Time to take a stand
May 25, 2010
Sarries boss Brendan Venter was hit with a 14-week touchline ban for his conduct at Welford Road © Getty Images
It was not the Leicester v Saracens match at Welford Road earlier this month which brought home to me the potential problems of coaches chucking their toys out of the pram, even though this was the one which landed Brendan Venter his much talked about touchline ban. It was the earlier, reverse fixture at Watford two days into the new year - and, no, I am not thinking of Venter's views on some of England's Premiership referees which hit the headlines at the time.
The thing which struck me first came before Venter met the press and - in the right place but surely at the wrong time after his team had lost for the second successive week - laid out his refereeing grievances. (Frankly, if he had been slightly less explicit in a BBC radio interview about the notion that referee David Rose had changed his interpretation from one half to another, he might have got away with it. And his current ban, against which Venter will appeal on Wednesday, would, at the very least, be four weeks shorter by virtue of not including the suspended sentence).
During the game I was sitting in one of the two sets of seats allocated to the press at Vicarage Road in the condemned stand (it's not the name of a sponsor, just an adjective). This was at the front near the halfway line. Throughout the match a bawling voice could be heard from my left, questioning decisions by Rose, and it did not take long to identify the voice as belonging to Leicester's head coach, Richard Cockerill.
The lack of any spectators in that stand made the sound easy to hear, and possibly magnified. It is like sitting in an empty aircraft hangar. Just behind me was Rose's referee manager, Ed Morrison. Also to the left, Saracens and Leicester replacements and backroom staff including the former flanker Richard Hill engaged in "banter" with Cockerill and Morrison. Although I have seen plenty of coaches on edge before - I remember being at Cardiff Blues earlier in the season when if Harlequins' coaches shouted "offside" once they did it a hundred times - this was an eye-opening taste of what is presumably acceptable behaviour. I say "presumably" because Cockerill was not charged with anything after that day. He did, however, land a suspension after an Anglo-Welsh Cup match for verbal abuse of a referee, which tells us that some boundaries do exist. At Welford Road later in the season I had more first-hand experience of hearing him ranting at a referee, saying (among other things), "you're making it up as you go along". Again, there was no action.
The impression I was left with from that day at Watford was how amateurish it was, by which I mean the sort of stuff you would expect at an amateur match. People shouting at the referee and at each other. A bit of a laugh between consenting adults, and then we head off to the bar, but very silly when exposed to public scrutiny. Venter got carried away at Leicester, swapped words with and blew kisses at some supporters and now might miss this week's Premiership final, which would be a shame and a blight on the match.
I think Saracens' chief executive, Edward Griffiths, is right to wonder at the length of Venter's 10-week suspension (albeit it spans the summer, unusually). Griffiths is right, also, to aim a poke in the eye as he does from time to time at grey areas and cosy views in the English game. But he has also come out with some subjective nonsense in his protests. He said football would not have put Venter in the situation in which he found himself in the Crumbie Stand. It is what is acceptable in rugby we are interested in, but if we are going to make the comparison, then Premier League managers are positioned next to opposition crowds every week. Arsene Wenger was sent from the touchline INTO the stand at Old Trafford earlier this season and he did not blow kisses and wave at the crowd (he just wore a wonderfully perplexed look on his face).
So the theory doing the rounds now is that a professional rugby coach is unable to resist a certain amount of shouting and arm-waving, and we should put him out of earshot of the referees' manager - obviously! - and any one else he might start a row with. Who would have imagined soundproofed boxes at every club ground, yet in a couple of years' time it may seem strange that it was ever done any other way? Even though I suspect boxing them away will only make them madder.
A couple of coaches lose their rag; ergo, we cut them all off from public contact? No: they are there to watch the match, to make decisions with an amazing array of filming equipment to help them do it, and adjust tactics and personnel. If they cannot do that reasonably sanely and uncontroversially, how about doing the opposite of football - and send them from the stand to the touchline. Before it all kicks off.
Hugh Godwin is a rugby writer for the Independent on Sunday