England’s top rugby coach is worried players have been ‘hung out to dry’ by Premiership bosses after clubs were told to come up with their own pre-match tributes to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Unlike in football and cricket – where all players take a knee as a symbolic mark of respect before play – rugby’s response this weekend will be a hodge-podge of approaches.
Players from Harlequins, Leicester and Wasps will take a knee but there is not a uniform approach, with other clubs choosing to gather in huddles, heart shapes or to wear anti-racism T-shirts.
And Rob Baxter, director of rugby at Exeter Chiefs, is concerned that by not coming up with a uniform decision, Premiership Rugby have placed a heavy burden on players.
‘I am a little surprised that Premiership Rugby went this way,’ said Baxter who now thinks players will be singled out depending on what they do this weekend.
‘Just dropping it on clubs and saying “there you go, do what you like” is like hanging some players out to dry.
‘I don’t know how much positive press players will get if they have a different opinion, which is something we should embrace.’
Premiership Rugby conducted a Zoom call with club owners, coaches and others on Tuesday where it is understood many expressed frustrations the league had not made the decision.
While distancing themselves from the political arm of the Black Lives Matter movement, the league have come up with their own slogan ‘Rugby Against Racism’.
Leading the tricky conversations across clubs have been former England, Lions and Harlequins winger Ugo Monye and former England Sevens player James Bailey.
They said: ‘We are not endorsing a political ideology. We are uniting as players to combat racial discrimination, in our sport and in society.’
There will now be varied tributes. Sportsmail understands after a minute’s silence for the NHS and those who have died during the pandemic, teams will gather for kick-off and then perform their gesture after the referee blows to start the game.
Bristol will form a heart-shape, Northampton a circle, Bath will huddle and at the Gloucester versus Worcester match the teams will form ‘V’ formations.
London Irish, Saracens and Sale will wear T-shirts with the ‘Rugby Against Racism’ message.
Exeter will leave their players to decide individually what they want to do.
Baxter added: ‘Our players have decided what they want to do and I’m going to leave them to do that. They will take the stand together as ‘Rugby Against Racism’ 100 per cent. This hasn’t been forced by us as a club, it’s been led by the players and we will support them in whatever they choose to do.’
While fully behind the fight for equality, Baxter is also wary of the impact of these tributes wearing thin over time and rugby becoming overly political. He said: ‘Let’s remember: we are a sport, we are here to entertain people, let’s get back to being a sport and not trying to be a political tool.’