Tuesday 26 March 2019

Bad sportsmanship is becoming a blight on our game - Nigel Owens is right to protect rugby's image

 

Owens: correct to take Simon Zebo to task over his try celebration against Ulster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Owens: correct to take Simon Zebo to task over his try celebration against Ulster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

I am a product of an era where letting the players sort out their differences on the field was seen as best practice - it allowed for a form of natural justice. And that laissez-faire attitude has been difficult to shake, at times clouding my judgment of the modern game.

I was disappointed to see that Simon Zebo wagging his finger at Michael Lowry was dominating the discourse after a thrilling weekend of European rugby, and initially - as I alluded to on Newstalk earlier this week - I felt Nigel Owens was wrong to scold the former Munster man and instruct him to apologise to his Ulster opponent.

To be fair to Zebo, he said sorry and doubled down on the sentiment by giving Lowry his Racing shirt, so I think all should be forgiven.

I suspect he recognised the error of his ways there and then. And if he didn't, the post-match furore will have rammed the message home.

Last weekend generated more than its fair share of sideline scandals - whether it was the violent scenes in Kerry Gaelic football or scuffles between management teams at Stamford Bridge. Zebo's throwaway gesture wasn't in the same ballpark.

However, having had some time to reflect, and after discussing the incident with Nigel Owens and John Lacey, my former team-mate and now international referee, I realise that while Zebo's gesture comes in at the lower end of the scale, it still qualifies as unsportsmanlike behaviour, which has become more apparent in professional rugby.

There is a code of respect in rugby, towards the opposition and officials, that remains the envy of many other field sports.

It is vital that the sport protects that image. World Rugby have already said as much and consequently have instructed referees to lead this particular fire-fight.

One my biggest bugbears in the modern game is the sarcastic, belittling patting of an opponent's head after they have given away a penalty or knocked the ball on. As a player, you feel bad enough when you let your team down, you don't need a smug opponent rubbing salt in the wound.

It's a tactic that is purely seeking a reaction and one that could ultimately trigger the kind of mass brawl that rugby was synonymous with many moons ago.

It is different to the banter and verbals that contribute to the acceptable psychological battles that are part and parcel of the game.

Last weekend was also noticeable - although it received considerably less coverage - for the continued crackdown on unsportsmanlike behaviour.

John Lacey, just like the Nigel Owens call the week before, overturned an on-field decision after an episode of condescending head-patting succeeded a knock-on.

Former Ireland international Ian Whitten spilled the ball and Castres' blindside flanker - and captain - Mathieu Babillot failed to lead by example; his poor conduct led to the French side facing a penalty rather than having the put-in to the scrum.

Seven days previously, in the Challenge Cup, Nigel Owens punished Clermont's Sebastien Vahaamahina for a similar offence against Northampton.

That same weekend, in the top-tier competition, Maro Itoje received plenty of criticism for taking the p**s out of Glasgow's players as they celebrated a try which, unbeknownst to them, had already been disallowed.

Unsavoury behaviour like this needs to be nipped in the bud; we don't want to start seeing these disrespectful acts trickling down to underage level.

The diving epidemic that has contaminated so many levels of soccer illustrates how damaging the unsportsmanlike conduct of global superstars can be.

Rugby's values have been outlined by the governing body as integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect.

The game is never going to be perfect but these are certainly targets that our players, coaches and supporters should be aspiring towards.

I am, of course, not preaching from some kind of holier-than-thou pedestal, having played the game on the edge for the entirety of my career, having milked a penalty or two in my time.

In my defence, it was the Heineken Cup final in 2008, we were 10-6 ahead with 30 minutes to play and, as I made my way back to the pack to prepare for a scrum, Fabien Pelous kicked me up the a**e, an offence which saw him sent to the sin-bin. It wasn't exactly Father Ted burying a boot in Bishop Brennan's rear end but I certainly made it known to the officials that contact had been made.

I met Fabien a few years later and said sorry for over-playing it, though touch judge Nigel Whitehouse may still have recommended a yellow card even had I not appealed to him.

I would argue that was less of a misdemeanour on my part than a lot of the stuff we are seeing now, but at least I recognised the error of my ways.

It's important that we protect and sanitise rugby's image but at the same time we must be careful not to scrub it so hard that it loses its character.

Celebrations after scoring tries (take note of the sequence, Freddie Burns) can add a bit of razzle-dazzle and entertainment, and offer a vehicle for the likes of Zebo to showcase his outgoing character in a positive way.

I'm sure Declan Kidney would disagree with me on that, mind you.

Notorious for his hatred of on-field celebrations, I recall Deccie tearing strips off none other than John Lacey after he deemed the Munster winger had enjoyed himself far too much in scoring a 76th-minute, match-winning try against Bourgoin in 1997.

The likes of Lacey and Owens have incredibly difficult jobs; the game's laws are numerous and at times rely heavily on interpretation. They are human and are bound to get things wrong from time to time, just like us commentators.

Referees are trying to protect the players and the sport that so many of us love - sometimes we can forget that in the heat of the moment.

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