I can’t believe that its over two thousand years since I last packed down in the front row of the Athens 1st fifteen. We were good. Especially our scrum. I was the best hooker in the Hellenic Union if I do say so myself. Those Spartan sissies thought that they could match us in the scrumming department, but they were dreaming. We kicked their arses. Time and time again.
The current fuss about the former sports minister and her “we broke no rules” attitude to awarding financial grants to people of her own choosing rather than following the analysis and advice of the Sports Commission reminded me of those epic battles we had with the Spartan scrum. The minster’s approach to the awarding sports grants game was pretty much the same as the Spartans take on the rugby scrum. They couldn’t break any rules because, in their book, there weren’t any rules. They just made stuff up as they went along.
There used to be rules
I had a different take on the rules of the rugby scrum. Back in the dim past hookers used to have a very different role in the scrumming process. Hookers used to strike for the ball. There were rules that determined how a hooker could behave in their attempt to win the ball in a scrum. Hookers were not allowed to raise their foot to strike until the ball landed in the scrum (placed there by the scrum half). Hookers were not allowed to obstruct the entrance to the scrum and had to keep their feet back behind the feet of their supporting props. Hookers also had to keep their bodies and feet in a position that would enable them to give a forward push (in other words, no lying down in the scrum to get closer to the ball).
Of course, like any decent hooker from centuries ago, these rules (to keep the hookers honest and the contest fair) were open to interpretation. I would often give away one or two penalties in the first quarter of a match as I tried to figure out exactly how each referee interpreted the scrum rules. Some refs were strict, and others were liberal. Every referee was different. If a ref was happy for me to hang from my props shoulders while almost lying horizontally with my feet at the mouth of the tunnel, I was happy to oblige. If the ref thought that it was fair game for me to strike before the ball even left the scrum half’s hand (rather then when the ball enters the scrum) that was okay with me too. Whatever the referee was happy to allow was okay by me, so long as he was clear and consistent in his interpretation of the rules. I was a good hooker, and won a lot of scrums (both with and against the head – don’t ask what that means if you don’t know… its technical and boring) largely because I understood the rules and made it my job to know how far I could push them.
Sometimes got away with it
The Spartans. Oh… the Spartans. They were a different story! While I knew that there were rules of scrummaging and was happy to skirt around the edge of the rules to find out what was acceptable and what wasn’t acceptable the Spartans were not interested in rules at all. A loud cry of “Spartans, feet back” from the Spartan hooker meant that he and his props had no intention of even trying to strike for the ball. Their intention was to kick the shit out of me and stomp on my legs when my foot came out to strike. Along with gashed legs came punches to the face and knees to the groin. But these were minor issues. The Spartan’s cleverest strategy was to steal the loose head (don’t ask… it’s much too difficult in print to explain) and while doing so to head butt all three opposing front rowers as hard as they could in the face as the two scrums were engaging. Ludicrously, since referees seemed to have no consciousness of what was going on in scrums and such behaviours were so far outside normal reasonable conventions and rules that the Spartans sometimes got away with it.
There was one very famous Spartan prop (who, incidentally, went on to become a very famous politician) who did get caught for his head-butting strategy once and was asked to leave the field by the referee. Unfortunately, his unruly play still paid off for his team because his Athenian opponent was also dismissed for retaliating with his fists.
The good news is the Spartan rule-free behaviour rarely did them any good. Despite our bruises, gashes and headaches we still won most of the scrums, providing our backs with lots of clean possession thus enabling us to win most games. Our focus on the ball and the rules enabled us to kick their arses time and time again.
Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. The former Australian sports minister claims that she “broke no rules.” What she means is that there were no rules and she made the rules up as she went along. The only rule that was obeyed in the end was the rule that “I am the boss and what I say goes.” No amount of complaining by wronged sporting associations, or journalists, or parliamentary opponents, or government auditing bodies, or the general public or the ethical watch dogs of the minister’s own team make one iota of difference. The minster does whatever she wants because she can… and because, I suppose, we let her get away with it.
That always was the problem with democracy. If the people allow the rulers to behave badly, the rulers behave badly.