When I think back on all the abuse and insults I had hurled at me from the terraces during my rugby career, it's difficult to understand a match being interrupted because spectators objected to something they heard from the pitch.
I don't deny the right of anyone present at a sporting contest to complain if they are offended at anything they hear. But there must be a better time and place to deal with any such complaints than in the middle of a high-velocity game.
I don't know what the referee, Wayne Barnes, was thinking of when he stopped the match between Northampton and Bath after hearing from the fourth official that four or five Bath fans were complaining about racist remarks. By doing so, he guaranteed that the incident would be blown out of all proportion, and that a dangerous precedent would be created. If fans know they can get a match stopped if their team are getting a battering, they'll be complaining about all sorts of things.
On this occasion the complaints arose from the anger of Northampton's scrum-half, Mark Robinson, when the Bath wing Andy Higgins wouldn't return the ball to him. Such clashes are frequent, and Higgins wouldn't have been at all surprised to get a mouthful from Robinson. In fact, he would have been delighted to have annoyed him.
But both players denied there was any reference to Higgins' colour in the juicy collection of curses aimed at the winger.
The Rugby Football Union must be applauded for setting up an inquiry so quickly. Their chief disciplinary official, Jeff Blackett, ruled that although Robinson's tirade was abusive and offensive, there was insufficient evidence it was racist.
Robinson has apologised to all and sundry, but the upshot is that the nation now has it fixed in its mind that rugby is racist. After being in and around rugby since I was eight, I can't accept that. I've played in both codes, here and in Australia, and numbered players of many colours and nationalities as friends, whether they played with me or against me, and I have never experienced that kind of racism.
In league, players such as Ellery Hanley, Jason Robinson and Martin Offiah were totally respected by everyone. All I'd say about Offiah is that he has the flattest feet I've ever seen. How he ran so quickly and did so well on Strictly Come Dancing I'll never know.
Rugby is a fast and furious game, and things are said in the heat of the moment, but players are respected for their effort and ability no matter who they are or where they come from. Yet you have to regard personal abuse as part of the game. The language isn't pretty at times but it helps to let off steam.
During my career I collected an interesting stream of insults you could say were racist. At the beginning, when I played in East Wales, I was a "West Wales bastard". When I went to league, I graduated to being a "Welsh bastard". In Australia, I was promoted to "Pommie bastard".
My most interesting transformation was when I went on tour to Zimbabwe with the Scottish Co-optimists. We were at a function before our first game when a Zimbabwean player called me a "skinny bastard", and said that the following day he was going to run rings round me because he was a much better outside-half.
Early in the game he tried to chip me, and as he went past I'm afraid my elbow caught him in the face and my knee collided with his leg. He was carried off, and for the rest of the tour I was called a "dirty Scottish bastard".
The noun never changed, only the adjective, and it was all part of the sledging that goes on and is generally accepted.
It's a long way from that to an underlying racism, and I just don't think players feel that way, certainly not at the professional level.Reuse content