Defend Truth


Opportunity to use Wallaby Nic White’s Oscar-worthy antic as a teachable moment for rugby


Trevor Norwitz practises law in New York City. He was raised in Cape Town, attended SACS and UCT, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

Wallaby scrumhalf Nic White’s appalling gamesmanship could be used as a teachable moment if the authorities are serious about eradicating that type of behaviour.

After Nic White’s Oscar-worthy performance in Adelaide, the memes started even before half-time was over:

Who’s the best “Golden Girl” – Betty White or Nic White? 

Dallas Cowboys court Marika Koroibete; Eastenders court Nic White.

Wallaby Coaches announce secret collaboration with Lee Strasberg Acting Institute.

Poor Faf was just trying to shoo a shongololo from Nick’s upper lip.

After the match, with the Boks having (deservedly) lost, the comments were a little more caustic. Former Bok captain John Smit tweeted that White “just killed a bit of rugby’s soul”.  

Respected former referee Nigel Owens, who would famously dismiss theatricals with a terse “this is not soccer”, tweeted that the Wallaby scrumhalf “certainly was” lucky that he had not been officiating.

Legitimate frustration and sour grapes aside, this incident offers an important teachable moment for those – especially among young people – who love rugby and sport in general.

Some rugby fans may remember how in the quarterfinal of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, a Uruguayan player named Luis Suárez cynically used his hand to stop Ghana from scoring the winning goal and becoming the first African country to make the final four in a World Cup.

Essence of sport

In conversations with American friends, they were mystified that I was offended by his actions.

“Heads-up play,” they called it: you play to the rules and if fouling and suffering the consequences helps your team win, then that is what you should do.  

Since we were mostly lawyers, they likened it to the concept of an “efficient breach” of contract: if you sign a contract but it is more efficient to breach it and pay the damages than to fulfil it, then breaching it is economically rational and, in their view, morally defensible.

I strongly disagreed then and still do, in the case of sports at least. Is that really the lesson we want to teach our children: that it is okay, even desirable, to cheat, if that helps you win?

The contract comparison is a false analogy (and even there, parties who routinely breach contracts lose credibility and become undesirable partners).

But sport is not commerce: there is a concept – a spirit and an ideal – of sportsmanship that is the essence of sport. This ideal – encompassing fair play, integrity, honour and goodwill towards one’s opponent – is an ancient one.  

Sophocles said: “I would prefer even to lose with honour than to win by cheating.” That is why we teach our young players that, even as they should practise and try their hardest to win, it is ultimately not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that matters. 

Nowhere is this more true than in rugby where, as I have written before, rough justice – even injustice – is just part and parcel of the game. Given the rules and the difficulty of applying them, when two teams are closely matched on the day, the winner will usually be decided by the bounce of the ball or the referee’s whistle.

The only way to be assured of victory is complete domination (which the Springboks certainly did not achieve in their last matches against the All Blacks or the Wallabies, despite some unlucky officiating decisions).

Rogue’s gallery

In terms of how he played the game, it is likely that Nic White is feeling a little sheepish right now. He has for the moment joined (in a minor role) that rogue’s gallery of athletes whose legacy lies not in their sporting brilliance but in their willingness to cheat to win. 

These include Luis Suárez, the biter, Diego Maradona with his “hand of God”, Aussie cricket captain Greg Chappell, who instructed brother Trevor to bowl underhand to stop the possibility of a six off the last ball against New Zealand, and Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds with their doping shenanigans. 

Soccer: Chewy Luis sings the blues

While clearly not as dreadful as the sustained violation of those using illegal substances, White’s dramatics were in a sense worse than the “crimes of passion” committed by the likes of Suárez and Maradona, or your typical everyday soccer dive.

He had the ball in hand and could have ensured a solid clearance, but instead chose to jeopardise his team’s possession and position by acting mortally wounded.

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Faf de Klerk drove him over his own goal line and, had the officiating been sensible, the result would have been a Springbok scrum (or even penalty) with the high likelihood of a score.

It is bad enough to ham it up when the ball is not in play, but choosing to act rather than play while the ball is alive – in the hope that the referee will reward your antics and knowing that if they don’t fall for it, your team is screwed – is the height of cynicism.  

Not to linger on the officials’ error, but the absurdity of yellow-carding the Springbok scrumhalf for accidently (and admittedly stupidly) touching his opposing number’s face, is heightened by the juxtaposition with their refusal a few seconds earlier.

Cheat to win

They refused to even review the dangerous high-speed flying shoulder charge of Marika Koroibete on Makazole Mapimpi that denied a certain try.

Even if the officials considered that Faf had committed a violation (and if accidently touching an opponent’s face is a violation, they certainly were not applying that rule consistently), White’s unsportsmanlike conduct (in violation of law 9, rule 27) provided more than enough grounds to flip the penalty or disregard both and go to the 5m scrum.  

The sad outcome of the episode is the lesson that young players will take away from all of this. After being dangerously assaulted, Mapimpi stood up immediately, shook off the pain and played on.

After being pinkie-snicked, White fell to his knees and raised his eyes to the heavens like Bottom’s Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Thus die I, thus, thus, thus. Now am I dead. Now am I fled; Tongue, lose thy light; Moon take thy flight…”) and was rewarded with a game-changing yellow card. Lesson for youngsters: cheat to win.

In truth, Mapimpi probably should have stayed down for a few minutes – no one would have begrudged him that after being hit by a runaway freight train – so that the officials would have been forced to look at that no-arms “tackle” even if they didn’t want to.

As was evident in the last Springboks-All Blacks tussle, the referee’s decision of when to employ the powerful review technology available to them can be outcome-determinative. It can also – as I wrote before – be affected by implicit bias and deference, something World Rugby should train its referees to be aware of and counter. 

The good news for the Springboks is that they will not have to wait long for their opportunity to redeem themselves or perhaps just to re-establish rough justice.

The good news for Nic White is that he does not have to stay in the rogue’s gallery. He can easily redeem himself and take advantage of this teachable moment by announcing that he recognises his actions were wrong and unsportsmanlike, with a promise that he will not do it again. DM


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  • Jon Quirk says:

    Its an interesting question; how to tackle a guy diving, probably pretty much horizontally, from a few metres out, to score a try? The game would be lessened if, by the act of diving, it made any legal tackle, impossible, so my view would be that, both are trying their damndest to get the result they want.

    Of course there may come time that serious injury may result – but the electrifying impact of that Koribeti “collision” will stay with me for some time, and of course, unlike Nick White, Mapimpi just picked himself up, dusted himself down and just got on with the game ….

  • Alley Cat says:

    What a great take on a ridiculous situation. Never thought of the ramifications as you have explained them. Hopefully young players of the future will emulate Mapimpi and not that Aussie clown!

  • Grenville Wilson says:

    Come on with the advent of professional sport long gone are the days where winning at all costs was frowned upon(The Boks are masters at winning at any cost at the expense of attractive running rugby) long gone are the days where “This ideal – encompassing fair play, integrity, honour and goodwill towards one’s opponent – is an ancient one” drives participation (I draw your attention to the way Bok supporters drown out the Haka when we play the All Blacks at home.. I was at Mbombela it is embarrassing to be a Bok supporter…I ask you is this a lesson you want youngsters to learn?). Long gone is the idea…”That is why we teach our young players that, even as they should practise and try their hardest to win, it is ultimately not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that matters.”(I challenge your claim that this is taught any where when it comes to Pro sport). Finally I have to say that a major part of the problem is how sporting journalists write about the game, if the home team loses the dialogue is always about how bad the ref
    was and how it turned the game, how badly the home team played, blah blah blah, and finally this takes the cake, how the opposition cheated??? The dialogue never gives credit to the away team as to how well they played and quite simply that they outplayed the home team, and really calling them cheats is scraping the barrel, really poor journalism, maybe there is a lot more to be learnt from this article than meets the eye.

  • Margaret Jensen says:

    I cannot see the unscrupulous Nic White acknowledging his wrong doing!!!

  • Anne Felgate says:

    What an excellent article
    I had a good laugh and felt much better
    Faf is my favourite player and I love the way he laughs at the opponent
    Nic White will never apologize and he will be the loser in the long term
    Parents and coaches should use this episode as a lesson on sportsmanship
    Unlike the English side refusing to put on their silver medals after the World Cup which was very poor
    Rugby will always be a game for thugs played by gentlemen
    South Africans have a good code of conduct and we need to ensure we don’t lose it

  • James Butler says:

    If everyone who accidentally clipped someone else’s cheek in rugby, in both on- and off-the-ball incidents, was sent off, the game arguably would not exist. Don’t even consider similar clips to the ear, nose, chin, scalp, hair! The words, to “nick” or “nicking someone”, have suddenly assumed an eponymous significance.

    • Gavin Wilson says:

      One eyed Bok diehards need to be reminded that Faf was cynical when he attempted to knock the ball out of Nic White’s hands. This is an offence that results in a penalty, and/or yellowcard!
      These same supporters who drown out the Haka are a bad example to the youth embarking on their sporting careers.

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