David Flatman: It's official - abusing referees is bad for the game's health

From the Front Row: The referee gave him a red card. But what did White say? 'Sorry, sir'

As long as rugby doesn't turn into football, we'll all be all right. As long as our chaps never start buying silly-coloured cars and spitting on camera then that divide we cherish will remain unmuddied. Truth time: I love football very nearly as much as I love rugby, Mother Nature just never really gave me the option to play it.

As much as I love it, though, I wince at the behaviour of some of its stars. The diving is dishonest and, frankly, embarrassing. These super-fit, super-talented men spend an hour and a half trying their best to look hurt, just as rugby players do their best to look unwounded as a matter of principle. But I wince most of all because I am certain that the players' behaviour on the field directly affects that of the folk in the stands.

And this is where I see a bit of a problem emerging in rugby union. I am not suggesting that if there is a mass brawl on the field, the supporters will then begin punching and kicking one another as if on a psychological remote control, but the players set the tone the minute they take the field.

The men in the middle can be fiercely competitive and crunchingly physical but if they remain totally respectful all the while, the crowd will almost always remain respectful too. My worry is that there is now a new level of acceptance surrounding, in particular, the way the officials are treated.

Please don't get me wrong. We rugby players have all disagreed with decisions and made this known, but in the past these exchanges were never allowed to become aggressive. I would describe an honest dialogue between players and officials as a vital part of the game, but we always knew our place.

I recall my old mate Julian White clumping somebody (in retaliation) so hard that the recipient's eye looked like a fillet steak. The referee rollocked him and gave him a red card, but what did White say? "Sorry, sir."

Control had momentarily been lost, but the referee's assertiveness and White's immediate acceptance of his wrongdoing served to reassure everyone in the ground that sanity had not been forfeited.

Some players now seem to offer up a sermon every time a decision goes against them. The odd flap of the arms, the traditional shake of the prop's head – these are part of the game and natural reactions.

A few years ago a 15-minute conversation between Lawrence Dallaglio and the ref whenever Wasps were pinged, though deeply annoying to play against, was almost seen as part of the occasion. The booing and jeering of opposing fans every time he approached the ref with his brow furrowed made for drama; it gave us a reason to pretend to hate the pantomime villain (even though we all secretly adored him).

But now appeals are more forceful and occasionally laced with venom, and this shifts the tone immediately. From my experience, when players and coaches start to lose respect for the values that have made rugby so charming for so long, they give permission for those watching to do the same. Players will always question the ref, as will supporters, but the minute those appeals and disagreements become viperish and animated, we are one step closer to ripping into refs as our footballing friends do.

I do not see it as coincidence that football fans are more aggressive than those at the rugby. For years football crowds have been shown what behaviour is acceptable by the men they pay vast sums to watch. Of course, the players are not solely to blame, but they have the best opportunity to lead by example. Vincent Kompany, Manchester City's captain, proves it is possible.

Rugby is not in trouble, but it will be if the players do not take steps to give total, undiluted – though not unquestioning – respect to the blokes with the whistles. The vast majority do, and they need to be brave enough to campaign internally for the protection of one of the values that makes our game great. Every time they do not, they give permission for the young lad in the crowd to do the same when he plays at school or on a Sunday morning.

Yes, refs are people we love to hate, but let's make sure their perceived villainy remains the stuff of theatre.