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.