This weekend, England plays Ireland in Paris, hoping to set up a home semifinal against France in the Rugby World Cup.
As happens so often in sport, the conversation in the United Kingdom will center on one player and what he does. Dylan Hartley, England’s hooker, has been involved in controversy this week when he suggested he would not shake the hand of Irish captain Rory Best. “I don’t believe in that,” Hartley said. “I’ve got players who have been in that situation and I know what that’s like. I’ve seen guys get that reception.” In previous games between the two teams, he has been fined for his on-field behavior.
“If you’re playing the game as a sport and trying to progress it, you’re trying to build bridges,” said Matt Dawson, an English commentator. “I don’t believe in that,” he added. “I think that, to be in a rugby team, to be a part of a team, to play a sport, there is an obligation not to do that.”
Hartley’s comments are in contrast to those made by his opposite number, Rory Best, who was at the center of another national debate when he lifted his arm in the air during the national anthem before an Ireland-South Africa game in Paris last year. A video went viral, presenting Best as a hero but also as a symbol of the frustration and anger running high in Ireland over the issue of sectarianism in sport. The debate had been pitting veterans of the old Catholic political forces against modern social reformers on the far right.
“You know, isn’t it ridiculous when there are instances when players are linked in some way to politics, specifically with IRA — someone like Rory Best is a brave man and he stands up for what he believes in,” said Alan Jones, the former England captain, during a recent interview on CNN. “It is a tough little argument and it’s very hard to get across to the fans, but I think if you’re playing for Ireland or England that is a side of yourself you have to be proud of.
“You have to remember that Rory Best just happens to be wearing his jersey in France. It’s not a political statement of some kind. He’s not doing something offensive or threatening. He’s sticking up for the values and the beliefs of the Irish people and Irish rugby.”
As England has won its first two World Cup matches, mostly because of Hartley’s remarkable defense, the momentum has been pushing behind some fans. “He was disrespectful to the thousands of Irish supporters that made the trip to Paris. It’s beyond belief,” one Twickenham-based writer said. “That is why the Irish have adopted the don’t shake Rory Best kitty.”
“Well, it’s obvious,” another writer added. “A lovely gesture from the Irish fans, meant to send out a strong statement.”
But the bigger questions for the English, from Dawson, the commentator, to Jim White, the broadcaster, to Jones, the player, are how to react to the same gesture in the weeks and months ahead. There is no answer.
“Sometimes we love to see people stuck in a controversy in rugby,” said Jones. “In hockey, a player comes down the field with a stick and raises it for an intentional penalty. It gets very tense; the puck lands in the stands. Rugby doesn’t have that. But it’s like this with Rory Best and the hand. Do the players have a point?”