The Red Zone
Ref rage, gay All Blacks and a tale of two tackles
January 8, 2013
Leicester's Toby Flood sends Worcester's Andy Goode crashing into the turf during their recent clash at Sixways © ESPN
Welcome to the The Red Zone - our new feature that aims to score a few points by delivering our verdict on some of the topical issues in the game.
'Tis the season to be jolly'? Don't think so. Directors of rugby have been fuelled by rage in recent weeks with referees the target of their anger. "Where is the consistency? 'Guessing' is the word I use," ranted Leicester boss Richard Cockerill so incensed was he by the performance of ref Andrew Small following his side's Premiership victory over Gloucester. His Northampton counterpart Jim Mallinder was another to go public with accusations of wrong-doing but Quins' Conor O'Shea sent the rage-o-meter into the red in the wake of his side's victory over London Welsh at the weekend: "Everything was wrong - it was incredible. The offside line was irrelevant, trailing runners coming back was irrelevant, backing into the maul, not releasing in the tackle - all irrelevant... You'd have to go a long way to see worse."
O'Shea opted for the nuclear option having run out of patience with a referee feedback process that he clearly feels is not feeding back to anyone - especially not the RFU's referee management triumvirate of Ed Morrison, Brian Campsall and Tony Spreadbury.
As ill-fitting his outburst in a sport that prides itself on the dignity shown by the vast majority of its leading figures - he appears to have a point. He rightly finds fault at the fact that not all the Premiership referees are full-time officials yet they are making decsions that impact on the careers of players and coaches fighting for their lives on and off the pitch. Premiership Rugby has embraced professionalism in many areas and should perhaps demand the same from the Rugby Football Union's Professional Referee Unit (PRU), who provide the officials.
Action must be taken to quell this fire and offer reassurance that concerns are being both acknowledged and addressed. But at the same time the directors of rugby cannot expect to escape with their very public criticism of the officials. Such outbursts do not reflect well on the game as a whole and we do not want to see the sport descend into the mud-flinging farce that appears to follow every Premier League football match.
Wanted: Gay All Black
Kiwi media personality Steve Gray has caused a bit of a stir by claiming he has slept with an All Black who played in the 1970s. His comments followed calls by gay rights advocates for a homosexual All Blacks player to openly declare his sexuality and act as a role model in the fight against bigotry.
Gray has since suggested that such is the all-encompassing nature of the rugby culture in New Zealand, it may 'not be a place a gay man would want to be.' But what a statement it would be if a leading player from the world's most famous team would follow the lead of former Wales and Lions star Gareth Thomas and admit they were gay - especially when so many other high profile sports continually fail to tackle the issue and as a result discourage sportsmen to come out.
Common sense suggests that many gay men have played international rugby and are currently doing so now. It is a shame that fear of reprisal, ridicule or even loss of commercial income would prevent them from coming out. They, like Thomas, may find support where they expected isolation. But you fear there is more chance of Wales hosting their World Cup clash with England than an All Black breaking cover.
A tale of two tackles
Two incidents during the latest round of Premiership action highlighted the continued and worrying disparity in interpretation when it comes to 'tip' or 'spear' tackles - and offered further amunition for those with referees in their sights. First up was Toby Flood's ugly-looking challenge on Andy Goode during Leicester's Premiership victory over Worcester on Friday night. Amazingly the challenge was missed by all the officials but not by the citing commissioner who will have noted Flood's lifting of his rival beyond 90 degrees and the driving - no matter how intentional - of Goode into the ground head first. It was a yellow card offence at the very least with the contribution of hooker George Chuter likely to save the England international a more significant ban when he faces a disciplinary hearing this week.
Wasps' Tom Varndell was also guilty of lifting Bath's Horacio Agulla beyond an acceptable limit and his strength and momentum resulted in another wince-inducing impact. The referee wasted no time in brandising a yellow card having consulted with his assistant much to the surprise of the majority of those who witnessed the tackle. Varndell was clearly attempting to dive his man into touch - not the ground - and thankfully Agulla landed on his side saving his tackler from a more ludicrous fate. A yellow card may have been the right decision according to the rules but that level of pedantry does the sport no favours and highlights a worrying trend that is in danger of detracting from one of the sport's major draws - the physicality.
The decision to sin-bin Varndell was almost as laughable as Nick Abendanon's trip on Eliot Daly in the closing moments of the game. The Bath fullback's leg waft in the direction of his Wasps rival could not have been more expertly staged for Sky Sports' touchline camera had it been choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Quite rightly he saw yellow, quite simply Varndell should not have been subjected to the same fate.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.