His conduct during the World Cup has set the bar high

It’s a fair bet that a majority of Welsh supporters, bless ‘em, will still be splutteringly complaining about their captain’s World Cup red card not only past this Christmas but the next one, too – although the fact remains that Wales would have assuredly won that notorious Auckland semi-final against France if they had kicked just one of the handful of easy goals which they so wantonly squandered.

The one man who notably had no complaints about the referee’s drastic action was the 23-year-old captain himself, and the dignity and bearing of that mightily impressive preux chevalier Sam Warburton has been a glorious credit to rugby itself. So instead of denouncing Irish referees, the Welsh nation should be acclaiming hymns and arias to the chivalry and integrity of one of their own.

On that seemingly ruinous semi-final day Down Under, the young Welsh leader shone out with greatness, which not only enabled a worldwide game to feel proud of itself but made quite a few other ones sheepishly shamefaced and guiltily bang to rights.

When Warburton upended French wing Vincent Clerc less than 20 minutes into the crucial match, he at once realised referee Alain Rolland was obliged to rule by the letter of the law. “When Clerc went so far up I realised something was wrong.

My immediate reaction was to release him so he could begin to compete for the ball, but that was my mistake because I let him go too early, from about three foot in the air instead of the one foot allowed in the rule book. Sure, it’s a pretty grey area, and I was momentarily praying for just a yellow card, but really I’ve no justifiable complaints at all. I knew not to react badly, certainly not in a World Cup semi-final being witnessed by so many. So all I could do then was to sit quietly on the touchline as I knew there would be camera shots from every angle. Mind you, I couldn’t help feeling desperately disappointed inside, as well as being terribly embarrassed.”

He could have blown a purple-faced fuse – as a professional footballer would have. Or rallied his team-mates venomously to mob the referee as happens almost weekly in the round-ball Premier League – to inspire watching schoolboys to ape them the next time they themselves go out to play. For singular and collective abuse of officials – even when the players and whole world can see they’re right – is ingrained in junior football. Simply, phoney rage is accepted as part of the game.

Even the ex-player pundit knows there’s no going back – and even as I sighed I couldn’t help smiling on Match of the Day earlier this autumn when, in typically tautological mitigation, Alan Shearer pronounced: “In fairness, only one Arsenal player actually surrounded the referee.”

Already standards of junior grass-roots soccer are as anarchic as those at the top level – because the Copycat Law is so shamefully contagious.  Alas, I fancy, cricket might be on course to be the next great game to suffer.

So for all our faults, praise the Lord and give thanks for rugby – and one of its resplendent exemplars in young Sam Warburton. World Cup over, the first round of the 2011-12 Heineken Cup provided a non-stop bonanza of full houses, wall-to-wall TV coverage and a string of superlative eyeball-to-eyeball contests – and scarce a single sour note worth reporting.

Hurrah for rugby and although some in Wales might still see that World Cup red card as a wretched negative, seldom in any sport can a Negative have proved such a lustrous and gleaming Positive.

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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