English rugby chief dismisses concerns over player behavior
Jun. 10, 2015
LONDON (AP) — As Prince Harry prepared to launch the Rugby World Cup trophy on the final leg of its global tour, the British royal listed the perceived attributes that makes rugby stand out from other sports.
"Rugby is a game built on values, respect, discipline," said the prince, in front of hundreds of flag-waving school kids at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.
Someone perhaps needs to tell this to members of England's rugby squad.
Reviving memories of the team's ill-fated World Cup campaign in 2011, England's preparations for its home tournament four years on have been dogged by incidents of misbehavior — on and off the field — that will deprive the squad of two, perhaps three, of its most high-profile players.
Powerful center Manu Tuilagi, identified by England coaches as the team's most valuable attacking weapon, was ruled out of the World Cup after being convicted of assaulting a taxi driver and two female police officers on a night out in April.
Hooker Dylan Hartley, the most capped player in the squad, was dropped for head-butting an opponent in his latest on-field indiscretion that took his career tally of suspensions to 54 weeks.
With flyhalf Danny Cipriani's World Cup hopes also in the balance after being arrested on suspicion of drunk-driving, England coach Stuart Lancaster has an ever-increasing rap sheet on his hands.
Wednesday marked 100 days to go until the World Cup, and was a chance for organizers to highlight how prepared they were for the biggest global sports tournament in 2015. Yet, one topic dominated the agenda.
"It's sad that the opportunity of a lifetime we've been talking about today, some of the players are going to miss it," said Ian Ritchie, chief executive of England's Rugby Football Union.
"I don't think there's an underlying problem. The culture that's been engendered over the last three years (under Lancaster) will come through during the course of the tournament. I know all of the players in the squad recognize their responsibilities and what an important year this will be."
Has the misbehaviour of Hartley and Tuilagi set England back?
"I don't think anything that's occurred dilutes that, one jot," Ritchie said.
Sitting across from Ritchie was Jonny Wilkinson, one of England's greatest players and the flyhalf who dropped the goal that won the team the Rugby World Cup in 2003.
Wilkinson was known for his commitment and unstinting work ethic, and never got in any trouble on or off the field. Yet he understands the traps that modern-day players can fall into because of the likes of social media and phone cameras, and said the pressure will ramp up the closer the World Cup gets.
"Players' private lives aren't quite what they were but it's just the interpretation of things, how people can read anything into what they see," Wilkinson said.
"Stuart has got his rules, and has set the culture and the standards he wants, and is sticking to them, which I think is the right thing to do."
Two million tickets have been sold for the tournament, raising 200 million pounds ($309 million), and organizers said they have raised more than the 80 million pounds ($124 million) it costs to host the tournament. Half a million rugby fans are expected to travel to England and Wales for a World Cup which is on track to be the best-attended and most-viewed in its 28-year history.
"This is the biggest year since 1871 when the union was founded," Ritchie said. "We need to seize the opportunity."
The cup kicks off on Sept. 18 with England vs. Fiji at Twickenham.