An international sport as rooted in history as rugby has rarely featured the kneeling of players. But that’s what the entire game is discussing after Wasps’ Chris Robshaw and Saracens’ Duncan Taylor showed support for NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s protest by linking arms during the anthem ahead of Saturday’s Aviva Premiership match.
Of the 38,000-strong crowd in London’s Twickenham Stadium, only 10 were protesting with their hands over their hearts – a tiny proportion to judge by the millions tuning in to see the likes of Oliver Howes, Zach Mercer and Johnno Howe make a stand for freedom of speech.
The passionate reaction from football fans and administrators, who feel the game should never tolerate politics over the game, has been something of a surprise to rugby, with some critics bemoaning the lack of debate.
It was five years ago that former Leicester hooker Rob Andrew, the RFU’s chief executive from 2003 to 2014, famously questioned whether he was “letting the side down” by not condemning the team’s players, despite being openly pro-union.
So it was somewhat of a shock to see England captain Robshaw, who won 78 caps for his country and was recently awarded a CBE, and his opposite number Owen Farrell kneel down in support of a player protesting outside a workplace.
They did not publicly discuss their beliefs as they made their way back to the England side bus at the end of a rather lacklustre 21-9 defeat by Worcester.
“A huge percentage of our fan base, players and staff are raised in a society where what you say in public is what you say in private,” said RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie.
“That’s a big responsibility – when you get stuck in at Twickenham it’s very easy to lose sight of those rules.
“Whether we like it or not, as a sport we’re going to have to stand up and support our players.”
Ritchie said he was “very proud” of Robshaw’s actions and his position will strengthen throughout the season as more England players consider showing support for NFL team the San Francisco 49ers’ hard-running quarterback Kaepernick.
Elsewhere in rugby, New Zealand’s All Blacks have already said they will not support any other overseas player not doing the same, while South Africa will back any players who support the cause.
Robshaw said on Tuesday he had no regrets after the incident during the English club game.
“When you start speaking about politics it doesn’t usually end very well,” he said.
“I felt that I wanted to make a statement. For me, that statement was to stand and show solidarity.”
Kaepernick was booed by some Twickenham spectators as he warmed up ahead of the match and England team-mate Billy Vunipola added: “It’s too far, that’s where you get in trouble.”
The Lions and France have both already followed the international sport’s leading international footballing power with similar protests, while the sight of some rugby league players kneeling or linking arms in solidarity with either Kaepernick or international team-mate Chris Robshaw will always be remembered.