4 Nov 2017

Rugby league clashes: Context and calm needed

3:04 pm on 4 November 2017

By Ben Stanley*

Opinion - After more than six months outside of New Zealand, I flew back home yesterday half-wondering if I might be greeted with smoke rising above Auckland.

A considered glance of the news of clashes between Tongan and Samoan fans in the build-up to today's Rugby League World Cup match in Hamilton seemed to indicate things were getting pretty hot.

The burning of a Samoan flag, the tearing up of a Tongan one - and arrests in Ōtara over a street brawl between the two sets of league fans indicated a rare degree of tension in our little sporting world.

Fortunately, there was no smoke and, from what I've gathered being back in Aotearoa, there's actually very little fire as well.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo signing autographs during the 2017 World Cup.

The Tonga team's fan day at Ōtāhuhu was a peaceful, celebratory affair. Photo: Photosport NZ

I'm not saying the clashes weren't serious, or shouldn't be taken, or treated, seriously. They clearly have been, with police and community leaders responding the right way too.

They have made all the right noises about the need to calm right down. Additional cops on duty at Waikato Stadium tonight is arguably a good call, even though they're not likely to be forced into action.

As always in life, context is king - and it seems like a little of that has been absent in the discussion of the last week's events.

While the tide has long since gone out on the very worst of European football hooligan violence from the 1980s, inter-team and nation animosity still bubbles away there.

In March, nine fans were jailed after a brawl between Manchester United and Liverpool fans at Old Trafford while Spartak Moscow fans fired a flare at a referee as recently as September.

With the FIFA World Cup looming on the horizon next year, more violence could be on the way in Russia. Russian club 'ultras', like Spartak Moscow's 'Fratira', have long been considered among the more proactively brutal European hooligan groups, while their national fans like to show their teeth, too.

In a serious hint of potential strife next June and July, Russian fans clashed with English supporters in the streets of Marseilles during the European Championships in 2016. Widely circulated videos revealed wanton violence, including attacks on French bystanders.

Other than the clashes between the Red and Blue Squads and anti-apartheid protests during the infamous 1981 Springbok Tour, New Zealanders and Pasifika have never witnessed anything on the Marseilles level before.

Anti Springbok tour protesters in Hamilton, 1981. Photo by Phil Reid.

Anti Springbok tour protesters in Hamilton, 1981. Photo by Phil Reid. Photo: National Library

For that, we are fortunate. The historical absence of any truly brutal fan violence reveals the Kiwi and Polynesian lack of appetite for engaging in such moronic behaviour. Kids will be kids, of course - and social media now provides a way for the perception of tension to course itself into a situation where very little of it actually exists.

A deep-seated rivalry, and thorny history, very clearly exists between Tonga and Samoa, and both nations would dearly like to claim the spoils tonight in Hamilton. Yet the clashes in South Auckland this week don't, to me, reveal any true antipathy between the two fantastic Island cultures.

A chorus of disapproving voices from the Kiwi Polynesian community have basically attributed the actions to fired up teens, who are causing more embarrassment to their families than anything else. In both Tongan and Samoan culture, bringing shame to your family stings worse than other judgment.

With more than 18,000 tickets sold, tonight's World Cup clash in Hamilton should be an absolute cracker - one of the genuinely competitive high-level matches this tournament will provide.

After all, a superb game is the cold water the stupidity of last week's clashes needs more than anything. If that happens, burning flags on Facebook will be forgotten for what really should matter; a top-notch game of league from two great rivals.

* Ben Stanley is a multiple award-winning sports journalist from Taupō

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