Rugby Union: Waspish ways of high flyers

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IN JUST over a fortnight I have seen two Courage First Division rugby union matches, as thousands of others have. Both demonstrated what I thought was an unnecessarily high level of violence, certainly in the early stages and, in one, for the entire 80 minutes. I refer to Bath v Wasps at the Recreation Ground, which was violent throughout (though the level diminished somewhat), and Wasps v Northampton at Sudbury, which, after some initial skirmishes, turned into an exciting game.

Both encounters were widely commented upon, particularly the one at Bath. No one, as far as I know, has put any blame on Wasps, though they were a common factor. What was also a common factor was that these were top-of-the- table clashes. Some observers may say that, if Leicester rather than Wasps had been involved, the consequences would have been the same.

I am not so sure. True, Wasps are a pleasant club. They are well known for wanting to play attractive rugby, as they demonstrated, as best they could, last Saturday.

And yet, on both occasions the violence started with the Wasps' forwards following up a kick-off by Rob Andrew. The most aggressive follower-up was Francis Emeruwa, the 31-year-old No 6. It was he who left Gavin Baldwin with a bloody nose for the entire match last Saturday. And it was he who had set the tone, or lack of it, from the beginning of the Bath encounter, though the conflict which first engaged the referee on that occasion, David Matthews, was between the two hookers.

As Barrie Fairall wrote yesterday: 'Emeruwa is a back-row package that should come with a written warning . . . whose upper body strength is quite something (and who) does not take prisoners.'

At Sudbury the referee, John Pearson, managed to cool things, as Mr Matthews had failed to do, or not entirely, at the Recreation Ground. For this Matthews has been blamed. In particular, he has been blamed for sending off Fran Clough, who on Saturday had been restored by the Middlesex disciplinary sub-committee.

I agree with both the committee and the referee. Admittedly at Bath it was Jeremy Guscott who first trod on - it would be excessive to say he trampled on - Clough when the latter was in touch following a tackle. Clough then made as if to hit Guscott.

It may be that both should have been dismissed. In fact, it was Clough who was sent off. This may have been unfair. The majority of colleagues thought, and wrote, that it was so. But it is in the nature of exemplary justice to be unfair. Admiral Byng no doubt thought that life was very unfair. For the more fortunate Clough, however, it was the touchline rather than the quarterdeck.

Matthews may have spoilt the match. It was miraculous that two weeks ago Wasps, with 14 players, managed to hold out as they did until the last few minutes. But, having given a warning to the two captains, the referee was bound to act as he did.

What is called sympathetic refereeing is akin to community policing. In plain lanaguage, it means that certain offences will be overlooked in the interest of the greater good - in rugby, the continuation of the match.

It seems to me, on the contrary, that referees must intervene early and firmly to put an end to an unacceptable level of violence. For a certain level of violence is acceptable, is part of the game, and it is humbug to deny it. It is when the violence becomes reckless and indiscriminate that referees should act, if necessary by sending off.

Most of the unacceptable violence that I have seen this season has derived initially not from the scrum (though we are seeing too many collapsed scrums) but from the 'hanging' restart, whether from a place or, more often, a drop kick. Since kicking over the goal- line has been penalised, these starts have become the norm, even though a long kick into the corner would often be more productive. In these circumstances it is up to the referees and the touch judges, who in club (as distinct from international) matches are not as active as they might be.