Extra 'niggle' in Rugby Sevens not a desired Attitude for World Sevens Series
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 3: Ben Pinkelman of USA is tackled in the Men's Cup Final played between New Zealand and USA during the 2019 Sydney HSBC Sevens at Spotless Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Often admired for the panache and expansive style of play, Rugby Sevens is a game which encourages an attitude of adventurous footy. Yet, in the last few matches of the Sydney 7s tournament, New Zealand player Kurt Baker exhibited extra ‘niggle’ in that Rugby Sevens, is not a desired attitude for the World Sevens Series.

While identifying Baker, it is not only his actions that highlighted a change in attitude, but the professional game has brought with it more rewards, more popularity, as much as more competitiveness. And being a highly competitive player, Kurt Baker demonstrates the more ‘hardened edge’ which is seen in the men’s HSBC Sevens Series.

Others have taken note too. From fans to rugby sevens columnists, the attitudinal change is both as a result of the richer rewards, but as much as how much harder the game is now being played.

‘Niggle’ in Rugby Sevens not desirable Attitude for World 7s Series

The game of rugby [as a whole] has seen players get bigger, hit harder and put in extra effort. That is commendable. It has seen men and women become more focused, especially now in Rugby Sevens, with the Olympic Games the highest prize on offer.

If the attitude of the past era was of adventurous play, then today a harder edge has given the games outcome more importance. Overall, players still hold the values of the game at heart, but a few have placed more importance on hitting harder. In tackling to limit other teams ability to play to their advantage – sometimes through effort, but sometimes through actions that border the boundaries of fair play.

While signalling out Kurt Baker as one, he is not alone. The New Zealand team are one of the most dominant nations on the lucrative World Sevens Series. Alongside Fiji, England and more today, South Africa and the United States. National unions invest more today in the men’s and women’s teams, and the rich rewards and titles makes some push the letter of the law.

In his most recent matches, Kurt Baker showed good and bad. He is an important cog in the All Blacks Sevens game, with the below video showing his barnstorming ability with the ball in hand. But watch the video closely after he is tackled – he trips the Fijian tackler, preventing him from quickly returning to play.

He displayed behaviour and characteristics which to some, are not the desired attitude of the modern rugby sevens game. He shows an attitude where winning is everything – certainly, a positive in competitive sports of course. But pushing the boundaries of the laws, he displayed methods and portrayed an image which goes against World Rugby’s declared values.

Kurt Baker v USA Eagles 7s: a play-by-play

On watching the Cup final of the Sydney Sevens, Kurt Baker influenced the outcome, through his attitude and actions. Here is a play-by-play of the two halves of the New Zealand Cup winning effort; they won the final 21-5.

2:50 – Baker tackles Ben Pinkelman and proceeds to hold him down after the ball is spread away from the tackle area. An annoyance to any defender.

2:15 – Tackles Carlin Isles of USA and again carries on in the tackle. Baker stands up, and gives Isles a ‘verbal’ to antagonize the opponent.

0:15 – NZ break out of their own half (after two US players collide). The All Blacks 7s take advantage, and storm up field. Approaching the goal line, another competitive player Danny Barrett, charges in and tackles try scorer Sam Dickson when he places the ball down. A late hit, which shows that both sides are playing hard and Baker is the first to approach the play, and shoves Barrett.

Isles also charges in, to confront the Kiwis and fortunately it is only ‘handbags’. The US team are falling into a tit-for-tat attitude, and Isles appears to irritated by his opponents attitude, blowing a kiss at Baker (it was not a spit, as questioned on social media). The two sides are playing the game for a highly sought after prize. It is highly charged.

In the second half, the game settles in New Zealand’s favour. Knowing they have the result sewn-up, when Martin Iosefo fumbles the ball, it is Kurt Baker who proceeds to slap the player on the back. He openly mocks the US team, clapping and exhibiting a cocky attitude. It does not becoming of a professional sports person – Ben Pinkelman reacts by patting the Kiwi on the head, he is eyeballed by Isles and Baker has clearly antagonized the American players.

Baker reacts by holding up four fingers. Clearly signalling, that the USA Eagles 7s had been involved in four Cup finals, but had failed in all those finals.

Rubbing it in, you might say.

Baker plays with a hard edge, like Wallabies Legend

What Baker did reminds some of the actions of a Wallaby legend, George Gregan. He famously made a similar call in 2003, when his Australian team had the better of the All Blacks. Looking at New Zealand player Byron Kellagher, he called out “FOUR MORE YEARS” in reference to how the All Blacks had fumbled at repeated Rugby World Cups. The ‘verbal spray’ hit a nerve with fans and with players. True, yet it’s message came from being both competitive, as much as rubbing it in [not a conciliatory act].

0:14 – just before the final act of the game, Baker passes from dummy half. When tackled by Iosefo, Baker pulls the opposition player down, in a weak and somewhat pointless action. Nothing appalls others more, than ‘niggle’ and Baker pulling the player down was one of the actions he displayed, that spit in the face of many of World Rugby’s goals.

In a public statement,¬†World Rugby declared ‘In 2009 member Unions identified Integrity, Passion, Solidarity, Discipline and Respect as the defining characteristics of Rugby. These are now collectively known as the World Rugby Core Values and are incorporated within the World Rugby Playing Charter, a document which aims to ensure that Rugby maintains its unique character both on and off the field of play.’

Those Core Values enable participants immediately to understand the character of the Game. For those who have played the game since childhood, often the camaraderie and intent of ‘playing hard but fair’ is what makes rugby, and rugby sevens distinctive as a sport which is played by people of all shapes and sizes.

For the World Sevens Series, they must hold those values at the forefront. They must also inspire the Olympic ideals Рbeing an Olympic sport. They include; Friendship, Respect and Excellence, Determination, Inspiration, Courage and Equality.

Kurt Baker celebrates a try with a double thumbs up. It is often promoted by the World Sevens Series social media staff, yet the ‘niggle’ he displays should also be highlighted. It shouldn’t be ignored – poor behaviour is as public as celebration in rugby sevens.

Bad Behaviour and ‘niggle’ creeping into Rugby Sevens

When looking at the play-by-play behaviour of Kurt Baker in the Sydney Sevens cup final, it is only one example. Holding players in the tackle has been done for over a century. Complaints to the referee sometimes fall on deaf ears, as it is a minor indiscretion however, the combination of actions can take a toll. Interfering in the lineout got to a point that laws were brought in to halt players from ‘pushing the boundaries’.

Penalties for negative, or cynical play are much more common. More frequently, individual actions are focused on. On one occasion in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Richie McCaw was given a yellow card for an apparent trip of Argentine skipper Augustine Creevy.

That is not to say that McCaw was playing dirty, but his actions had a repercussion. Baker could also be seen to display actions, even taunting the opposition, which doesn’t sit well with fans of rugby sevens.

Dallen Stanford elaborates well on this topic, with further evidence and a good analysis of what this change in attitude might do to the game. In agreement, that while sports people will always play hard, the one basic rule must be ‘play fair’.

In fact, the HSBC Sevens Series promotes that value, with non-playing members of the team/reserves, wearing bibs with the hashtag #KeepRugbyClean. While it refers directly to doping in sport, it can also be seen as a reinforcement of the behaviours of players. If Kurt Baker, Danny Barrett and others – who play the game extremely hard, and close to the edge – are not checked, then it might influence those who support and who wish to participate in the game of rugby sevens.

Expressly using ‘niggle’ is not a desirable attitude for players. As Dallen Stanford mentions (above) ‘coaches yelling at referees can affect players behaviour’. In the same way, a senior player holding down a tackler, could be mimicked by new rugby sevens team members. Mix with that, the high rewards and prizes, and it could all become a game where the actions, behaviours and attitudes are ones that few might admire.

And that would be a huge blow to the sports image.

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Editors Note: This opinion piece is not indicative of the competing men’s or women’s teams, of the New Zealand team or, of the HSBC Sevens Series.

 

“Main photo credit”
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