4 Oct 2019

Racism in rugby? Where do you want to start?

5:58 pm on 4 October 2019

Opinion: Newshub rugby editor Ross Karl wasn't wrong the other day. You do feel as if Pasifika players are uniquely disadvantaged by some of rugby's refereeing and judicial decisions.

Fiji's scrum-half Frank Lomani tackles Australia's centre Samu Kerevi during the match between Australia and Fiji.

Fiji's scrum-half Frank Lomani tackles Australia's centre Samu Kerevi during the match between Australia and Fiji. Photo: AFP or licensors

But having opened Pandora's Box, why limit the discussion to tackling techniques and what's worth a penalty and a suspension and what's not? Let's go the whole hog and count all the ways rugby discriminates players of Pacific Islands descent.

Eliota Sapolu Fuimaono before the 2011 Rugby World Cup match Wales vs Samoa.

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu Photo: AFP

Only who's that brave? Who actually wants to call these things for what they are? Former Samoa star Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu maybe, but then that's made him a pariah.

The rest of us don't have the nerve to point out the inequalities that exist. To wonder aloud about why all the people who coach and run our game are one colour and most of the players another.

Japan's Shuhei Kubo, for instance, is unique among the men who are either referees, assistant referees or Television Match Officials at this tournament, but we'll leave you to try and work out how.

Many people would have looked at the penalty conceded by Wallabies back Samu Kerevi this week, compared to the hit by England's Piers Francis on Will Hooley of the United States and drawn their own conclusions too.

Does having English referee, turned newspaper columnist, Rob Debney opining that Samoa back Rey Lee-Lo "could have killed'' Russia's Vasily Artemyev help the game's image or is it merely reinforcing odious stereotypes?

Yes, it was a high, hard hit - for which Lee-Lo has been suspended three games - but Artemyev was hardly in mortal danger.

It's very hot in Japan, in case no one's noticed. Fatigue has become a huge factor in matches and players are making all sorts of execution errors, whether trying to kick, catch and pass, or complete a tackle.

But, as Fuimaono-Sapolu once said, if you come from some far-flung south seas island, it's assumed there's some kind of savage intent behind any tackle that's not textbook.

Rather than being a showcase for the game, the Rugby World Cup almost seems to be a vehicle for some to peddle outdated colonial attitudes. You only have to look at the various criticisms that have been levelled at the All Blacks' haka.

We've all given our two bobs' worth about our dissatisfaction with the state of Pacific sides, pointing out the various inequities that exist within rugby's eligibility laws. That's nothing if not an example that the fortunes of some nations appear to matter more than others.

So where do we actually start? Do we use the world cup's profile to have a proper, grown-up discussion about whether rugby's the egalitarian game it would like to be or should we just sit back try and to admire the quality of the footy?

As Karl later wrote, in an effort to clarify his initial on-air confusion about how Kerevi had been penalised for carrying the ball into Wales' Rhys Patchell, this wasn't a clickbait situation. He wasn't adopting a provocative stance in order to boost Newshub's traffic or generate more Twitter followers, he just felt rugby was prone to bias.

That, if only in a subtle or subconscious way, race dictated some of the outcomes that are arrived at.

It's a tricky topic, sensitive in the extreme. But it's probably one the game's going to have to tackle at some point. It would be a disservice to the players not to.

But, again, where do you start when you're talking about attitudes that are so widespread and deeply ingrained that people don't even realise they exist? Or maybe even that they're wrong?

Karl did a brave thing the other day, but do the rest of us have the courage to carry the discussion on?

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