One wonders which is done better - winning or losing. In some ways losing graciously is easier than winning graciously, but both can be revealing of character and personal balance.

Often those who crow loudest in victory are those who did not play and those who complain loudest in defeat are those who did not play.

Players know better than non-players what went into victory and the fickle status of being a victor. Up today may well be down tomorrow. Players tend to understand that. They also understand that in any sporting contest there is likely to be a winner and a loser.

If they are wise, players also respect opponents. Danie Craven, the wisest of men, used to stress the point that in rugby we play against opponents, not enemies. In war enemies are there to be killed but rugby is not a war. Without opponents we would not have a game, and opponents have the same rights that we have - the right to the protection of the laws of the game, the right to enjoy the game and - even - the right to win the game. Doc would say we play with, not against, opponents.

In days of yore there was a super custom in the Western Province. The home captain would call three cheers for the opposition and the opposition would reply in kind, and then the home captain would call for three cheers for the referee. It's not always like that now and the referee is often the first person losers howl against - which may be why in days of yore there was an oversubscription of referees in the Western Province and now a dearth.

After the cheers the players would shake hands. And watch the players nowadays as they form lines to shake hands. They do a lot better than many non-players do. Watch boxers, who have slammed against each other for round after round, and then collapse in a hug at the end of the fight. Watch the generous manners of golfers, and watch Roger Federer. There are many examples of gentlemanly respect and good manners amongst those who actually play.

Federer led big Jo-Wilfried two sets to love and eventually lost. After the winning point, Federer was up at the net, smiling and congratulating. Tsonga went off on a victory dance while Federer packed up. Federer waited. Tsonga returned packed and the two walked off the Wimbledon court, Federer holding back to let Tsonga go first.

Those with longer memories will remember the crowd running onto the field at Newlands to carry off Rhodesian players when Rhodesia beat Province for the first time and Springboks carrying off John Solomon, the Wallaby captain in 1953, when Australia beat South Africa at Newlands.

That is losing with grace.

This year UCT won the Varsity Cup, beating Tukkies in a gripping final. When the final whistle sounded there was an outburst of UCT glee - hugging and dancing. Through it all the UCT captain, Nick Fenton-Wells, pushed his way out to go and shake hands with the disappointed Tukkies players and thank them for the game.

That is winning with grace.

But then last weekend in a Super 15 play-off I saw a player put out his hand to lift an injured opponent. A while back when the Sharks played the Stormers I came across Frans Steyn, still in his togs, heading for the Newlands surgery to see how Jean de Villiers was after being injured in a Steyn tackle. It's Adam Gilchrist walking when he knows he hit the ball. It's about good manners and decency.

We are elated or disappointed but we learn to control/suppress elation and disappointment because we are men, not animals. That is why many find the new rugby habit of hugging and kissing when a try is scored or a trophy won foreign to the self-control the game requires. It was, apart from anything else, far more effective when a team turned blank-faced from a try - telling their opponents that this was not special as they were used to doing it and would do it again. And it would tell themselves that this was the culmination of a team effort, not a solo performance.

Strong men don't dance about in a frenzy of delight. Strong men don't gloat and brag. Strong men don't boo and sneer. Strong men don't have to cheat. Strong men don't howl in blame of a referee. Strong men don't make excuses. Losers do those things and they lose the battle to become better human beings as well.

We have wandered. But the ancient advice given to sportsmen still is valid: win as though you've lost and lose as though you've won.

By Paul Dobson