The past week has subtly demonstrated a worrying rugby trend. To put it bluntly, two unconnected pieces of news exposed the horrible sense of self-entitled hypocrisy we must all guard against.
Firstly, there was the Telegraph’s claim on April 28 that fans from different nations could be segregated at Rugby World Cup 2015, with opposing supporters seated separately in stadiums to improve atmosphere.
The story’s sensational language – “this could end up destroying one of the sport’s greatest traditions” – had the desired effect. There was a tsunami of displeasure and over 4,000 online readers voted against the proposals in a poll. Tournament organisers swiftly denied any such plans.
Four days later, Northampton Saints held Bath to a 19-all draw at The Rec. Except it wasn’t that simple. The final play merited a thorough report in itself.
With the hosts pressing for a win to guarantee a play-off berth, Courtney Lawes charged after George Ford with characteristically rapid line-speed. Too late to effect a fair tackle, he pulled out – but not early enough to prevent a body-check on Ford.
Immediately, touch judge Ashley Rowden’s flag flew out. Thinking there was a penalty advantage, Ford then aimed a drop-goal. It faded wide.
Rowden consulted with referee Matthew Carley, saying he thought there had been an offence. However, he wanted the television match official to confirm his inkling – an extremely modern, frustrating process.
Watching the big-screen replay calmly, Carley ruled that the collision between Lawes and Ford was accidental. He blew for full-time and, with Bath now needing to beat Harlequins to cement a semi spot, incensed sections of The Rec vented.
Northampton lock Christian Day walked off alongside Carley and heard the spikiest barbs. He felt compelled to take to Twitter. “Don’t care if [the ref] got it right or wrong,” posted Day. “Doesn’t belong in rugby.”
Herein lies an awkward irony. Less than a week after rugby supporters united in vehement reluctance to be treated like football followers and remain apart during games, a group of oval-ball fans stooped to soccer’s worst stereotype – abuse of officials.
Granted, the group of Bath dissenters was small, but sadly this was not an isolated incident. Though this Premiership campaign has seen some scintillating action, uglier instances have cropped up regularly. The nadir came a month ago when Tim Wigglesworth had cups thrown at him at Kingsholm. Imparting a TMO at every game has intensified scrutiny throughout the season.
These days, it is impossible for 80 minutes to pass without a call being questioned. Rugby’s ever-evolving law interpretations mean that is to be expected, but as rugby union grows as a professional entity – something made blindingly obvious by this season’s European merry-go-round – the financial stakes get higher. Without serious care, hostilities will rise proportionately.
Football is more mature as a professional sport and unsavoury conduct has undoubtedly been allowed to creep in. Even so, you don’t need to reflect on Nigel Owens’ one-liner to chippy Treviso scrum-half Tobias Botes in 2012 (“This is NOT soccer”) to realise parallels are appearing.
Queensland Reds skipper James Horwill is making a habit of towering over referees and whining after marginal calls. At six foot seven, the Wallaby could be accused of intimidation if he didn’t look so much like a spoiled eight-year-old while doing it.
Furthermore, as Clermont were being strangled by Saracens at Twickenham last Saturday, Morgan Parra bought a penalty from Owens by running away from the ball at a ruck and pretending he had tripped over Billy Vunipola.
Gamesmanship is nothing new – All Black Andy Haden wrote himself into rugby legend by diving at a lineout in 1978 to beat Wales – but Parra’s action was strikingly similar to the Premier League play-acting that is so often derided in rugby circles.
More transparency would be welcome. Having had the pleasure of interviewing the genial Luke Pearce back in October as he pored over an assessment document – a thing of vast detail listing every decision made and missed from the previous day’s clash between Saracens and Wasps – I can vouch for how assiduously RFU referees are reviewed. Maybe if punters knew about such protocol, slurs might ease. They have to somehow.
The worst possible reaction is to ignore matters. It is all too easy to get smug and hide behind actions like Toby Flood’s on Saturday, when the Toulouse-bound fly-half told JP Doyle he had been held up over the line. An admirable deed, but would he have done the same if Leicester Tigers were not coasting at 28-3 up and the afternoon had already been delayed by umpteen TMO referrals? Even Flood cannot know for sure.
Pompous, deluded jibes at football are not constructive. Improvement starts with a look in the mirror and fans are just as responsible for upholding the sport’s core values as players are, if not more so. Frankly, rugby folk have no right to bemoan segregation if they are hurling mindless insults around.
Just as fair physicality must trump thuggery on the field, respect, discipline and enjoyment must rise above abuse off it.