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The Fate of Hugo Porta

04/07/2009

I notice today that the New Zealand All Black prop forward John Ashworth and the great half-back Hugo Porta – both stars of the late 1970s – have been named in the Best World Rugby XV of All Time.
What a fate for Hugo Porta: such a mercurial talent of Argentinian rugby in the late ’70s.
I can tell when this star was in the ascendant because I was inspired by watching his brilliant outside half play when I was turning 20.
And, believe me, there is no passion for elegant back play like that of the prop-forward yearning to be a centre!
I played so much rugby in those days – sometimes as many as five matches a week, if you include the Club games, the Colts team and the school fifteen. It was my life… Sad, but true.
Imagine my horror, then, as I watched the All Blacks play the Pumas and saw John Ashworth, who played in ‘my’ position at tight-head prop, take out Hugo Porta in an off the ball assassination.
It was a nasty, dirty, cheap hit , as I recall, and the Argentinian star was stretchered off to hospital. With no citing or video ref in those days, the New Zealander simply rejoined the game and the All Black team won easily.
Oh, and another thing: I stopped playing rugby for the best part of a year.
Now, rugby is many things – war by other means, civilised thuggery, a thing of beauty at times, but – as the current South African coach Pieter de Villiers pointed out during the week – ballet it ain’t.
Villiers was whingeing because one of his star players – Schalk Burger – was banned for less than the statutory minimum period for gouging the eyes of one of the British Lions team during last Saturday’s 2nd Test.
Much has been written about the thuggery of this match, which left several Lions in hospital. Much of it lamenting the fact  that Burger was not immediately sent off for the rest of the match and banned for at least the minimum of 8 weeks.
Saddest of all is that there will be youngsters – mad keen, thinking, creative rugby players – who will have seen this incident and thought to themselves… “Thanks, but no thanks. If the only choice is between blindness and senseless brutality, I am not interested…”
Nowhere else would someone be allowed to get away with foul play of this sort. Nowhere else but South Africa, perhaps, would a coach have uttered such an outrageous and insulting defense of such despicably dirty play. And, I have to allow, there is probably nowhere else than on a rugby pitch that Burger would ever have been so violent.
Why do we let them get away with it? We need players to demonstrate the best of our sport on the biggest stage. Too many impressionable young men and women will have seen that incident and remember it, as I do Ashworth and Porta. The standard answers to this question are usually that, in professional rugby, it is only winning that counts; and that this has always been a rough game, so what’s new?
In professional rugby, much has changed, it is true but, unless the core of the game is retained, we might just as well sell-up to the New York Giants and simply become another America Football franchise.
I was always told that rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. Perhaps we ought to remember that there are rules of self-control that mark out the gentleman. Eye-gouging isn’t one of them.

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