with World Rugby’s regulations, being satisfied the game has shown it has no tolerance of racially charged verbal abuse.

But for Welsh rugby, its clubs and the WRU, moving on should mean taking the issue forward to examine attitudes towards minority groups, and perhaps especially Gypsies and Irish Travellers within the game. Are clubs welcoming potential players from these communities? Are potential players aware there is a welcome for them at their local rugby club? These are also questions that should be considered by other sports and their governing bodies.

If the WRU hasn’t thought of asking these questions before, isn’t now the time to do so? Before the banter gets out of hand and any efforts to consider if some prejudices remain acceptable in rugby are just dismissed as another instance of people getting so PC and making a massive unnecessary fuss.

Since I originally finished this post it was announced Joe Marler would not be banned for his comment towards Samson Lee

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One thought on “Rugby, race and banter with Warren Gatland

  1. I’m with him on the game being too sanitised part. If Samson had thumped Marler started an all in brawl then you can’t help but wonder if the outcome would have been slightly different. As it currently stands it seems that he’s not only been racially abused but also completely overlooked in the aftermath.

    I’d like to say I’m shocked by how poorly this has been handled by the citing commissioner and the disciplinary panel but I’m really not. Rugby is becoming increasingly irrelevant with people who aren’t ingrained in it and I’m not surprised by that either.

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