Rugby players’ banter in 140 characters

TWITTER users are among the most liberal groups in Britain. They helped break the Guardian’s court injunction which banned them from reporting the mining company Trafigura. They attacked Jan Moir’s article in the Daily Mail on the death of gay pop star Stephen Gately. And the historical figures they would follow include Churchill, Jesus and Darwin.

So said a survey carried out by Prospect magazine last December. It also found 76 percent of the population have no intention of using the social media site. But this micro-blogging service has also become popular among rugby players here in Wales.

At least 20 players from the four Welsh rugby regions are actively tweeting. But about what? The diet of one rugby player includes a bedtime snack of crumpets with peanut butter and jam, and Ospreys and Irish winger Tommy Bowe is no film critic, as his recommendation of George Clooney’s Up In The Air was lambasted by his team-mates.

It seems the good-natured, playful and teasing remarks of the practice of banter is rife. The Urban Dictionary says it is a “term used to describe activities or chat that is playful, intelligent and original.” Okay. Perhaps the middle descriptive is not entirely apt on this study. But spend some time following the rugby players and it’s clear tomfoolery is alive.

@RichieRees snaps @Jamiehuwroberts

Wales and Neath-Swansea Ospreys’ lock-forward Ian Gough (@Goughy4), 33, has been on Twitter for a few months. Judging by his 941 tweets (at the last count) he is quite an avid user, and is being followed by more than 1,100 people.

He said he had been encouraged to sign up since most of his colleagues at the Ospreys are tweeters.  “It’s quite funny for the banter,” he said.

Ospreys’ back-row Tom Smith (@TomSmith8), 24, told me he was forced onto the Twitter scene by friends at the club who made him an account. Like his team-mates he goes on it to “check banter with mates”.

Where does this apparent obsession with banter come from? Mr Stevens, the traditional English butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, struggled to get to grips with banter. “This business of banterng is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm,” he says.

Despite being made into an Academy-Award nominated film starring Anthony Hopkins, I suspect this is not the source, since our rugby players discharge banter with great enthusiasm.

It is more likely to have been fuelled by the culture that has spawned digital television channel Dave. Re-airing programmes like Top Gear and the Royle Family, which would feasibly be the entertainment of choice for rugby players, it boasts the tagline “the home of witty banter”.

Sonny Parker tweets with the army

So what if you follow Wales and Ospreys centre Sonny Parker (@sonnytoiparker)? In recent days you would have had an insight through video and photographs into the Ospreys’ army camp training weekend. Asked why he uses Twitter he said: “Banter! That’s it! You only have to be careful on what you write if you have something to hide!”

The very public nature of Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, means those rugby players online have to display care in the content of their tweets. Last month two found themselves at the centre of controversy when their banter brought allegations of homophobia.

After a particularly tough training session, Ian Evans, 25, posted: “Legs and ass are in bits, can’t move”. Fellow team-mate, Jonathan Thomas, replied: ““U gotta stop hanging around with Nigel Owens!”

Owens, who is one of the world’s leading referees and who is gay, was not offended, though Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner labelled Thomas a homophobe.

The episode illustrated just how a platform which can seem to be private when messaging friends, is very much in the public domain and under the media spotlight. Now Evans and Thomas appear to have taken a leave of absence from the Twitter world. Their pages @IanYantoEvans and @xJT6x do not exist any more.

Gough acknowledged the very public nature of the micro-blogging site required caution. He said: “Having seen a lot of people end up in the press regarding their quotes then you realise how careful you have to be.

“But as long as your aware the press are reading and not to put anything too outrageous it’s all okay.”

Alun Wyn Jones (@AWJ456) lies on Ireland

Gareth Thomas (@gareththomas14), Wales and Lions skipper and current Cardiff Blues’ player, posted on his Twitter page: “Just understand dudes, things written on here end up as quotes in the paper. I can feel them watching us all.”

The Welsh Rugby Union have recognised this and before the start of this year’s Six Nations campaign the Welsh squad received a social media briefing from a media lawyer.

Wales head coach Warren Gatland said: “Someone from Schillings talked about Facebook, Twitter and Bebo, those sorts of things.

“We are living in such a global world and things have changed. We are just making players aware of the dangers.”

Simon Rimmer, a spokesman for the WRU, said: “Social networking has an important role for the WRU in communicating with fans and other stakeholders and the medium also has that role for players if used in the right way.

He said there was no formal policy in place relating to players’ conduct on social media.

“Caution is advised but players are adults with their own lives and are treated as such. Players are advised to be careful and offered legal and PR help whenever necessary.

“There is also a Players’ Association which offers similar advice and players will get the same kind of support from their agents and from their regions.”

Roberts snapping Rees reading about himself

The Cardiff Blues echoed the WRU. Gwydion Griffiths, PR and marketing manager said: “We would like to think that they are wise enough and intelligent enough to know what to put on their Twitter pages.

“We treat them like adults and it’s up to them what they put on their own twitter pages.”

A spokesman for the Ospreys said: “There is nothing formal in place, but we are constantly reviewing and evaluating it as a matter of course.”

The Newport Gwent Dragons said: “All of our players are aware that they are high-profile professional sportsmen and that represent the Region as well as themselves in their interactions with the public.

“The players are advised that any activity on social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook constitute public statement and that they should bear this in mind when using such sites.”

Rest assured. While Wales has so far struggled to have much fun on the field this season, their pre and post-match tweets show humour remains in abundance in Welsh rugby.

The Llanelli Scarlets were contacted for a comment but had not replied by the time of publication.

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