Corinthian spirit?

This is definitely about ‘Stuff’ and not writing – but it is writing about stuff.

I played rugby. Not brilliantly. I didn’t like it much at school until it stopped being compulsory and became a choice. As soon as it did, I loved it. I had a lot of ground to make up, but I was keen. I used to sneak back in for after school rugby training, having first sneaked out of school for a free afternoon.

My playing days are long gone. When I sat down to add up exactly how long, I was shocked to discover it was 20 years since I last graced (as if) a rugby pitch in anger. I didn’t want to become one of those people who hung around club houses imitating the Ancient Mariner, stopping one of three and telling them what a great player I had been, and how the game wasn’t what is was in my day. So I went off to do other things. I still watch however.

The game has changed of course. It is both the curse and the glory of Rugby Union that its administrators are dedicated Maoists. Committed to perpetual revolution, hardly a season goes by, without a law change or at least a major re-interpretation of existing directives. But the main change has been professionalism. I don’t have any moral qualms about this. I do have some practical concerns about where it is leading the attitudes of some in the game and the undermining of certain basic tenets of the game’s ethos as a whole.

Referees were sacrosanct in rugby (both codes). You didn’t get the verbal onslaught that football referees have to put up with, nor the jostling, pushing, and outright occasional violence against officials that mars professional football. Touch a rugby union referee and it was automatically a ban. The length of which depended on the scale of the touch. But it almost never happened. I can think of one incident I watched where a player, accidentally he claimed, pushed a referee. He received a lengthy ban.

There were feedback channels of course to ensure referees were up the mark. There were reports back to the referees’ societies. There were the winks and nods and old boys’ networks that sorted the wheat from the chaff. With professionalism it seemed that Rugby stole another march on football, professionalising its top tiers of refs as well as players.

But slowly that respect, that adamantine, unbroken front of ‘the referee’s decision is final’ has been eroded. In some cases this has been sold as technological improvement. The TMO system in rugby is excellent and helps get the right decisions on tries and foul play. Relieved of time keeping, now in the hands of officials off the pitch in major matches, the referee now has only the game action to consider. The redesignation of touch judges as assistant referees allow him to have eyes in the back of his head.

But alongside this there has been a growing niggling on and off the pitch. There has been a deliberate advocacy for players, not just captains now, to ‘coach’ the ref through the game, to ‘manage’ him. This means a barrage of questioning of his decisions, suggestion about what he should do with opposition players, appeals for penalties, yellow cards and sendings off. This has been encouraged, as a means of interaction with players, who are no longer amateur volunteers who had to suck it up, but who are now well paid professionals who think they are worth ever more and don’t have to submit to impartial decisions. So far so bad. But coaches who once would have known better and would have been in severe trouble with the RFU, WRU, SRU etc etc are now whining about referees in public. After a recent west country derby, always a heated affair the referee was harshly criticised publicly in the press by both coaches. I make no comment about the match. I didn’t see it. I don’t need to. I know I don’t want to read in the national press the heated comments of men whose livelihood rests on the matter undermining the authority and integrity of officials. If they have legitimate grievances: follow the procedures.

The problem of course is in the last sentence: their livelihood. The RFU in England let the vested interests of big money clubs undermine and overrule years of authority. I am as much an iconoclast as anyone but I winced when the Premiership clubs got together and challenged the ‘Old Farts’ of the RFU. They got a laugh from their caricature, but at the same time masked the transfer of power from officials with a sense of commitment to the game as a cultural icon, to businessmen whose bottom line was the bottom line.

When it’s a game, you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same. When it’s a business, disaster necessitates scorn being poured on someone and it is the coach, under pressure of losing his job, who passes the buck on, to players, who are of course the ones actually with destiny in their own hands, and now it seems to referees.

The public castigation of officials is only the symptom of the wider malaise of course. Once money became the reason to play sport, attitudes were bound to change. I am suspicious of harking back to a golden Corinthian age. Sport has always had its darker side, but the idea used to be that we generally tried to eliminate that as much as possible and emphasise the benefits. Business is more win at all costs. It was what we worried about when the game went professional. Wilier hands grabbed the reins and abandoned the ethos that made the game great. It took a bit longer for the pay off to materialise than some of us feared, but it has arrived.

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