As CVC invests huge sums in the Six Nations and Premiership while international, Premiership and Championship crowds and TV audiences increase, few would dispute that top-level rugby union’s popularity is booming.
But what is the lure that first brings players to the grassroots of the sport or fans to their local semi-pro or professional club?
As someone who was drawn to rugby 40-plus years ago as a schoolboy, and has continued that love affair through a low-level playing career, 800-plus games as a referee and 11 seasons as a broadcaster and journalist, rugby’s attraction has always been about more than playing skills, fitness levels and tactics.
Rugby has always had a team ethic and culture very much of its own. Trade blows with your opposite number then shake his hand and buy him a pint. Respect is important in a number of ways – both on the pitch but also on a wider level in how we view the sport’s great traditions. The Lions, the Springboks, the All Blacks, super-talented Pacific Islanders, the Calcutta Cup, Welsh derby games, the Bledisloe Cup, sevens in the Borders, whole towns stopping for a match in South West France – the list is endless.
Perhaps more than any other team sport, rugby has always been about discipline and positive attitude. Dish out and receive huge hits then dust yourself down and carry on for the good of your team. Listen to your coach then follow your captain into battle, play the whistle and respect the ref.
Pleasingly, most of this culture survives in the modern age – but not all of it, since with each passing season attitudes towards match officials are hardening and officiating is becoming less enjoyable at all levels.
As someone who still also occasionally blows the whistle when the Warwickshire Referees’ Society has scraped the bottom of every other barrel, I confess to having a vested interest in this. But even for those without my personal sensibilities, this weekend’s rugby has surely shone a light on this worrying trend.
Wales fly half Dan Biggar’s general behaviour, and in particular his frequent verbal assaults on referee Matthew Carley during his country’s defeat by France was unedifying at best. Johnny Sexton also had plenty to say at times during Ireland’s Twickenham defeat while many other modern players – Owen Farrell and Gregg Laidlaw spring readily to mind – have too often in recent seasons aggressively challenged officialdom.
Fans love passion and commitment to the cause, while international sport is all about winning, but does this justify hostile body language and the continual haranguing of the officials?
In the late 1990’s I was fortunate enough to referee World Cup winning flanker Richard Hill who in the eyes of many is one of England’s best-ever forwards. I heard him once in 80 minutes – “would you mind looking at this please sir?” Did this make ‘the man in the shadows’ any less of a winner?
Rugby ref.net provides plenty of interesting Twitter content – and in parallel with this weekend’s Six Nations action, one of its followers – a level seven referee – posted:
“Getting very despondent with refereeing. This season has seen a significant increase in players appealing/dissent/abuse. Time to retire soon.”
Among the chain of responses another official tweeted: “I stopped refereeing after 25 years when abuse of the referee was on the increase.”
What happens on TV – both good and bad – is eventually played out local level. If it’s OK for a guy earning mega-bucks to represent his country to question every decision, that other budding No.10’s will similarly seek to “get an edge” for his team…
Despite the growth of the women’s game and the continued popularity of mini-rugby, there has never been less junior club rugby played. Nonetheless, our sport still has too few referees, meaning matches take place without a trained official. Referee recruitment rates are good but retention is another matter, which tells its own story.
My move to the press box has also highlighted that off-field attitudes to match officials have also changed. One Championship club’s director of rugby views all his club’s home matches alongside his coaching team in seats adjacent to the press area, from where they loudly and confrontationally challenge a huge number of decisions.
Having experienced this many times, their angry outbursts are not limited to one-off occasions – this is their default mode. Sometimes their assessment of the officials’ decision-making is correct, but more often they are voicing a “one-eyed” view. Their opinions are also wrong in law more often than you might expect. While we have to accept that this group are under extreme pressure during a Saturday afternoon, they are also within earshot of several hundred spectators and their players – all of whose ongoing attitude towards the officials is negatively influenced by what they hear from some highly-qualified and experienced men.
I am a huge fan of my two fellow ‘Cov skins’ Andy Goode and Jim Hamilton’s weekly podcast – the Rugby Pod – which mixes interesting insight with a lot of irreverent humour (I’m too old to use the word ‘banter’). But even Goodey and big Jim reflect these changing attitudes when they routinely ridicule top-level French referees, despite the fact that four of them were selected for the recent World Cup and Jerome Garces was considered capable enough to control the final. Would they subject one of the top 20 players in the world to the same blanket, off-the-cuff criticism?
I often hear a distinction made between rugby’s upper echelons and the rest. But just because the referee is being paid – which, incidentally, none below level four are – he/she surely does not become a legitimate verbal target for players, coaches or fans?
I dislike comparisons between football and rugby, as they are very different sports – chalk and cheese in many ways. Despite this, restoring respect for the man with the whistle is a widely-held objective of the round-ball game, although sadly that particular horse appears to have long since bolted.
It is time to act. Everyone who loves rugby – and especially those who earn their living from the sport – need to take a look at football’s Premiership and ensure our sport is not in a similar place in ten years’ time. There is still time to save something which forms a big part of rugby’s unique culture – let’s not waste it.
Watch: Catch up on all the action from Round 6 of the Japanese Top League
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