Bad losers need to look in the mirror
Now far be it for me to defend the ERC, the Dublin-based body charged with running the Heineken Cup. However, when it comes to self-serving rants then Brendan Venter and Richard Cockerill, head coaches at Saracens and Leicester respectively, take the biscuit.
Forget this nonsense about "concern for the game". It's amazing how these moral pillars of rugby only seem to come out with all guns blazing in the immediate aftermath of defeats.
Of course, there is validity in their gripe that the game has a problem. It has many, not least the contest at the breakdown and the sad pantomime called the scrum. But that is not the issue here.
Venter and Cockerill are shouting their mouths off driven by self-interest. Would Venter have lambasted all and sundry had Saracens beaten either Leinster at Wembley or Racing Metro at Vicarage Road? Would Cockerill have launched his tirade had Billy Twelvetrees put away two relatively straightforward penalties in the final quarter against Perpignan at Welford Road?
In failing to get the result they want, coaches always look for someone to ship the immediate blame onto. If it's not the players -- and Venter and Cockerill are smart enough not to lose their dressing-rooms -- then invariably the fault lies with the man in the middle and by extension with an organisation that had clearly designed rules and appointed referees to catch their team out!
Give us a break. The day a coach comes out and makes his rant having won a game will bring us closer to the point of taking him seriously.
Am I saying Venter and Cockerill are bad losers? For sure I am.
And no, I have never bought into this myth that bad losers make good coaches. On the contrary, the best coaches take the rough with the smooth on the pragmatic basis that over the course of a season, these things even themselves out.
When Michael Cheika first came to Leinster he was a loose cannon of similar ilk, having a go at officials left, right and centre when decisions and results failed to go his way.
Over time, he learned, and the change in his temperament was clear for all to see. That coaching moderation filters through to players. The coach who flies off the handle in a post-match interview is hardly likely to be measured and controlled in that mid-match crisis when rational analysis is required the most.
Don't get me wrong here -- I share Venter's frustration at the ever-changing laws. For the life of me, I couldn't swear by any rule of rugby from one season to the next, such is the rate of tinkering.
But let's be fair here -- at least the IRB are trying to address the ever-developing problems they see as they search for a more fluid, more attractive game for players, spectators and indeed referees.
As for referees? I am with them all the way. They have a thankless task and I particularly admire any former player who takes to the whistle upon retirement.
Of course, they have howlers from time to time. They are human after all.
But I do not believe there to be a top-class referee anywhere who is not scrupulously honest in every decision he makes.
More to the point, every professional set-up everywhere analyses the next referee, highlighting his idiosyncrasies in advance of kick-off.
Way back in our innocent amateur age, I recall Roly Meates putting together video presentations of forthcoming referees and then working in training with the purpose of staying on the right side of the whistle.
The referee may be wrong but for players mid-match his dogma holds and that should be the over-riding philosophy. They may be blind but they are never wrong.
Indeed -- and not helped by the farcical four-piece scrum instructions -- the referee is now the dominant figure in most games.
It is not how it should be. The best referees have long been little seen and seldom heard. But given that they do now play such a vocal part, it goes without saying that they should be listened to at all times. When a player is warned at the breakdown but carries on recklessly regardless, there should be no warning, just a yellow card -- plain and simple.
Players (and by extension coaches, yes even Saint Brendan and Blessed Richard) will push every law to the limit. It is the nature of what they do.
I have no issue with coaches being upset -- that, too, is human nature -- but it is the timing and the attempted spin at the soapbox sermon being done "in the best interests of the game" that irks me. Coaches care about themselves and their team.
The ERC is far from a perfect organisation but it has a great product and bit by bit is getting there. What it does not need is someone of Venter's stature performing like a prat in front of the media in a live interview, as he did after Saracens' home defeat to Racing Metro.
The ERC "expects key representatives of clubs participating in its tournaments to engage with the media in a co-operative and respectful manner". By misbehaving in the way he did, he let himself, his club, this great tournament and the game in general down -- and yes, I do have a sense of humour. Spare a thought, too, for any media commentator in similar circumstances just trying to do his job.
But this wasn't funny. Venter was a great player and is apparently a very promising coach. Cockerill likewise.
And here I share the view of colleague Peter Bills when asking what difference between Cockerill's comments and those of Venter aside from the style of delivery. If the ERC is to retain any semblance of credibility, then it must act with consistency.
There are many issues in rugby still to be addressed but there are ways and means and an appropriate time. Whatever else, when the adrenalin is pumping post-match is not it.
As the old year blends into the new, it is the type of problem the ERC could well do without.
Expect few tears in Huguenot House upon Venter's pending return to South Africa. Whatever else, Sarries playing Leicester will never be the same again.