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The Joe Marler decision has thrown referees under the bus

By Paul Smith
(Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Harlequins)

The latest instalment of the Joe Marler soap opera seemed like a best-forgotten storm in a teacup, but then in stepped the RFU whose clumsy, ill-thought response instead guaranteed it will run and run. In case you somehow missed it, English rugby’s biggest self-publicist earned himself a six-week ban – with four suspended for reasons best known to those who sit in judgement on such matters – for verbally abusing Kiwi forward Jake Heenan about his mother during Harlequins’ Gallagher Premiership meeting with Bristol Bears last week.


At the subsequent disciplinary hearing, we discovered that Marler considered “Your mum’s a f***ing whore” to be standard vocabulary during a rugby match and that this only changes when the mother referenced is being treated for cancer.

In truth, while this language is pretty unsavoury it is far from new. Think back 30 years to Brian Moore winding up the French before, during and after every Five Nations meeting between England and France. Was it an exchange of polite front row chit-chat that so enraged Vincent Moscato on an infamous day in 1992 when France finished with 13 players? Probably not.

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Being Barbarians – Rugby Documentary
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Being Barbarians – Rugby Documentary

What has changed, however, is context. Back then English rugby’s powers that be made no attempt to claim the moral high ground. In those days beating your opponent up, shaking hands, buying him a beer and sharing a song was about as far as it went. Core values, mission statements, inclusivity and political correctness were something for the future.

Whether you think Joe Marler is a fun, off-the-wall, loveable rogue or you are with me in finding him an attention-seeking self-publicist whose attempts to build Brand Marler and fill his pockets are grindingly obvious and dull is irrelevant to this debate.


When you want parents to believe respect for others is at the heart of your sport it is impossible to simultaneously laugh off Marler’s latest indiscretion as boys being boys. The RFU cannot concurrently condone his sledging while also pompously playing the respect card – and this is why they lost no time in issuing the England loosehead with a ban.


However, by taking this course of action, the Twickenham shoot-yourself-in-the-foot brigade have immediately placed a huge Marler-shaped elephant in the corner of the room for those tasked with refereeing our sport. Referees across England have in recent years been tasked with delivering a pre-match lecture to both captains regarding their responsibility for ‘upholding rugby values.’

This catch-all relates to appealing for decisions, diving, mocking opponents who have made mistakes and dissent amongst other things. Policing this is far from straightforward but compared to the task that English rugby’s governing body have now set the men in the middle, it is a positive breeze.

This is because every time someone now opens their mouth to hurl invective, the opposition are fully aware that this is an offence which carries a two-match ban (sorry, I can’t acknowledge the nonsense about suspended sentences) and which the referee, therefore, has to deal with.

In turn, this requires officials across the land to actually pay some attention to the kind of verbal diarrhoea squabbling rugby players routinely spout and then make a decision on what is and isn’t acceptable. The alternative approach referees have historically favoured – tune it out – now risks the official spending his/her afternoon being criticised for inaction and blamed for any subsequent reprisals.


“Can you look out for their flanker hitting our scrum-half late” has been the kind of poser which has confronted referees since time immemorial, but they will seemingly also now need to decide whether commenting on an opponent’s mother’s preferred method of earning a living crosses an undefined ‘bad taste’ line. “He has hurt me” can now also be “he has hurt my feelings.”

Where a TMO is present, might we also find the effects microphone being cranked up? “I’m sorry Karl, I can’t quite hear if Harlequins’ No1 called the Bristol No7’s mother a whore or a bore. Can I have your best audio again please, director?”

Next time you hear someone banging on about rugby values and contrasting it with football via that old adage involving thugs and gentlemen, pause for a second and remember Joe Marler. But also – as the RFU are about to discover – never disregard the law of unintended consequence.


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