History it seems has a habit of repeating itself in Scottish rugby and some ruts seem forever inescapable. And this has never been more apparent than in the past week.
The week started very much as it finished – you could even argue that it got worse.
But this is nothing to do with results or performance. This is to do with support and respect.
Last week, a player suddenly retired from the Scotland team. The player ranks tenth in all time appearances for Scotland, fourth in all time point scorers, tops the drop goal list, claimed many man of match awards representing his country, was instrumental in notable victories over England, Ireland, South Africa and the first ever Southern Hemisphere tour win in Argentina. He also appeared in two world cups and was voted Scotland player of the tournament by his teammates at one of those. For such a player to suddenly retire mid tournament, one would naturally assume that it was the result of an unfortunate injury. When you add the name Dan Parks, any such assumptions are quickly replaced by others far more damning for Scottish rugby, its media and its supporters.
The press were quick to point their fingers at the public citing all the cases of criticism and lack of support they could find. And they were right to – outside of Firhill (and its predecessors), Dan was never guaranteed the support and respect his considerable contribution to Scottish rugby’s fortunes deserved. However, the press were less keen to point out their own part in the story and the effect their own criticism had not only on Dan but on the way the public perceived and treated him.
Fair, however, isn’t the press’s primary concern. In Scotland, criticism of our national team, sells papers and gets page views. In the frustration of defeat, it’s easier to conspire with a reader’s desire for blame and apportionment than to fly the flag for performance, improvement and optimism.
Criticism can of course be fair and even helpful when it is restricted to a specific incident, match performance or even run of form. But unending, unyielding and unwarranted criticism served with an extra large side of pessimism is neither fair nor helpful.
The Scotland on Sunday’s match preview for Wales v Scotland was unrelenting in its predictions of failure. Article after article told that Scotland were not only going to be beaten but beaten well and beaten in just about every position and aspect of the game.
Yet the Scotland team that took to the pitch dominated the first half and played attractive, entertaining and free flowing rugby that would be a credit to any side in the world. The only problem was in that final pass and getting across the try line. It’s accepted that this down to confidence and hoped that at some point, good performances will breed the confidence to start scoring tries. But can a team really develop that confidence when they are constantly being sledge-hammered with negativity, criticism and pessimism by their own press?
Unfortunately, it is not only the media who are to blame.
Social media has given supporters tremendous opportunity to interact directly with pro-team and national side players but it has also given them tremendous power and a power that needs to be used responsibly.
Twitter has different implications from the newspaper comment sections and forums where hate and bile boil in anonymity and the comfort of knowing those you were insulting were almost certainly never to see your diatribe. Those mediums are distant and hands off.
Twitter is direct and hands on. It’s also instant, unmoderated and uncontrolled. Anybody can tweet anything about anyone and anyone else can retweet or reply including a mention of anyone else they like. And that’s what’s wonderful about it. But it’s also what’s dangerous about it when it comes to venting frustrations in the form of insults or unfair criticism of others.
While some seem to have few issues with @ mentioning those they are insulting or criticising directly, others choose to instead to only include their name. However, that does not mean it will not be seen by the player, their colleagues, their friends or their family as conversations develop and include accounts with followers other than those of the original poster. Hashtags and searches bring in an even wider array of readers. Would you be happy to tell @PhilBack he cannae play for toffee directly (or even to his face)? And if not, are you still happy to say Phil Back cannae play for toffee knowing there’s a chance someone else might RT it into his timeline?
Again the type of criticism is key. Phil Back may not care that you think he bodged a pass, tackle or kick – he may even agree. He may also agree that he was daft to concede that penalty, that he had a bad match or hasn’t been in his best form of late. But do you think calling him useless, saying he doesn’t try hard enough or telling him he should never play for Scotland again is so easy for him to shrug off? Do you think if he reads that over and over again, he’ll be able to play with the confidence we want and need to see for the team ever to achieve their full potential?
Dan Parks may not be on Twitter but that is no guarantee that the torrent of criticism and insults tweeted after his kick was charged down during last week’s Calcutta Cup (a team rather than individual error) didn’t filter through to him via friends, family and colleagues who do use the platform.
Hopefully all the positive remarks and well wishes tweeted about him after his retirement was announced were passed on. However, despite the criticism and regret for the treatment Dan had received, it seems supporters have been slow to learn from that lesson also.
Joining Parks in receiving criticism on Twitter after the England game was one of the better performers from that match who was told through an @ mention that he lacked one of the more fundamental skills of a rugby player. The player himself did not reply or retweet but one of his colleagues did step in to defend him. A colleague who was not mentioned in the original tweet and who did not follow the sender – clear indication that tweets can cut deep enough for players to discuss them amongst themselves.
On Thursday, insults were saved for the stands and a player’s mother abused.
And following the match in Wales, numerous players were the subject of some fair and a lot of not so fair criticism on Twitter. At least five players were deemed so bad that as well as criticism and even abuse, it was also suggested that they should never play for Scotland again. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Dan Parks wasn’t the first, isn’t the only and won’t be the last to be on the receiving end of unfair criticism from fans. Nor will he be the only one to have questioned whether continuing is worthwhile given the heartache and criticism they face.
There are a few things that set rugby players apart from those of us who watch from the stands or our sofas –talent, ability, dedication, determination and resilience being a few of them – but they are still people. People who sometimes make mistakes no matter how hard they try and people whose feelings can be hurt and confidence undermined by the misjudged words of others – particularly when those words are heard over and over again.
The psychological issues why Scottish teams struggle with confidence and killer edge are complex and deep rooted within our culture. However, confidence is infectious and confidence breeds confidence. The more people who chose to support the team positively rather than needlessly criticise, the more others will be encouraged to do the same. The potential is there to create a swell that will feed through to the team and actively assist in the creation of the confident, try-scoring side we know they have the talent and potential to be. And if miracles really do happen, it may just rub off on the media too and further boost the players’ confidence rather than chip away at it.