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A mild upset of Spain by Belgium has snatched the attention of the rugby world. The 18-10 result sees Spain miss out on qualification for the Rugby World Cup, an achievement which seemed well in hand going into the contest.
The reason the game is famous, though, is because of what happened at the end – several Spanish players aggressively confronted the referee, with multiple appearing to grab or shove him. He, along with both assistant referees, had to be escorted off the pitch. The kerfuffle was caught on video, and it’s made the rounds online.
Spain’s fury over the result is compounded by the fact that entire three-man officiating crew was Romanian, the president of Rugby Europe is Romanian, the team that benefits the most from the upset is Romania, and all 18 Belgian points on the day were scored via penalties. Some reports indicate concerns were raised by Spain, but rebuffed by Rugby Europe, over the assignment of the all-Romanian crew beforehand.
World Rugby is looking into the matter, even though it doesn’t handle referee assignments for these matches. Rugby Europe is going through its normal post-match evaluation, and will convene to discuss the matter in depth later this week.
This story is newsworthy for many reasons. Who doesn’t love to sink their teeth into a conspiracy theory every now and then? But, from an American perspective, it’s notable because there’s something too familiar about it.
In the United States, referees are generally ex-players, meaning they most likely have some kind of club affiliation. Same goes for commissioners, administrators, members of committees, and really just about everyone performing an authoritative role in our game. The overwhelming majority of these people have the game’s best interests at heart. Some, however, do not.
If you’ve been involved in the game long enough, you know the last sentence to be true. I’m not talking about the ‘My team lost, so I’m upset and looking to blame people’ sort of thing. That’s the first defense, calling the complainant a sore loser or petty, saying, ‘we don’t do that in rugby’.
Fine. If that’s your stance, feel free to print this column out and use it to stop up that nose bleed you get from the altitude. I would never back the actions of the Spanish players after the game. Referees should be a protected species. No touching. No aggression. No intimidation. I’ve had to kick drunken players out of a tournament before for threatening a referee, and I’ve had to do the same with sober guys who touched a referee.
We have a real dearth of refs as a whole, and a culture which allows for them to be treated poorly is not a recruiting tactic. Clearly, intimidating, touching or aggressively approaching a referee goes against the ethos of rugby, and perpetrators should be held accountable. There should be real punishment handed down to all those who partook in doing this Sunday.
However, while not every complaint about a lack of fairness is worthwhile, the opposite is also true, too – not every complaint about the lack of fairness is invalid. And these complaints are often not centered around the referee.
As an administrator of a lowly local area union, I once had to participate in the appeal hearing for a player who was red carded for a dangerous tackle. At this hearing, myself and one other person from the union were the only independent parties. Everyone else, including others who’d make a decision on the appeal, were affiliated with same club as the suspended player.
The referee wasn’t present. There was no official statement from the referee. There was no video to review. There was no statement from an assistant referee or referee evaluator or any independent party. Just, ‘hey, this kid got a red card that would see him miss the postseason, and we don’t think it should have been a red card, so will you guys overturn the decision so he can play?’
Much to my dismay and surprise, I was the lone dissenting vote. The suspension attached to the red card was overturned without any real reason or evidence suggesting the red card wasn’t warranted, and the kid was free to play. No one really even tried to hide the fact that this type of conflict of interests was wildly inappropriate.
That’s one small example. I’ve seen brackets gerrymandered after pool play to change the matchups of a tournament. I’ve seen blatant mathematical errors go uncorrected out of pride. I’ve written on puzzling eligibility decisions made by committees led by someone with a horse in the race. This fall we saw a competitions committee filled with conference representatives exclude a worthy team from the D1AA postseason in favor of their own teams or conference members.
Just last week, World Rugby swapped an assistant referee for the England versus Ireland Six Nations match because he’d attended an England training. They made that switch and communicated on Twitter two days before the game to prevent any perception of wrongdoing.
So, if you look at just the last week, World Rugby is the example of what to do, and Rugby Europe is the example of what not to do. Was the fix in for Belgium to beat Spain, thus sending Romania to the World Cup? I don’t know. There certainly appears to have been some very odd decisions made throughout the course of the game. But is there a perception that the game was fixed? Yes. Was this perception foreseeable? Yes. Was it avoidable? Yes.
That’s the moral of this cautionary tale. Unfortunately, based on the sheer fact that there are too few people willing to do things within the rugby community in this country – too few referees, too few competent people willing to serve on committees, too few people willing to do administrative work – there is a high probability for these conflicts of interest to present themselves. So be cognizant of them, see them coming, and avoid them at all costs. Best to even avoid the perception of them.