Bad language in rugby… what’s the problem?

Questioning a practicing attorney about accurate language is not the smartest option for the defense to choose.

And if the lawyer in question is also someone who has whistled 98 international rugby matches, ‘not the brightest’ quickly turns into completely meaningless.

The Stade Francais captain made a symbolic attempt to defend his whore Tolu Latu after cursing twice at Wayne Barnes, but by the time his suggestion that the veteran England official may have misheard some French, Stade’s No. receiving a red card and kicking the sideline with his heels.

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Explaining his actions Barnes said “He said ****ing hell”. “He then looked at me and said: I have the ball.”

Latu had already been given a yellow card for a dangerous eviction that would have been considered red worthy on another day, so he should have been more careful with his p’s and q’s.

However, it was clearly too much for the 28-year-old Aussie international to be on the wrong side of a borderline interference call when he was judged not to support his weight.

Given the nature of rugby union, colorful language is never far away, but – unless you’re the commentator who has to satisfy Ofcom by constantly apologizing for the referee’s microphone output – provided it has context, no one cares.

An old friend of the referee once told me a perhaps apocryphal story about an incident in a game in the 1980s.

The home side’s number 8 – a renowned ‘character’ had repeatedly been given the referee’s whistle and in the days before that, yellow cards had been given another stern reading in the company of his captain.

When the umpire finished speaking, the player looked up and asked, “Would you turn me off if I told you you’re a fucking mess?”

A little startled, my friend replied, “Yes, I would.”

The player thought for a moment and asked, “What would you do if I thought so?”

“Of course I can’t make you think what you want,” the officer replied.

“In that case I think you’re fucking crap” was the quick reply!

Knowing where to draw the line is a very difficult question for any umpire, but when the bad language is clearly aimed at the umpire and spoken in a confrontational manner, it needs to be addressed.

Sometimes a conversation with and – in modern parlance – a request to “get back to rugby’s values” is enough, but depending on what happened earlier in the game, a card may be the only answer.

For example, when he sent Dylan Hartley off the field in the Premiership final, Barnes had already warned the front rows that he would no longer tolerate foul language and dissent, so he really had no choice but to wave the red card to the future. England captain a lions tour.

But to what extent should the referee intervene to curb the use of foul language that is not directed against him/her?

In front of a packed house at the Aviva Stadium or the Stade de France, no one will hear what’s going on, let alone take offense. But what about a local game played with almost no spectators?

After whistled a semi-final of the Warwickshire U18 Cup early this century, I was accosted by an angry mother as I left the field.

“Why didn’t you do anything about the disgusting lineout calls?” she asked.

I had to confess that I had no idea what she was talking about, as I hadn’t paid any attention to what was being called.

She went on to tell me that her son’s opponents had used language that really offended her and refused to believe that I had completely missed this. To this day I am not sure if I would have intervened if I had heard.

Two players berating each other is probably preferable to fighting and usually a few seconds to calm down and a quiet word is all it takes to restore some decency.

One of the best and most unique features of rugby is the responsibility given to the captain to not only manage the behavior of his team but also work with the umpire to deal with this type of situation.

My favorite example of this came very early in my career when as a total novice recent ex-player I was in charge of two Midlands based third XVs playing in a local park.

While the conversion was being drafted after the home side had scored a try, I overheard a heated argument over who was to blame for the try, with lots of swearing behind the away team’s posts.

I was writing the score in my notebook halfway through and waiting for kick-off when the captain of the away team tapped my shoulder and pointed back to the posts where two of his players were behind the dead ball line, looking gloomy.

“Excuse me sir, I just wanted to let you know that I don’t tolerate that kind of language on my team, so I turned them both away,” he advised. “We’re playing with 13.”

I wasn’t sure what happened next, so I nodded and we continued with the game.

About fifteen minutes later, the break came and the captain was jogging again.

“I think they’ve learned their lesson now ref,” he said. “I’ll send them to apologize and then maybe you’ll let them back on the field?”

One for the skipper of Stade to take note of perhaps?


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