Rugby must heed the warning signs and stamp out dissent and abuse of officials

If dissent is tolerated at the highest echelons, it’s certain to be seen in the lower grades

I was recently asked a question in relation to player dissent and referee abuse, across the various sports. While doing my best to answer, it really got me thinking.

Here’s one thought – rugby may be hovering on the cusp of something it must avoid.

Hot on the heels of that very pertinent question came the news that Banbridge rugby club was ordered by the IRFU to play its home match against UCC behind closed doors with no spectators allowed to attend.

It followed incidents of match official abuse, by club supporters, in their fixture against fellow Ulster club, Malone. Banbridge have also issued a statement expressing their full backing for the IRFU’s Respect Initiative, and also for its approach to abuse of match officials.

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Across the water, in England, the problem is causing massive concern, to the point where the RFU is now deeply worried about not having enough referees to service the amateur game. That is very serious stuff indeed.

Dissent, either from players or coaching staff, breeds contempt, and, close to the borders of dissent, you’ll find the land of intimidation and abuse. There are some very disturbing elements creeping in, and these need to be cut out fast, by referees, players, and coaches. Otherwise, if “creep” is allowed to grow insidiously into “habit”, it will make itself a lot more than a nasty nuisance as it establishes itself in the culture of the game. Slippery slopes are dangerous, to be avoided, and this is one which needs very careful attention.

It also filters downwards to clubs and schools, on and off the pitch, and supporters add to the problem. It is particularly galling to see some (not all, by any means) schools coaches, arms spread wide, angrily shouting disagreement with the decisions of a man or woman, without whose voluntary presence there would be no match. Cop on, please.

In football dissent, and much worse, is now the accepted norm. Eyeball to eyeball haranguing of referees, by both coaches and players, is part and parcel of events, and very rarely is more than an eyebrow raised.

The recent case of Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp, whose quite frightening outburst to officialdom was met with a derisory fine of £37,000 and no suspension. Considering Klopp’s salary, reported at circa £16 million, it’s little more than an annoying blip on his, or Liverpool’s, balance sheet; it will alter precisely nothing.

Gaelic games face enormous problems where actual physical violence towards officials has escalated to levels where the Guards must be watching events very closely. It is beyond many, myself included, why an assault on a sports pitch should be treated any differently from if it occurred in a public place.

The GAA recently suspended an assailant for 96 weeks, and I honestly thought that was a misprint, or a bad joke. Expressed in months, “96″ would have some relevance, a deterrent effect. The GAA’s own regulations seem to ensnare them in an appeals system which can further weaken and reduce their own sanctions; they could usefully copy and paste a leaf out of rugby’s procedures into their own rulebook.

These procedures have correctly severe sanctions for abuse. At the top end, there is no shirking – strike a rugby official and you’re in line for a lifetime ban. That should give any potential perpetrator pause for thought.

Not all referees’ decisions are disputed, and, generally, players take their card medicine pretty well. But, without wishing to revisit Bundee Aki’s recent red card interaction with referee Gianlucca Gnechi, the point is that players take a high risk when pushing hard on the limits of acceptable behaviour. They need to be fully aware, if found guilty of abuse, then there’s not too much light at the end of the tunnel, they should take a trawl through World Rugby’s regulations on this topic.

Johnny Sexton, when captain, is fully within his rights to raise concerns, and to clarify decisions, but the issue is so much more about how these rights are exercised. Firstly, captains must remain in control of themselves, and not be aggressive towards the referee. So, while Sexton had every right to be upset in Leinster versus the Sharks, his approach to Welsh referee Craig Evans was highly questionable, unacceptable really, and potentially very counterproductive.

Referees are too often subjected to players arm-waving and vociferously appealing for, or against, decisions, and it is now becoming too much of a regular feature. If dissent is tolerated at the highest echelons, it’s certain to be seen in the lower grades where the danger of things boiling over is greater.

Undoubtedly, all of this can be controlled – it just needs the requisite will, because there is definitely a way. It involves, of course, the referees themselves, who need to approach these issues with zero tolerance, and not tell players “don’t speak to me like that again, or it’ll be a penalty”. Just give the penalty, and a card of whatever colour if it’s merited, don’t wait for repeat offences; the same referees are well able, and strong enough, to hand out the full range of sanctions for foul play, but seem to get stuck on this one. It needs a firmer resolve than has been evident up to now.

All stakeholders must look at what has happened in other sports, and not ignore rugby’s own current warning signs, they are flashing hard. Zero tolerance is also necessary from all unions and clubs; with coaches, both amateur and professional, having a vital responsibility to ensure appropriate player behaviour. The referee cohort must take the necessary on-field action, but cannot be expected to resolve this on their own – everyone has a part to play, and play it they must.

There are certain things in the game which must not be lost, and, right now, the long-valued ethos of respect for rugby referees needs total protection as it is being challenged.

Failure would see problems of a nature which would do inestimable damage, and inevitably create a future referee shortage. I mean, who’d bother?