Owens: ‘This is not soccer’
Yesterday I took my son DB Jr, aged 7, to a friend’s birthday party at an indoor sports facility that caters for both football and rugby (league, this being Huddersfield where the sport was born). The friend is an avid football fan, so it was a football party, basically a 50-minute game of about 9 a side refereed by a member of the centre’s staff. Most of the kids taking part were 7 or under. DB Jr usually has little to do with football beyond a passing interest in the sport on TV. He plays U7s rugby for Huddersfield RUFC where as well as working on his skills he gets a thorough exposure to the game’s core values: Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship. However, he seemed to enjoy himself racing around after the ball, putting in the odd tackle, making the odd pass and, I’m told, nicking a goal late in the game.
I had a spare half-hour to kill so I hung around to watch for a while, but after about 15-20 minutes I had to leave. Not because I was pushed for time, but because I couldn’t bear to watch the antics of some of the players any longer and was feeling increasingly irritated by the referee’s failure to do anything about it. The worst offender was a 7 year old who’s been scouted by a professional side for their academy and who behaved throughout like a cut-down version of Wayne Rooney; face contorted with aggression, flying recklessly into tackles and chasing after retribution following every perceived offence against him. He also won two free kicks by diving to con the referee, dragged players back by the shirt if they beat him and then laughed after he was eventually penalised, and worst of all (for me at any rate) appealing to the referee at every opportunity, arms outstretched in innocence, including after his own fouls on others. To cap it all off, he also feigned injury twice – on the second occasion rolling around on the floor in apparent agony so the ref walked over to see him, allowing the game to run unsupervised. Then the ball came near them, at which point the lad jumped up, ran forward with the ball and scored.
Now, I realise that I might sound a bit ranty; point taken. But bear in mind I watched at most 40% of the game and I’ve described – accurately – the behaviour of just one of the players, and there were several others behaving badly. My point is this: that player’s behaviour wouldn’t have been tolerated at our mini rugby sessions; he’d have had the verbal equivalent of a warning, final warning, then yellow card. Any attempts to cheat, backchat to coaches, arguing with team-mates or other disruptive behaviour are met with firm action. If after two warnings a player carries on with their nonsense, they have 5 minutes sitting next to their mum or dad, and a quick chat with parents in attendance before they are allowed to rejoin play. Some of the kids and their parents are new to rugby, so it’s a case of educating them in the ethos of sportsmanship that characterises the game at grassroots level.
It just requires a consistency of approach in dealing with disrespect or bad sportsmanship, and players learn, sooner or later, what they can and can’t get away with.
In the vast majority of cases, we get the parent’s full support and the child starts to toe the line – and as they’re no longer being told off all the time, they enjoy their rugby more.
When I referee junior rugby, I take the same view – which is why I love that Nigel Owens clip. Cheating, gamesmanship, dissent and all other forms of disrespect to the ethos of rugby, especially ‘simulation’ and appealing for decisions from the ref, should be dealt with firmly in accordance with refereeing guidelines and the Laws of the game. To those who say ‘they’re only kids’ my reply is usually along the lines of ‘all the more reason to teach them the right way to behave – get them into good habits early’. From talking to parents of kids who play team sports, it’s clear to me that what concerns them the most is not the risk that their child might be hurt, but that they might learn undesirable traits like cheating or disrespect for authority. What was also clear from talking to a couple of dads at yesterday’s party, is that the issues I saw there are rife in junior football. When I asked why, their reply was as you’d expect: it’s what they see the professionals do on TV. You can see their point:
Where I have a problem with this is that it overlooks the fact that those ‘professionals’ are breaking the laws of the game of football (some of them even get punished for it) or at best flouting their spirit, and football supporters know it. Parents of junior football players seem to be saying that their kids have poor role models and as a result they can’t help their bad behaviour. I hope that like me, you are getting that warning signal from your Cop-Out Detector! Where are their coaches? What are referees doing about it? Why are parents not policing their own kids’ behaviour? It’s all very well to blame it on the admittedly abhorrent behaviour of many pro footballers (on and off the pitch) but I’d have thought that a respected football coach, with 2 and often 3 sessions per week with these kids, would be able to influence his young charges to behave the right way, given the support of parents. Anecdotally though, we hear that the opposite is all too often true. Referees get assaulted by players’ parents (sometimes by the players themselves) and suffer a barrage of abuse from coaches for trying to apply the laws of football, and this is tolerated by all concerned because – well actually, I can’t think of a reason.
Anyway, we don’t have these issues in rugby, a game which is an exemplar of fair-play – apart from gouging, biting, spearing, offside, killing the ball, dummy-run obstruction, loitering at rucks, late hits, early hits, boring in, choke-holds, feeding the scrum, fake blood capsules and Neil Back batting the ball back into the scrum against Munster. As a scrum half, I empathised with Peter Stringer’s outrage over this last offence, but as a neutral observer his hopping up and down in impotent fury was simply funny!
In short, loads of cheating goes on in rugby, all the time, in every game. It used to be more noticeable in international rugby but now these same televised shenanigans have trickled down the pyramid to grassroots clubs and are starting to be seen even in mini and junior rugby. Some of it is cynical, such as U11 players kicking the ball out of play at full-time to ensure the win, rather than taking a risk and running it – not against the Laws but in my view against the spirit of the junior game. Some of it is annoying, like 6-year-old players who want to be referees. And unfortunately, some of it is dangerous, like head-high or no-arms tackles, or taking players to ground in a headlock. Last year our U8 side (TAG rugby remember, a non-contact version of the game) played an away fixture reffed by the home coach. In the first few phases of play, the home side ran in tries by simply dipping the shoulder into our players and crashing through them. When our coach questioned this (it was upsetting our players), he was told ‘well, they’ll be allowed to do it next season so we don’t worry about it’. Unfortunately, what happened next was that our players were told to start doing it as well, instead of insisting that the home side stopped it – then the following week they carried on the practice against another team in a home game. At least, they did on the first play of the game, resulting in an injury to the opposition player, but the ref (yours truly) penalised it and made it clear that it had to stop, and it did.
This is the main difference currently between football and rugby: that on the whole, match officials in rugby are more effective at dealing with bad behaviour from players.
With the use of technology at the highest levels, things that the officials miss can be referred to a citing panel, and retribution is usually swift. The use of the sin-bin, the ability to take play forward 10 metres for backchat, the option to reverse a penalty for retaliation or other foul play and even for dissent, are all powerful tools in a rugby ref’s armoury that when used correctly keep the game true to its ethos of respect and sportsmanship. And when a referee delivers a lecture, as in the Owens video clip, it usually goes home and behaviour is adjusted.
However, having been involved in age-grade rugby for 8 years now, and currently in my second stint down at the sharp end of the game at U7s, I’ve noticed that a greater tolerance for cheating has crept in over that time. There may be several reasons why, but that doesn’t concern me here; the fact is, from what I’ve seen, rugby stands at a fork in the road where one path leads to the game we want to see, and the other leads down into the ethical morass in which the game of football flounders. There are signs that standards are slipping, such as the assault on a rugby referee at the end of an U15 game in Essex recently. No-one who loves rugby union wants to see this sort of incident become the norm; it’s our duty as grassroots coaches, referees and parents, to ensure this doesn’t happen. So next time I ping one of your U10 players for handing off, don’t start chelping from the touch-line – this is not soccer, after all.