Please rugby, don’t turn into football!

I follow (association) football before rugby union, but I am sure I am not the only football fan who has been enthralled by the Rugby World Cup. For me, most refreshing of all is the different culture of the game most obviously demonstrated by the respect shown for referees.

To see a burly Boer tell a man a full foot shorter than him “Sorry Sir” is an aspect of the game which should never be lost. It plays to an honesty and a camaraderie between all participants which has long, unfortunately, been lost to football at the highest level.

Yet there is a real risk that rugby, as it becomes more professional and more exposed to media scrutiny, will lose this culture (and consequent honesty and camaraderie) which make it so refreshing. That risk was evident yesterday.

In a wholly unexpected and frankly incomprehensible turn of events, Scotland, who had almost been eliminated in the previous game by tiny Samoa, found itself involved in an epic match against Australia, previously the tournament’s stand-out team. An intercept gave Scotland a try and conversion and a two-point lead with just seven minutes to play. A miraculous victory, and a long-awaited triumph for Northern Hemisphere over Southern Hemisphere, seemed nigh.

Yet the Scots contrived to lose a line-out near their own 22-metre line two minutes from time, and in the melee the ball bounced forward (from a Scottish point of view) into an offside Scottish hand, meaning a penalty to Australia.

There was some discussion about whose hand it had come off, with a suggestion that an Australian would merely have meant a scrum. Actually, as is so often the case with football, this merely served to show that the presenter and pundits did not know the laws of the game. Whose hand it came off was, in fact, redundant.


However, all the talk after the game was about the referee’s conduct. In football, this would be normal; but in rugby it did not strike me as loyal to the culture of the game. To use words like “disgusting” and to headline articles with stories about how a (widely respected) referee should now no longer officiate at international level is just not the way rugby works even if a mistake has been made (and also objectively ludicrous in this case, given the referee did not make a mistake). To re-emphasise: uninformed punditry from past players (but not past referees) is par for the course for football, but is not traditionally part of rugby. I fail to see how it is a good thing for rugby to follow football in this regard!

It was cruel. The Irish know only too well how it feels to seem set to steal a World Cup quarter final unexpectedly against Australia with a late try, only to have it seized away again with a last-gasp score (as happened in 1991). However, the rugby thing to do would be to focus on what an outstanding match it was, what a fine and unexpected effort the underdogs put up, and how well the Australians did to keep cool under pressure. If further discussion about crucial mistakes were really required, the obvious starting point was the decision to throw a line-out long so late in the game, which was always a risk particularly in the wet. Even if there is a dispute about the late penalty award (and, to emphasise, the farce in all this is that there really is not), the point to make is that the Australians were in strong position to kick three points anyway.

Let us be clear, paedophilia is “disgusting”; toddlers having shotguns is “disgusting”; a referee recognising he may not be popular and walking off the field quickly is perhaps “poor etiquette”, but we need to have some proportion – it is not “disgusting”.

We all say things in the emotional aftermath of a game, but rugby has a wonderful culture of respect, honesty and camaraderie. This culture should be maintained and promoted, not allowed to wither as the sport turns into football. It would do no harm to note what an astonishingly difficult game rugby is to referee – with more regulations covering the breakdown alone than there are for the entire game of association football! It would also do no harm to note that the referee had it right (just as he did when sending Wales’ Sam Warburton off in the last World Cup’s semi).

So I think it would be wise for some of those who got a little emotional to apologise to Mr Joubert; and for the commentary and punditry to focus on the wonderful entertainment and fine play this World Cup is providing, without an unhealthy focus on referees who are only doing their best (which is usually very good and always considerably better than the pundits expressing “disgust”) in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.


14 thoughts on “Please rugby, don’t turn into football!

  1. Sir says:

    It is absolute FARCE that ALL sports don’t represent N.I on the international scene, this highlights the disrespect and discrimination shown towards N.I, this concept ‘Ireland’ is the Republic Of Ireland in disguise, if people disagree with that they are in denial and also deluding themselves.

    • I agree with most of that.

      I want Northern Ireland represented.

      I don’t mind too much if that is done as part of an all-Ireland team or an all-UK team, as long as Northern Ireland is clearly represented.

      With the rugby team, it is not currently clearly represented. Not enough has been done, in terms of everything from symbols to songs, to ensure that the team is seen as inclusive of both jurisdictions and all traditions on the island. That may not be an immediate problem, but it is storing up issues for the future.

      • boondock says:

        Of all the sports in Ireland rugby is the most progressive. There is a new anthem and away from Dublin ONLY Irelands call is played, the overwhelming majority of flags and banners at games are the irfu flags or just green flags NOT Tricolours, even officially the provincial flag of Ulster flies next to the Tricolour. The people kicking a up fuss are the very same people that would happily bring their ulster banner to an Ulster (9 counties) rugby match and genuinely not see the irony. Do we even mention the IFA or is that like shooting fish in a barrel, even their own ‘extensive research’ into anthems comes back with the conclusion yep no need to change a thing lol. Most sports in Ireland are played on an all Ireland basis because the organisations were set up pre partition. Its not as simple as saying but we want our own national team. The structures are in place at all levels, historic competitions etc etc is that all to be thrown out the window. Golf is one of the best organised sports in this country and we are reaping the rewards with many many world class golfers. They are all members of the GUI and when they play in tournaments the boys from Northern Ireland are even given their little ulster banners on the scoreboards whether they like it or not and the great thing is no-one even cares where they are from only the World cup and olympics seem to have caused an issue here and in terms of golf both these tournaments are micky mouse events. What problems do you see in the future for rugby? In the height of the troubles, Northern protestants were happy to play for Ireland and Irish men from all over the island were happy to play for the British Lions. With all the progress that has happened why would players suddenly stop because of ‘issues’, please explain

  2. I get the issue Unionists have with an all-Ireland team,

    Yet it does have a “Home Nations Identity” that the FAI team lacks, a British and Irish Lions team that does keep a cultural union with GB… when Team GB completely shunned Northern Irish players at the Olympics.

    It still has its “club” games in GB by means of the Provincial Teams playing in Scotland and Wales, while in football this island has two clubs affectionately called GAWA and YBIG and club football in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland consistently lingers in the bottom half of European nations behind less populated nations.

    And there historic links Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and British Rule through the Triple Crown.

    Its Provincial sides have to play in Britain, Its players plays in a “British Isles” Team, and it team competes for a Trophy that emphasizes British Monarchist Rule over Ireland … and amazingly Irish Republicans don’t complain.

    It has all of that … and the added advantage of the skills of GAA players from Irish nationalist and Southern Irish background, funding from two states, a world class stadium in the Aviva and a competitive all Ireland league and provinces.

    I don’t think of it as “Republic of Ireland”, I don’t see the IRFU as FAI for rugby union, I don’t even see it as politically Irish nationalists … yes it represents an “Irish Nation” but not a country with all its laws, tax rules, currency, international diplomacy and local democracy.

    It was the FAI that split away from the all-Ireland IFA, and the future Republic of Ireland who demanded (rather partitionist manner) that the football team should represent the Southern Ireland and Irish nationalists attitudes of what Ireland was better and now its soccer teams is on life support from English leagues. If you count Jonjo Shelvey as playing in Wales, its team is sometimes as much English based as the actual English team.

    To me the IRFU is one that politics of all Ireland aside does represent both traditions, and one that has a British culture or a British Isles culture with an Irish culture, or an independent Irish culture, and indeed an independent Ulster or Northern Irish spirit too.

    There’s some suggestion that maybe there should be a Rugby Sevens team sent into the Commonwealth games, different sport, may as well be Wheelchair rugby.

    Strand One … Northern Ireland/Ulster does not have a strong Rugby Sevens reputation,

    Strand Two … Ireland has a whole does not have a strong Rugby Sevens reputation,

    Strand Three … Neither part of Ireland has any Rugby Seven players who’d be worthy of playing for a Great British side.

    I’d question the sporting reasons, the political reasons, or the business case for sending in a developing sport team that has no grassroots level development simply for political reasons. Would being cannon fodder for Papua New Guinea Sevens just to please armchair Ulstermen really help the sport develop here?

    I really don’t hope Rugby Union turns into football because football abandoned any generosity of spirit to respecting a non-country based definition of Irishness.

  3. Sir says:

    Identity is equally as important as winning when it comes to international sport, i was born in N.I so I expect every sport at any level within the international scene to be representing N.I, until this becomes a reality unfortunately I won’t be given my support to this current concept. As I said before, Northern Ireland should be represented within every sport at every level within the international scene.

    I believe they should rebrand ‘Northern Ireland Sport’, I.e. design a new flag, lyrically and musically create a new national anthem, every thing will be based in N.I like the national stadium, academy, headquarters for all sports to name a few things. Create a new culture, identity that every one can relate with. This would be an opportunity to unite everybody within N.I and harmonise the surroundings and atmosphere within N.I.

    This idea isn’t as far fetched as many people might think, if people within power cooperated with this idea this idea would happen a lot faster than people might think.

    This wouldnt be dividing N.I or the R.O.I, it be just be creating a sporting identity and culture for N.I and the R.O.I respectively. They can still do business etc with one another.

    • Your problem is that, basically, no one agrees with you!

      I don’t know of anyone who seriously promotes the concept of a separate Northern Irish rugby team. A separate cricket team would be a straightforward disaster, as it would set back any hope of Test status.

      Nor is “culture” something you can just “create”. Sports like rugby and cricket have a culture already. And it includes an all-island league and team in each case.

      That is not to discount your point. “Northern Irish” is a growing identity among young people and, if the IRFU and others do not move quickly to recognise it, it may well be that the case for a separate rugby team at least will gain traction.

      • I think sporting politics should be left to the sports officials, players and supporters involved. Surely these people define how they are created?

        Barry McGuigan can be born in the Republic and become a British champion as an Irishman even as a Northern Irishman, Eoin Morgan can be born in Dublin, captain England and still come back to Dublin identifying as Irish. Rory McIllroy and Trevor Ringland are British people who play for Ireland. Even in GAA you have the eccentricity of teams outside of the island like London and New York competing in an all-Ireland event, which don’t have all the counties of Ireland anyway. While In rugby union they have the London Irish.

        There are plenty of sports you would not see a Northern Irish or Irish or even a British team in, because the people don’t enough care to see them developed. Could you imagine a Northern Irish Tennis team? Who’s the most famous tennis player in Northern Ireland? Is it Ciatriona Ruane by any chance?

        So let’s respect their jurisprudence, there are sports in GB and Ireland that are England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or Ireland … Others GBNI.

        Here’s my radical political idea, Let the sportspeople design the sports identity, and the supporters create it.

        The IRFU as I’ve said before maintains British traditions and includes in the broadest sense of the word Irish ones too, does it need or even want a Northern Irish identity rather than simply a “proud province of Ulster” identity or something that is either distinctly British or Irish? What would it be?

        It cannot simply be a case of political vindication, it has to mean something. It can’t be flags and bunting and chants and anthems all while not knowing who or where is your nearest club that plays that sport is and not caring about it!

        Ash, George Best, The Titanic, Edward Carson or Carl Frampton can’t define Northern Irish rugby union, it would have to be the likes of Belfast Harlequins and City of Derry, and the players from here.

        Even on that point of politics surely there is something “Northern Irish” about accepting the varying degrees of Irishness and Britishness of people?

        People don’t stop watching sports when they’ve got no national interest in it

        Surely there’s a degree of madness juxtaposing national politics onto sport as if the Ulster Covenant defines one sports team and the Easter Rising another.

        Real nations fail to unite their people, it’s naive to think sport is going to do anything differently. Honduras and El Salvador had a war connected to sport, didn’t they?

        Sporting nations will organically self define just like political ones but adding some political imperative without the consent of the sportspeople is done for the love of politics, not for the love of sport.

  4. Sir says:

    By my idea not becoming a reality, in many ways it defeats the purpose of why N.I actually exists. It should either be ALL sports represent N.I or none at all.

    • West Germany won the biggest single-sport international competition on the world in 1990, the next year it no longer existed as Germany reunified. Is it not safe to assume that West Germany’s political existance, identity and social cohesion was not dependent on sporting ability, success or the number of sports their national team competed at?

  5. boondock says:

    On the actual topic, the problem for Joubert was that the incident happened with the last play of the game. If he made the call in the 25th minute it would have all been forgotten about. I know Ireland got spanked but the ref made some terrible decisions in that match too. It was a 3 point game when he bottled the sending off decision and worse still he actually cut off the TMO before he finished his analysis of the incident. In that match and every match for that matter there were crooked line outs, crooked put ins and forward passes, misinterpretations of the scrum and breakdown all ultimately leading to various points but no-one seems to be bothered because they didnt happen in the 79th minute of a tight game.

    • That’s spot on.

      Indeed I’ve rewatched the entire Australia-Scotland game (winding through the unimportant bits it takes less than an hour!) and I would raise serious question marks over Scotland’s first try and the penalty award which gave the Scots their last three points of the first half. There are 10 points right there, versus Australia’s three at the end!

      I thought it was outrageous that World Rugby publicised part of its review. I would, as you say, be very interested to see the review of the Ireland-Argentina ref!

    • My appologies, yes rugby shouldn’t turn into a sport of whinging prima donas like association football and the American sports.

  6. boondock says:

    Rugby has embraced video technology but they still have not got it right, The TMO should be watching the game and if he sees something the ref doesnt he should have the authority to call it just like a touch judge. We have had several ridiculous situations when instead of the ref just saying any reason why we cant award the try instead he ask the TMO to say check the grounding which maybe fine but he hasnt asked about the last pass being forward and the TMO cant tell him!!!! Its crazy!

  7. Sir says:

    Politics and Sport has mixed within recent history, the Good Friday Agreement allows people born in N.I to be able to represent ROI in football, people have selective memories when it comes to defending their point.

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