Rugby World Cup

The World Cup of whingeing

The focus at this Rugby World Cup appears to be more on the refereeing than the play. Does that say more about the state of rugby - or the people watching it?

The more things stay the same, the more we complain.

That’s the reality with the current gnashing and wailing over the state of officiating in sports. Yes, as writers like Newsroom’s Jim Kayes and, er, me, have pointed out, many sports fans are increasingly disgruntled to point of disenfranchisement with the way their code of preference is being policed.

But has much really changed? Rugby ref rage ain’t exactly a new phenomenon.

The name Wayne Barnes will live in infamy with Kiwi rugby fans forever, just as many South Africans will retain a special place in the darkest recesses of their hearts for Bryce Lawrence after his efforts in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final defeat by Australia.

It’s doubtful Paddy O’Brien has holidayed in Fiji much since his self-described “train smash of a game” in the 2000 World Cup, when his three crucial blunders denied the Pacific minnows a famous victory over France.

Nigel Owens remains the scourge of Samoa after he shafted them against the Springboks in 2011 by ruling out a perfectly legitimate try and then sending off Paul Williams for getting punched in the face repeatedly by Heinrich Brussow.

Bottles rained down on Jonathan Kaplan in Wellington in 2000 after John Eales kicked a winning penalty for the Wallabies against the All Blacks, while Jim Kayes spoke for the entire capital when he branded Steve Walsh Jr a cheat in The Dominion after an appallingly one-sided display in a 2001 Ranfurly Shield challenge against Canterbury.

All of these incidents, of course, have occurred in the era of the neutral referee – a move that appears to have spectacularly failed in its mission of removing the perception of bias from the game. Unless, of course, things were worse pre-neutral referees – which by most accounts they were.

In rugby league, the vast majority of the focus post the Roosters' Sunday night NRL grand final victory fell upon the referees for awarding 'six again' to the Raiders only to change their mind after Jack Wighton submitted in a tackle.

Had that blunder not proved fairly decisive – and the Raiders instead got the win – it’s fairly likely the scrutiny would have been on the sin-binning of Cooper Cronk for a blatant early tackle.

There is, of course, nothing all that new in this. Grand finals are often decided by one or two key moments, and those moments often involve contentious or even outright incorrect refereeing decisions.

Cricket is a sport that can perhaps claim to have taken some of the temperature out of the game around officiating by the prudent use of technology. Many of the umpiring howlers that used to bring to the boil the blood of players and fans alike are now quickly reversed. But even the DRS couldn’t save the World Cup final from being decided by the incorrect application of an arcane rule, and the baffling introduction of a nonsensical countback regulation. Nor could the DRS save Australia from themselves in a recent Ashes test.

Officiating controversy has always been at the centre of sports, and always will be.

What appears to have changed is our ability to cope with it. Having grown dismayed and disillusioned with the refereeing to the point where I barely watch rugby league any more, I put my hand up fully in this regard.

Bad refereeing has always been an annoying staple of the game – but it never had the capacity to drive me away. Now that it does, surely that says more about me than it does the state of a game I'm falling out of love with?

The same, one suspects, might well apply to rugby fans who have become utterly disillusioned by the game’s fumbling, inconsistent and arbitrary attempts to drive down incidences of concussion.

Rugby has always been annoying to watch. It has always had the capacity to stir up as much anger and dismay as it has to generate joy.

If we fans are no longer prepared to accept that as part of the bargain, then surely that is on us?

Perhaps our existence has become so riddled with angst that we’re recoiling against things that have the capacity to pile more on?

Perhaps we’re leaning towards simpler pleasures – means of gratification that aren’t dependent on the actions of some twit with a whistle and a Napoleon complex?

Or perhaps things haven’t changed? Perhaps this is the way we’ve always been? We piss and moan that things are changing too fast, or aren’t changing at all. We vow that we’re done, but then somehow find ourselves back watching the game, back cursing the referee, back, ultimately, accepting the rub of the green.

Because perhaps the only thing that has changed - thanks to the wonders of social media and the digital age - is our ability to better broadcast our complaints, and listen to each other whinge.

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