x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The true gentlemen's game

Unlike football, where players and managers regularly vent diatribes at match officials and the like, even at the Rugby World Cup, players and coaches respect the referees, even in disagreement.

Match officials disallowed a seemingly on-target penalty by James Hook. Neither Wales, nor Hook, made much of a complaint.
Match officials disallowed a seemingly on-target penalty by James Hook. Neither Wales, nor Hook, made much of a complaint.

A 22-year-old professional sportsman, standing 6ft 7ins (2m) tall, with biceps the size of small children and with sleeves of tattoos running up both arms, cowers meekly while being chided by a referee, who is at least a foot shorter than him.

"Sorry, sir," says the player, who is known as one of his sport's hardest men, using the polite form of address which is the norm in rugby.

He has a keen sense of respect.

On the other side of the world, a 69-year-old football coach wearing an expensive suit remonstrates with a working official in language laden with expletives after one of his players is tackled slightly late.

He has a keen sense of his own self-importance.

Another manager at a match nearby is busy suggesting it is a conspiracy, as his team - which was assembled with infinitely more funds than their opponents - have just been beaten by a penalty he deemed iffy.

"We would like to be respectful to the referees, but more importantly is them having respect for my club," he says, spuriously, before claiming that all contentious decisions have gone against his side this season.

He believes his club is bigger than the game, therefore, because it is "more important" referees respect them, rather than vice versa.

He chooses what he wants to see and has selective amnesia, to boot.

Back at the rugby match, another player feels compelled to apologise, via his Twitter feed, after he lost his temper, swore, and it was picked up on live television.

The only reason it had made it to air was because his sport, rugby, chooses to use technology to explain its decisions, and thus has a live microphone attached to the referees.

Football, by contrast, has not even grown up enough to have a static camera to adjudicate on whether the ball has crossed the goal line or not.

Not that it is an exact science. Wales were deprived of one of the greatest victories at the Rugby World Cup at the weekend because the officials opted not to review a penalty kick which they ruled had missed, even though it appeared to be valid.

Imagine the outpouring that a similar scenario would have led to in football. Days of recriminations across the airwaves and hate mail directed to the fool of a referee.

Wales did not bother with scapegoats, though.

"It was one of those things," said James Hook, the player who was denied that kick, before going on to point out that his side had 80 minutes besides, when they could have righted the wrong themselves. "We had chances to win the game at the end, and I missed a late penalty."

And this at a World Cup, the pinnacle of the sport. It is the only chance the majority of players and coaches might have to go to a tournament of that magnitude. The football matches were run-of-the-mill league encounters which have little to no significance in the grand scheme of things. There will be another one along in a couple of days, anyway.

There was no war rhetoric used ahead of England's match with Argentina at the Rugby World Cup.

The players were not implored to remember the Falklands - or the Malvinas, depending on your viewpoint. Yet that is the standard setting when the football equivalents meet in their World Cup.

Rugby players can wear their form of courage obviously, by dint of the bravery they have to show in the course of the collisions which make up the sport. But courage has also been defined in the past as grace under pressure.

Pressure? Ask an average footballer about pressure, and he will tell you his agent will deal with it, as he strides past in the mixed zone, with a minion carrying his toiletry bag.

Ask an international rugby player about it, and he would likely give an up-to-date take on the famous quote by Keith Miller, the great Australia cricketer, by suggesting that pressure is having a Messerschmitt in your rear-view mirror, not playing sport.