It occurred to me at Twickenham last Saturday that Ref Link, the little disposable radio thingy which enables those in the crowd to follow what the referee is doing and why, exemplifies one of rugby union's great strengths, as well, perhaps, as one of its weaknesses.
The weakness is that technology should be required at all to make the referee's decisions clearer. When even those who are sufficiently keen on a sport to turn up in person need a hotline to the referee to understand exactly what is going on, then it seems fair to say that the laws are a little on the abstruse side. I know there are rugby fans who glory in the complexities of the game, but I've never been one of them. Even when I played I wasn't quite sure what I had to release and when, and I never did find out the identity of Mark whose name I was sometimes expected to shout.
Moreover, Ref Link can sometimes make the spectating experience more rather than less complicated, and England v Australia last weekend was a case in point. I don't doubt that referee Joel Jutge did splendidly in the English language part of his baccalauréat, but it wasn't always easy to understand his pronunciation, and he also seemed to be suffering from a slight cough, so that when one accidentally turned up the volume, as in my case one did, it was uncomfortably akin to having a motorbike revving in one's ear.
Having said all that, it is beyond marvellous that the hardest of all contact sports, in which there are 6ft 5in, 17st giants picked not for their size but for their speed, can equip a referee with a microphone and broadcast not only what he says to the players but more pertinently what the players say to him, without the slightest anxiety that children in the crowd will turn to their parents and say, "What does *@!*$! mean and why is the referee one?"
That a man with a whistle will at some point this afternoon penalise a hulking brute in a black shirt for committing a foul against a hulking brute in a white shirt, or vice versa, without either of said brutes labelling him an unpleasant arrangement of three consonants and a vowel, is to rugby's enormous credit.
Of course, there are times, even in rugby, even in the Ref Link era, when certain words slip out. But the excellent Chris White - who officiates in today's match between Ireland and the Wallabies, and with whom I have the inordinate pleasure of playing cricket once or twice every summer - tells me that whenever he has rebuked an international rugby player for swearing in the heat of battle, on occasion by gently suggesting that the player's mother might be listening, a humble and heartfelt apology is always immediately forthcoming. And he's not talking about gratuitous swearing, either: it might be because half a ton of prop forward has just landed on the chap's ankle and broken it in 11 places, a circumstance in which even the Archbishop of Canterbury might be forgiven an expletive.
All of which brings me to football, and specifically my suggestion on this page last week that Sky Sports broadcasters had been a little sanctimonious in condemning Sir Alex Ferguson for uttering the word "bollocks" in a post-match interview, when their microphones pick up thousands of people chanting considerably nastier words every week.
This is not unique to Sky, I hasten to add. It happens on the BBC and ITV as well. And I'm not particularly sticking up for Fergie, either, as one reader, Simon Drummond, believed. The fact that "bollocks" is these days considered rather tame did not excuse its use by a high-profile public figure on live television, Mr Drummond wrote, and I can't argue with that.
But if broadcasters are that easily offended, or truly that keen to protect our innocent little sweethearts viewing at home, why haven't they yet found a way of fading out obscenities when they form part of a crowd chant? It would be better if the crowd didn't chant obscenities in the first place, but even though we're little more than a month away from commemorating a virgin birth, let's not ask for miracles.
In any case, why should a football crowd be expected not to abuse the referee, or not to question the sexuality of a particular player, when such behaviour is routine on the pitch? That's the place to stamp out excessive vulgarity, and it might even be about to happen, because this column can exclusively reveal that the people at Ref Link have only recently been talking to the people at Uefa, and that significant steps have been taken towards a brave new world in which we will all be able to go to a football match, fit an earpiece, and tune in to the dialogue between the referee and the players. It is an exciting prospect, hearing Mike Riley or Graham Poll saying to a hot-headed young footballer, and I have one in particular in mind: "Please don't use that word. Your mother might be listening."
Unfortunately, there's always the chance that he might reply: "What are you @**$!* talking about, you @**@! She *@!!** taught it me!"
Who I Like This Week...
The imperious Pakistani cricket captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, a glorious throwback to the era of gentlemen and players, with him as the gentleman and his team-mates as mere players. There is magnificence. too, in his portliness, as if shedding pounds by sweating in the gym is too plebeian a pursuit. Besides, it's not as though he seems inhibited by his generous girth; no batsman in the world hits a cover drive with more languid authority. So, sorry as I was to see England lose the first Test in Multan, it was a pleasure to see Inzamam triumph in front of his home crowd, most of whom he would be likely to encounter in the flesh only if they arrived to serve him his dinner.
And Who I Don't
The new, healthier Diego Maradonapopped up in Qatar to give a footballing masterclass with Pele, for heaven's sake, and one can only hope that the youngsters who benefited were suitably appreciative of their good fortune. While he was there, unfortunately, Maradona thought it would be fun to re-enact his infamous "Hand of God" goal against England, and while I don't want to sound bitter and twisted almost 20 years on, his reinvention as a responsible human being won't ever be complete until he apologises for cheating, and starts advising children that to gain respect in sport they must play by the rules.Reuse content