After two World Rugby misconduct investigations, the governing bodies’ findings and the outcomes are on a finely balanced edge. Desperately wanting to hold on to the values and dignity built on an amateur history, it is being pushed now more so by professionalism and by closer examination.
The scrutiny that both the complainant (World Rugby) and the respondents (a; Rassie Erasmus and, b; Dave Rennie) are under is from inside and outside of the game. From the heated debate and consternation that some coaches feel with decisions and interpretations taken by rugby union officials. Then there is the internal pressure to fine-tune and minimize the impact of Laws that are entirely focused on the offense and defense.
The ability to ride this finely balanced edge is now so muddied by the needs and wants of all participants, it is hardly ever a clearly understood discussion. For the most, World Rugby looks to appease both sides on the field. To allow for attack by the team in possession, as well as an offensive defense from the defending team. The one area of the game where much of the arguments and debate comes is at the breakdown area. The tackle law is now also under scrutiny, as are flat backlines where instances of ‘attempted intercepts’ straddle the law of an unlawful knockdown of the ball.
For all those who marvel at an intercept try from Beauden Barrett when a flick pass goes astray, the bizarre ruling on Welsh player Nick Tompkins actions caused another rift. The player appeared to snatch at a ball that bounced down and backward – which he quickly collected, checked with the referee, and was allowed to cross the line for a try [see below].
From that example, Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie was fuming when interviewed post-match, targeting the match officials, and seemed to ‘cross the line’ in the eyes of World Rugby officials. The issue is, that line was blurred by the coarse reaction from Springboks director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, who released an hour-long diatribe aimed at the British and Irish Lions official’s competency and interpretations. Those two examples riled the governing body, with World Rugby misconduct hearings were started and rulings taken or stated publically.
World Rugby misconduct outcomes on a finely balanced edge
Go hard – as they did with Rassie Erasmus – the system seems to victimize the individual. Go soft – like they have with comments by Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones – the organization appears weak. The finely balanced game of policymaking and policy breaches are there to protect rugby union’s integrity. At the issue here are boundaries being crossed so clearly, no action was off the cards from the get-go.
— Stan Sport (@StanSportAU) November 20, 2021
One might not be like the other. One example was reactionary; made under duress, with a team’s goals and performance affected by outcomes not predicted in the Aussie’s gameplan. Whereas the main dissident has been much more vocal and specific in his voiced grievances that led to the misconduct inquiry and foundation for the sanctions handed out.
Case a; Rassie Erasmus let’s fly in 1-hour long video session
Having considered all the evidence, including oral evidence from the match officials, Rassie Erasmus, SA Rugby, World Rugby, and submissions from the parties the committee found all six charges against Mr. Erasmus proved. They had also brought two additional charges against SA Rugby; claiming the union did not ensure that Erasmus complied with the World Rugby Code of Conduct and/or permitted Mr Erasmus to commit acts of misconduct.
They then issued the below sanctions:
- Suspension with immediate effect from all rugby activities for two months
- Suspension from all match-day activities (including coaching, contact with match officials, and media engagement) with immediate effect until 30 September, 2022
- A warning as to his future conduct and an apology to the relevant match officials.
- A fine of £20,000
- A warning as to future conduct and an apology to the relevant match officials
After the World Rugby (WR) misconduct decision and sanction was issued by the independent disciplinary committee on November 17, it appeared that the argument would continue as South African Rugby issued an appeal on behalf of their Director of Rugby. The judgment came days before the Springboks were to take on England at Twickenham. That meant Erasmus would not be permitted inside the stadium grounds – in effect, banning the former player from his groups tour. Incensed at the time (just as he was when he filmed his video diatribe), SA Rugby officials issued the appeal immediately and it appeared the issue would continue to brew.
Yet on November 25, the respondent advised the independent misconduct committee and World Rugby that they had withdrawn their notices of appeal. In a statement, World Rugby said ‘WR welcomes the public apology from SA Rugby and Rassie Erasmus to the match officials involved in the first test between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions this year, and the matter is closed. Yet, is it?
How this journey may hold the tongue of Erasmus is unknown. The video went viral, and that itself can never be removed. So in effect, the stain can never the wiped clean. And stakeholders will hope that such directed pressure on named officials and interpretations will not be replicated. That is something Last Word on Rugby cannot determine.
Case b; Dave Rennie calls officiating ‘horrendous’ WALvAUS
The second example was not so targeted although, it was broadcast live and went instantly across the face of World Rugby. The interview was after Wales had just completed a comeback win to add more pain to the Wallabies November tour. Most likely knowing that it was the final insult on a poor outbound tour, Dave Rennie lined up the officials (and indirectly, World Rugby misconduct policy).
With multiple decisions that Rennie believed went against his men, he vented and was quoted by ESPN.com as saying; “I felt it as important I spoke my mind – I’ve been a professional coach for over 20 years and I’ve never gone to the media and had a crack at the referee or referee group, but I felt I had to tonight,” he said.
“How do I support my team – by biting my lip again, and us getting apologies during the week? It doesn’t change the result. We deserved better.”
In accepting the public apology, WR underlined the core details of the dispute. ‘World Rugby condemns any public criticism of their selection, performance, or integrity which undermines or threatens their role, the trust-based coach-officials feedback process, and more importantly, the values that are at the heart of the sport and must be upheld.
Rennie and Rugby Australia have issued the following statement: “Dave Rennie wishes to apologize to the match officials and to World Rugby for the choice of language used in post-match media commitments following the Wallabies Test match against Wales in Cardiff.
“The choice of language and its timing did not meet the standards required from a coach or official in upholding Rugby’s core values of discipline, integrity, and respect. Rugby Australia and Dave Rennie accept the formal warning issued by World Rugby.”
After meaningful apologies and dropped appeals, scars are still raw
Guilty or not, the two individuals named are only the tip of the Iceberg facing World Rugby. Below the waterline, in whispers and arguments not broadcast on global media, questions still need answering. The list though is both known widely, and unspoken.
What World Rugby must consider is ‘what demonstrates contempt? and what is a genuine conversation?’ Discussions worth exploring. And from the media statements made, WR appears to have an ear to talk and listen.
‘It posted that, ‘Rugby is a sport that operates on trust and respect, and recent events have unfortunately placed the confidential, trust-based coach-match official’s communication and feedback process under pressure.
‘World Rugby, with the full support of its Executive Committee and the wider game, is fully committed to reinforcing an environment that supports and protects match officials, while providing an appropriate feedback process. To that end, a review of the process is already underway, consulting with match officials, coaches, and unions. In addition, the protocols and behaviours relating to team support staff, including water carriers, will be reviewed at the same time.’
The opening line of their statement aims to portray the underlying values of the game. ‘Trust and respect’ and even though professional sport is built on results, the pressure is intense – amplified to the highest degree at Test match level. So shouldn’t it be expected that some emotional reactions will be occasionally made? Yes and NO.
Yes, they can be made in the heat of the moment. But NO, they must not be balanced against publicity and marketing. The integrity of officials being pinpointed so exactly is at the upper limit. So of course, judicial actions are required at times. It is just when the question is raised, maybe don’t call for your World Rugby misconduct panel first. Maybe, add to the conversation. And listen.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images