Cheat? Not me.
My high school rugby coach thought that I was a terrible cheat. I went through an entire season of semi-serious high school rugby under the constant threat of being dropped from my team for my cheating ways. I was a rugby hooker. This was the seventies. Rugby scrums were different then.
I was never a cheat. Well, not really. Even back then the interpretation of rugby scrummaging rules were so arbitrary and subjective that, in my view, while there was a technical rule book that specified what was and what was not “fair play” in the rugby scrum, in reality, cheating was anything that the referee of the particular game you were playing in didn’t approve of.
After playing rugby hooker for twenty years I can confidently say that every referee I ever played under had a different interpretation of the rules of scrummaging. The secret to being a hooker that could win better than his/her fair share of scrum ball for the team (including taking a few loose head scrums off your opposition scrum in a match) was in being quick to learn what a referee would let you get away with. The rule book does not referee a rugby match. A human being in a referee’s shirt does. Good hookers followed the ref’s rules… not the rules of the game.
He was also a dick
My high school coach was an enormous young man who just happened to play second row (now called lock) for NSW at the same time he was coaching me and my mates. He was also a referee. He was also a high school economics teacher. After his playing days he went on to referee rugby at a pretty high level as well. He also went on to become a famous conservative politician. Did I mention that he was also a dick? You get the picture. He didn’t like having a young kid with a “flexible” attitude towards the rules of the game in the middle of his team’s scrum.
In my view, for the first few scrums in any game, it was my job to quickly figure out how the referee interpreted the rules that controlled the behaviour of the hooker. While, technically, the scrum commences when the ball leaves the hands of the scrum-half (this is when both scrums are allowed to start pushing) the hooker is not allowed to lift his/her feet to strike for the ball until it touches the ground in the tunnel. No hooker, worth their chops, waits for the ball to land in the scrum before striking. The secret is to make allowance for your delayed reaction time and strike when you think the ball is about to land in the tunnel. In reality some refs would let you strike when the ball left the half’s hands. Others expect you to wait until the ball enters the tunnel. Some don’t even seem to be bothered if you stick your leg out while the ball is still firmly in the scrum half’s hands. And then there are the rare blokes (like my coach) who argued that hookers should keep their feet back until hell freezes over.
The thing is, sometimes I would give away a free kick or two before figuring out what the ref thought was legal. One or two free kicks was not great… but okay. Any more than that and you are just pushing your luck too far and giving away possession. That’s not good. My coach had a different view. In his world, any conceded free-kick was an indication of a hooker with base ethical standards. One to be gotten rid of.
I would almost be lying down in the tunnel
Having the loose head in a scrum effectively places you closer to the ball than your opposing hooker. That’s why you can expect teams with the loose head to win the scrum. To negate this advantage I would always try to crab my feet sideways, sometimes right up to the feet of my tight head prop, to get me as close to the put-in as possible. If the referee had a flexible view to the rule about all players in the scrum needing to be in an upright position and able to push forward, then I would be almost lying down in the tunnel and ready to almost strike the ball out of the opposing scrum-half’s hands. If the ref also had a liberal view as to when the hooker could strike for the ball well, I knew that I was going to win “tight-heads” in that game.
There was one game, I remember, where an opposing hooker taught me a few tricks that I had never tried, that worked well for him when a ref with flexible views on what was acceptable in scrums was in charge. Despite this stocky little bloke being a highly regarded player (who, incidentally, went on to play for his state as well as top grade club rugby for many years) I was taking advantage of the ref’s liberal “striking” and “able to push” interpretations by winning lots of scrums (both loose heads and tight heads) against him. With him, I suspect, getting sick of the other bloke (me) getting away with murder he, at the next scrum, gave his props the cryptic instructions “feet back.” I had no idea what he meant. I soon found out. I won the scrum only to find all three opposing front rowers, who incidentally had made no attempt to strike for the ball, jumping up and down on my striking leg. After that scrum I had four or five massive sprig welts on areas not protected by my shin pads. The next scrum was the same. The one after that the same again. My opponents had sacrificed three scrums, but my legs were so bloodied and battered that, by half time, I could barely walk let alone strike for the ball. While I battled on and still managed to win a fair share of scrums in the second half, my mangled legs and the associated agony prevented me from being anywhere near my best. Forty years later I think I still have the scars. Mental and physical.
He had total disregard for the ref’s authority
There was another famous bloke that I used to play against who, like my coach, ended up in politics. He, unlike my coach, didn’t give a rat’s arse about the rules. Rather than being a player who relied on testing what the ref would allow or wouldn’t allow, he seemed to have total disregard for the ref’s authority. In one game I remember, this nasty loose head prop managed to “accidently” head butt either me or my tight head prop when the two scrums engaged in every scrum from the start of the game. My prop, not surprisingly, started to get a bit sick of it. As the game progressed both props were head butting each other with every scrum engagement. Finally, the referee had had enough. At the packing of the next scrum he warned both props that they would both be sent from the field if the head-butting continued. At that very scrum, the opposition prop head butted my mild-mannered tight head prop yet again and the scrum erupted into an all-in blue. The ref was left without any alternative but to send both props off. As much as I was sad for my mate, I have to say that it was a relief to be shed of that other bloke.
Who is a cheat? It’s not always black and white. There are those blatant cheats like the idiot who thought that it was more fun to head butt people than to play a good, hard game of rugby. Then there are people like the tough little hooker who, no doubt, felt that he was within his rights to take the law into his own hands by stomping all over an opponent (me) who the referee was not punishing for employing borderline tactics. Then there are people like me who think that you are not trying hard enough (and you are letting your team down) if you don’t test the referees limits by giving away the occasional free kick or penalty. To me, such penalties are not evidence of cheating. They are the means of establishing the actual ground rules.
A brief word on my high school coach as a post- script. Many years later I ran into this bloke again. I was scheduled to play a game of sub-district rugby at a suburban ground and he happened to be at the ground for some reason. Despite my not being very fond of the big fella we exchanged friendly pleasantries and briefly reminisced about our past relationship. We parted, I thought, on good terms and I wandered into the change room to prepare for the game. One of my teammates advised us that, frustratingly, the referee we had been allocated for the match was an individual famed across all of the divisions of the sub-district competitions for his ineptitude. Oh well, we all thought. He may be a terrible ref, but he is terrible for both teams. Or so we thought. As we exited the change rooms, I noticed that my old high school coach and the incompetent referee were in deep discussion right on the sideline. As it turns out, the idiot penalized me in every scrum in the first half. It got so bad that just before half-time I had stopped even striking for the ball, but he was still penalizing me. Eventually, my coach had little choice left but to put someone else into hooker and bunged me out onto the wing. The ultimate humiliation (In modern rugby, the winger is often one of a team’s most gifted players. In seventies sub-district competition, wing was the spot where you put the enthusiastic club man who was a nice bloke that loved the game but couldn’t play to save himself).
What’s the worst kind of cheat? To me it’s a sanctimonious bastard who, at one moment, prattles on about the importance of the rules yet thinks it is perfectly okay to influence the outcome of a match by the prejudicing of an easily manipulated official who is, in the end, the final arbiter of fair play. By his actions, my coach ironically demonstrated that it is not the rule book that determines what is or what is not fair play. It is the referee.