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Catherine's Column: 'What have we done to our game?'

BY Jack Tunney  ·  Wednesday May 22, 2024

Aged approximately 10 and three quarters I went to watch a live football match. First and last. It was my local club in a cup game. A school friend had a spare ticket, and I was the chosen one. I remember nothing of the game itself, I can’t remember if our team won. What I do remember was the chanting from the crowd that started even before the teams had taken to the field – “The Referee’s a W**ker, The Referee’s a W**ker, The Referee’s a W**ker”….. and on and on it went throughout the game. The endurance was quite something. I joined in for a minute or so and then realised what I was contributing to and stopped. I felt awful. Poor referee. Poor volunteer. Poor person with emotions and feelings.  The crowd were dishing out insults before he had even blown his whistle to start the game. In rugby I had not at this time experienced anything on this level. I had, of course, enjoyed some friendly banter. In the days when banter really was just that – defined as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks.”

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“Ah sir, he has been doing it all game” – approx. 2 mins and 20 seconds post kick off. And this continued throughout the ensuing 77 minutes and 40 seconds regardless of what was happening on the pitch. Like studs on changing room floors, it was a sound that was synonymous with the game. A background noise, amusing, there. Always there. You would see a smile from the referee if they heard. The comments really were meant in jest. Referee ‘bashing’ in some way or other has always been there but there was plenty of space, plenty of air between the basher and the referee. It was muted and softened. It was barely a bash, more of a friendly bump.

There has been an ever present, unwritten rule in rugby. Not found in the law book specifically but learnt through the socialisation of the norms and values of rugby.  Some decisions go your way – some don’t. This embedded and rooted understanding unified the sport from the men’s 4th team to minis and youth teams on Sunday mornings and to women’s or men’s internationals. The acceptance from players and spectators alike just went with the game. No debate. Some friendly conversation then a shrug of the shoulders. You win some, you lose some. Let’s go and get a beer and a steak and ale pie. Even after that Cueto ‘try’ in 2007 I remember having a very similar conversation. Heck, even Cueto himself is light-hearted about it.

But something happened. Technology happened. Social Media Happened. And with no warning the armchair keyboard warrior reared their ugly head. They deafened the skies with their capital letters and obliterated our beloved unwritten rule to pieces. But this was not enough for our keyboard warriors – they are now heavily on the attack. Hunting down and pounding the man or woman in the middle. Then preying on the man or woman in the truck. Even some of our commentators and pundits seem to have forgotten our unwritten rule. What have we done to our game?

With Ref cams, TMO replays, Austin Healey’s analysis; apparently, we can’t get enough. Inspired by the likes of Goggle Box we are now even watching our TMO’ watching re-plays. Scrutinising their every murmur, their every eyebrow lift. Our referees are under the microscope like never before.

Its coming from our commentators, from our coaches and some of our players will even answer back. There is no place for it in our game. But our keyboard warriors will take inspiration from this – they are going to join in too.  Our referees are used to being in the middle, but they always were hoisted upon a pedestal. No-one wanted to be one…but we respected them. Because we played rugby. Hand in hand. Mutually exclusive. But their pedestal is being pounded and they are having to shore up their defences. Toughen up their armour to get through the pre-game chat and post-game analysis. Analysis that is not conversational over a pint that disappears into beer fuelled vapour. It is not taken away by the cold breath from the stand. It is online. Rapidly typed but as a consequence of the enter key or submit button now etched on the online ether forever. One voice can reach an infinite number and the army grows. Our referees are finding themselves having to defend not just themselves but also their families. The voice of the keyboard warrior does not even need to be good or valid or correct to be heard and make an impact. What have we done?

I retired from the game just as technology was becoming more intrusive. I complained about the GPS tracker – how could that measure my ‘tactical’ fitness?! Technology has it’s uses but I think it is ruining rugby. With professionalism and sport run as a business (all be it not a very financially sound one) each decision counts. When directors of rugby are trying to please their stakeholders and hit their KPI’s there must be technology.  But this move to microscopic detail does not sit comfortably with me because it provides fuel that is not always used in a positive way. How can we get our unwritten rule back? It is on the extinct watch list but surely, we can re-introduce it. Who’s with me?!

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Written by former England captain, Catherine Spencer.

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