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Calling time on backchat - Letter to the Editor

Football has many virtues. It also has some habits that rugby fans find confusing and distasteful. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so righteous, as these same habits are creeping into rugby.

Two things characterise the slow lurch to imitate football. Firstly, indiscriminate backchat to the referee. Secondly, feigning injury or melodrama to encourage sanctions.

Rugby has always coveted its reputation for lack of backchat to referees in contrast to football. Now, technology has enabled us to hear almost everything said on the field. This is a good thing. It brings the fans closer to the game: warts ‘n all.

The rugby referees panel have unintentionally contributed to the increase in backchat. Recently they have taken to calling all players (not just the captain) by their first names. Which, I don’t necessarily disagree with, but it breeds familiarity.

Two weeks ago Luke Pearce spent time virtually coaching Scarlett’s forwards how to defend a 5m lineout. Dialogue between the referee and the players has extended to praise, gratitude and criticism.

1. “Well done” if a player stops jackaling when they go off their feet (which is the law).
2. “Thank you” when a tackler stays on the ground and doesn’t interfere with the 9 to 10 passing lane.
3. ”You’re pushing him back in” when attacking players pin defenders to the ruck (hoping to extract a penalty)

This referee commentary should stop. Players feel entitled to discuss decisions with the referee while the game is in motion. The job of refereeing is already fiendishly difficult. Justifying decisions and thanking players is not necessary. This level of commentary from the referee has encouraged players to question and court the referee about his or her decisions as they move around the field in open play.

A second unintended consequence is that players have stopped judging the law for themselves. The referee tells players whether they are legal or not. As a result, a jackalling player thinks: “If I haven’t been communicated to by the referee, I’m legal”. Players should find out where the law lies via the referees whistle, not by following their commentary.

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Pressure breeds rule-manipulation. Look no further than Steve Smiths recent regrets, Team Sky allegations or Bloodgate. With so much at stake in professional sport, the line between the letter, and the spirit of the law is foggy. Much like diving for penalties in football, rugby is emerging with its own set of distasteful manipulations.

In particular:
1. Acting class – Nathan Catt demonstrates his theatric side immediately after Teimana Harrison’s head butt/knock. Or Vakatawa against Munster.
2. Coordinated bellowing – Where multiple players all ritualistically chant something at the official to encourage a decision. Such as holding up a player in the tackle (“Maul Maul Maul!”)

Two simple things should happen to address this. Firstly, referees should start ignoring and rebuffing idol chat from players. Something Romain Poite did masterfully to Val Rapava Ruskin in Gloucester’s excellent win over Connacht. Following that, referees should use free kicks more liberally for excessive backchat. Penalties would be overkill at this stage. Secondly, senior players and leaders could remind squads about their duty to uphold the core values of the game.

In isolation, these instances are rarely game-changing, but the cumulative effect is one that is scratching away at the fibre of rugby union; game by game. Recently there has been two homophobic slurs sanctioned and at Park Y Scarlets allegations of racism from fans. Thankfully we don’t have to worry about emulating football by segregating fans: yet. The preservation of one of the sports most laudable qualities is at stake. It must be protected.

This letter was submitted to RugbyPass by Richard Mayson. If you would like to submit a letter, please send it to media@rugbypass.com for consideration.

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Calling time on backchat - Letter to the Editor | RugbyPass