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“This is not soccer”

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.

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About DB9

Dave Beal played rugby league and rugby union for schools, colleges and clubs in his native West Yorkshire, as well as in Nottingham, Dorset and France, before having to retire through injury at 27. For the last 9 years Dave has been a junior coach at National 3 North side Huddersfield where he is about to launch his new U9 squad into the world of contact rugby. A level 1 coach and ELRA 2 referee, Dave is passionate about passing on all that is good in the game of rugby to the young players in his care. To read more of Dave's thoughts about rugby, follow his blog at http://rugbymusings.wordpress.com . View all posts by DB9

7 Comments to “This is not soccer”

  1. bakesi

    Of course Dave is right. My son plays both football and tag rugby and the difference in the behaviour of the participants couldn’t be more obvious.

    At a recent ‘proper’ football game in preparation for next season not only were players encouraged to ‘rough’ up smaller children and allowed to scythe opposition players at will, but we also had the seemingly mandatory rolling around after a harmless tackle and the skidding on both knees celebration so much in favour in TV football.

    Not only was the boy concerned not told off, other parents were cheering and encouraging this exhibitionism…I would love to see him try that one after a try in a tag game!!!

    At Huddersfield RUFC one of players cost us a try for trying to ‘con’ the ref about the score and I’m sure he and his team mates will not forget that life lesson.

    The reason for the difference is quite clear. Rugby Union despite’ bloodgate’ and ‘backgate’ remains committed to ideals and standards and at club level this is promoted and reinforced.

    In football it would appear that parents and coaches feel powerless to make a difference. At the highest level racism and boorish behaviour are still condoned and brushed under the carpet to suit.(Messrs Suarez, Dalglish and Terry take a large bow)

    Rugby must hold on to this important aspect of the game and I believe we can expect help from a most unlikely source-the sponsors. Had Gillette et al had the courage to drop Thierry Henry after the infamous handball against Eire I believe the authorities would have been forced to deal with the matter as Sport at the highest level has become about money and little else. So many companies ‘play’ the moral card in respect of green credentials etc this has got to be positive for Rugby

    If rugby can be sold to sponsors as an ethical sport and one with high principles and strong values then they can demand that this is delivered.

  2. Jonathan Kirton
    Interesting thoughts as ever Mr B. Football has always and will have an element of the prima donna. Some blame it on the growing number of foreign players in the game but that is just a cop out. As long as the PFA refuses to criticise its own when they do wrong the issues will never be resolved. The players have too much money and power and their attitudes are supported by the managers and tacitly by the authorities because they do nothing about it. The game has briefly introduced things like marching play forward ten yards etc but has just as quickly got rid of them because the ‘professionals’ don’t like it. Rugby clubs when they do things right set standards from an early age and if the players or parents don’t like it they usually walk. As you point out no sport is pure as the driven snow but both codes of rugby have a better reputation that football because there is a degree of respect still there and the ref is the boss.
    The other issue is that much of what the likes of Mr Barton did would be considered assault if it took place anywhere else. Just because something takes place on a rectangular grass playing area does not mean that it is above the law

    • steviegen

      Good article Dave. I once heard the excuse from a well known journalist, backed up by a few high profile players and ex-players, that said the same standard of conduct could not be expected of football players as is displayed by rugby players. The reason given? Rugby players are toffs, football players are from sink estates, and consequently you can’t expect them to display basic manners and any sort of respect. No-one can say that all rugby players are perfect, all footie boys are thugs, but there is a very different approach to the coaching right from the start that shapes the way people play the game. The word respect is top of the list in rugby, for your team mates, for the referee and for the opposition. Football’s attempt to stop dissent by marching a team backwards ten yards at free kick time if they mouthed off sank without a trace after a very short time. The FAs RESPECT campaign, although it has introduced some commendable practices at grass roots level is also doomed to failure. Why? Because the example at the top is dominated by a snarling foul ,outhed face. I hope things change, because both sports have a lot to offer, but I can’t see it happening.

  3. Have posted this on our Telford Hornets RFC junior section facebook page for all to read so we can all be proud of our ethos and strive to keep it that way !! Rugby rocks !! As manager and coach of the under 11’s , I certainly share this ethos as does the club , if this was’nt the case and rugby went down the same road as football I would’nt continue in these roles as it would go against what I love about rugby and why I volunteer my time . It would’nt happen though , ‘not on Telford Hornets watch’ !!!

  4. Have posted this on our Telford Hornets RFC junior section facebook page for all to read so we can all be proud of our ethos and strive to keep it that way !! Rugby rocks !!

  5. My nephew is 8 n an enthusiastic football supporter. His knowledge n understanding of the game goes not just to his own team but he will respect another player’s skills. If his favourite player was to cheat , such as diving, I think I would be right in thinking this would irritate him no end..he hates that side of the game. Perhaps this is because of the way he has been brought up, but I would also say it’s inherent in his own nature…to do his best n play fair…that’s not to say he won’t be upset when he knows he has played well ( he plays in a mini league each Sunday) but the kid on the opposing team resorts to cheating or over excessive tackles. Whilst he hopes to one day be a professional footballer, he also plays rugby n he is looking forward to going to the next level next season ( tag I believe). Oh I hope he eventually he sways n appreciates the skills of rugby over soccer. For me personally whilst I have a soccer team that I support I am not a zealous supporter of the game, I detest the aggressive nature of the fans, the off field antics of the stars n that you rarely see good sporting behaviour in the game. Rugby on the other hand ( especially League) is a game of beauty n skill which I can only wish I could have played n to a high level. However it is changing n becoming more like it’s richer cousin…look at some of the stars “The Orange One ” n “Cips) both who court publicity bad n good as if they were dependent on it. A club coach dictating to a national coach who he can n can’t pick..where have I heard that one before ? Sadly the more lucrative the game becomes the more behaviour in n around the game will change. Perhaps I am from a different generation but I don’t view it as ” Part of the Banter ” to boo a player when he is kicking for a penalty or a conversion…there should be silence. Last week n sadly in my beloved League game I saw a player fain n injury as a consequence of that the other player goes on report..even though the replay shows nothing happened. He milked it for all it was worth..the referee was totally impartial even though he grew up in the area n loves the team 😉 I want my team to win clean n fair to use their skills that even the opposition fans will be dazzled by it . I don’t want someone saying ah but the only way your team can win is by cheating. If rugby is at a cross roads then it needs to get it’s house in order..make consistant punishments for offences ( such as gouging) it needs to end the hypocrisy that prevents a second team gaining promotion..then make sure there is a level playing field.

  6. Excellent piece. When I started coaching rugby I would tell the team that only the captain could talk to the referee and if they didn’t start with “excuse me sir…..” that they might be ignored. I would also share this view with the referees prior to games (even at U7).

    As a referee I think there is a need for empathy for the game too and management of the play (I tend to talk a bit whilst I’m refereeing) as much so the spectators are aware of things as for the players. I have found that behaviour on the pitch tends to be driven by influences off it. Coaches who are “win at all costs” other have squads who display some of the behaviour you describe and equally spectators can trigger issues on the pitch especially as the players progress in the youth squads.

    I have only watched a couple of football games in the last few years at this level (my lads try to avoid the game too) but have seen my nephew play briefly and witnessed similar displays.

    This is something the clubs, their coaches, spectators, players and their parents need to own in rugby to ensure the culture around this game maintains the standards which probably attracted us to the game in the first place.

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