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'Milking it'- rugby union's burgeoning simulation problem

By Paul Smith

Trending on RugbyPass

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“That’s a bit of a soft penalty, he went down very easily.”

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We have all got very used to hearing this kind of analysis of televised football both during big international tournaments and in the English and Scottish Premier Leagues.

Not that long ago ‘diving’ was considered very ‘un-British’ – in fact the thought of a player trying to get a fellow professional sent off was anathema.

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But somewhere along the road from First Division to Premier League, BBC and ITV to Sky and BT Sport and £ thousands to £ millions that all changed.

While Italy’s theatrics in their recent Euro 2020 win over Spain were the tip of this particular iceberg, let’s not get too pious about it…after all the penalty with which England beat Denmark hardly resulted from a Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris style assault.

Comparisons between football and rugby union have always left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. Different sports with different cultures need treating as apples and pears in my view.

After all, even in the sanitised modern era, rugby players do still sometimes resort to the kind of physical excesses commonplace in the 1960’s and 70’s.

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Just because the players call the ref ‘sir’ and clap each other from the field at the end of the match our sport does not have sole ownership of the moral high ground.

But – and it’s a big one – rugby union has very rarely had an issue with simulation – that nice euphemism our round-ball brethren use for diving.

When France No.8 Anthony Jelonch fell to the ground clutching his head following Marika Koroibete’s robust challenge early in the third test in Brisbane, few therefore smelled a rat.

The Australian winger’s challenge was also fraught with risk due to the height and speed with which he arrived. At first glance it was entirely reasonable for the officials and the viewing audience to assume that Jelonch’s reaction was a direct result of significant direct head contact.

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Wallabies red card
Michael Hooper remonstrates with Ben O’Keefe /Getty

Since it occurred from a restart, the touch judge had a bird’s eye view of the clash – and the TMO was also quickly into action – with a red card being the result.

However, subsequent views quickly threw significant doubt on a decision which paid little heed to the mitigatory value of Jelonch’s sudden drop in height or to the initial point of contact being the shoulder rather than the head.

This pair of ‘wrongs’ were subsequently ‘righted’ at the appeal which as a result cleared Koroibete to immediately resume playing.

But far from being the end of the matter, controversy continues to rage around Jelonch’s disproportionate (and delayed) reaction to the contact.

Wallaby coach Dave Rennie, who pulled few post-match punches, is typical of the comments made by a number of former players and pundits.

“The one thing we’re concerned about as a sport – and is a really big concern of mine – is the amount of players that are staying down,” he said.

“That’s not what our sport should be about.

“If it’s genuine, no issue. But we shouldn’t be playing for penalties or cards, that’s for another code, that’s not us.

“We owe it to the sport and we owe it to the next generation not to do that. If you’re genuinely hurt, no one has an issue but we don’t want that.”

This is not to say that last weekend’s events in Brisbane are totally without precedent.

Plenty of Welsh fans of a certain vintage still growl at the mention of the name Andy Haden after the New Zealand captain won a 1978 match-clinching penalty with a Tom Daley style tumble from a last-minute lineout.

Both incidents – and the fact that a 40-plus year gap exists between them tells us how rare diving is in rugby – set a dangerous precedent for a sport which prides itself on its somewhat vague but nonetheless much vaunted ‘spirit of rugby.’

Let’s face it, simulation is not an especially easy bedfellow for respect, discipline and sportsmanship in our sport’s core value set.

As a former referee, what perhaps concerns me more is the possible knock-on effect that the arrival of more regular simulation at international and Premiership levels might have lower down the tree.

The vast majority of amateur whistlers take the field on their own – with a couple of press-ganged replacements running touch – and no ability to ask the TMO to revisit what has just happened in super slo-mo.

In this scenario you quickly learn to have eyes in the back of your head, and when to dwell rather than pursue the next phase of play, but being able to tell a dive from a genuine reaction adds another extremely problematic layer of complexity.

And imagine what happens at the bottom of the next ruck after a player is wrongly red carded for a supposedly dangerous tackle based on an opponent’s simulation…

Perhaps the arrival of biggish (albeit not by football standards) money at the top end of rugby union in the last 25 years makes this sort of ‘progress’ inevitable.

For instance, when I began refereeing in the early 1990’s I recall very little sledging between opponents. Having stood on the touchline while working at Wasps it is now totally commonplace – as seen when players goad opponents with mocking applause and back-pats following the award of a penalty.

Red and yellow cards arrived in English rugby in the late 90’s, but could we then imagine a player brandishing a ‘virtual’ card at a referee in an attempt to get an opponent sent to the sinbin? While it is far from a regular occurrence now, most of us will have seen it at some point.

On a similar note, it was instructive to hear Wayne Barnes chastise and threaten to penalise and card Stormers players attempting to ‘buy’ a penalty by holding in a Lions tackler who had landed on the wrong side on the ground.

And as a gauge of what now is and isn’t acceptable, how about Nigel Owens musing that Owen Farrell should have made a bigger issue of the blocking line taken by Damian De Allende during the Lions clash with South Africa A last week? This is not football…

Harlequins’ Tom Williams walks off with physio Steph Brennan to be replaced by Nick Evans (not in picture) as fake blood pours from his mouth (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

From the systemised cheating involved in Blood Gate and drug taking to blatant time-wasting, rugby union has followed a route experienced by other professional sports – and not just football.

We have a faster, more entertaining product than ever before but every coin has two sides.

It seems to me that this erosion of traditional values sits alongside increased injury risk as the less acceptable face of the modern professional game, and once again it is the community game where the pinch may well eventually be most felt.

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'Milking it'- rugby union's burgeoning simulation problem

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