Alan Hubbard

Shortly after England had stunningly demolished the All Blacks in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup, the back-page headline in one of Britain's posher papers asked: "Is rugby now our national sport?"

However, things went awfully quiet on that subject once the South African steamroller had flattened Eddie Jones' men in the final. It is quieter still in the light of yet another odious bombshell that has exploded over an activity once described as "a game for hooligans played by gentlemen". That was coined more than half a century ago by Arthur Tedder, then chancellor of Cambridge University, and has stood the test of time. Of course, these days hardly any sport comes minus a scandal and rugby union has had more than its share of late.

In an article in The Spectator magazine a former rugby player, one Gavin Mortimer, has written: "It (rugby) has become a nasty, dangerous. gladiatorial sport played by men with too much muscle and too little skill."

This brutishness, he says, is reflected in many of the players' personalities and he recalls that during one British Lions tour to South Africa, a group of players were nicknamed The Wreckers because of what they did to their hotel rooms. He cites many other instances of boorish behaviour.

"Most players today go straight from school into professional rugby and therefore haven't the well-rounded backgrounds of their amateur predecessors. What they do have, however, is a handsome salary, and this has turned many into strapping spoiled brats."

Saracens are already being mocked by opposition supporters ©Getty Images
Saracens are already being mocked by opposition supporters ©Getty Images

That may seem just a tad OTT and shockingly elitist - but the salient point is that money, as usual, is at the root of most the game's ills. 

For instance, top club Saracens have been forced to forfeit 35 points and fined £5.36 million ($6.8 million/€6.1 million) after being found guilty of breaching the salary cap, a move which has sent shock-waves through the rugby world. The all-conquering North London club received the biggest sanction in the history of the Premiership. The severity of the punishment reflects the belief that flouting this rule over payments to acquire and keep the best players is endemic.

One rival club has threatened to boycott the forthcoming fixture with Saracens and even called for them to be thrown out. Others want them stripped of the titles they won while breaching the rule - two Premierships and two European Cups. Nine Saracens players featured for England at the World Cup in Japan.

The findings of an independent three-person panel led by a Supreme Court judge ruled that they had failed to disclose payments to players in each of the seasons 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. In addition, the club was found to have exceeded the ceiling for payments to senior players in each of the three seasons.

Saracens have appealed, but to those clubs which stay within the boundaries of payments to players this has been a running sore, likened to the actual use of performance-enhancing drugs, something which itself is no stranger to rugby - both union and league. Indeed, rugby leads the field statistically in drug use alongside athletics, cycling and, sadly, now boxing.

Bloodgate was a stain on English rugby in more ways than one ©Getty Images
Bloodgate was a stain on English rugby in more ways than one ©Getty Images

Hardly a week goes by during the season without UK Anti-Doping issuing a press release saying that a rugby player, usually at club level, has failed a drugs test. It seems pretty obvious to us cynics that all those muscle-men we now see throwing their considerable weight around haven’t acquired their Mr Universe physiques simply by push-ups and pumping iron in the gym.

All this sadly has echoes of the "Bloodgate" scandal of a decade ago when Harlequins and their director of rugby Dean Richards were censured for using capsules of fake blood to convince referees that players were injured, thus facilitating additional tactical substitutions.

There was a perception that the practice had been rife and that the Quins were just fall guys for other miscreants, just as Sarries may be taking the rap for this latest rugby ruck.

Naturally it has tarnished any suggestion that rugby is fit to be deemed our national sport. Yet football and cricket can hardly qualify as such by this yardstick if their respective track records, including corruption and match-fixing, are taken into account

In any case, with all the skulduggery now happening in politics in this country at the moment, do we really need one? Surely Brexit is now the name of the game.