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Abuse of officials and players at Rugby World Cup sparks legal action

World Cup final referee Wayne Barnes received death threats during the tournament in France.

Phil Blanche
Wednesday 31 January 2024 20:54 GMT
World Cup final referee Wayne Barnes received death threats during the tournament in France last year (David Davies/PA)
World Cup final referee Wayne Barnes received death threats during the tournament in France last year (David Davies/PA) (PA Wire)

World Rugby has revealed legal action is being taken after match officials and players suffered online abuse during the 2023 World Cup.

One individual in Australia has been charged for online abuse, cases in other jurisdictions are pending – including France, New Zealand the UK – and 1,600 social media accounts have been reported to platforms for breach of their community guidelines.

England’s Wayne Barnes announced his retirement five days after refereeing the Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand, with his wife Polly revealing that he had received death threats while at the tournament in France and had suffered such abuse many times.

Referee Tom Foley announced in December he would take a break from international rugby because of the “torrent of criticism and abuse” he received after the final, where he was the television match official.

World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said: “The rise of online hate in society and sport is worrying and totally unacceptable and we will continue to do everything possible to protect and support our international match officials and their families by bringing abusers to justice.

“As a result of our partnership with Signify Group we have been able to unmask and identify abusers and take action through law enforcement agencies in multiple countries.

“We hope that prosecutions will send a clear message that such behaviour is not tolerated and even if a person hides behind an alias on a social media network, they will be identified and can be charged.

“It is important to note that this programme is not about suppressing debate, legitimate criticism or free speech, it is about maintaining respect, compassion and decent human and rugby values.

“We will use the recommendations of the report to better understand online trends and help address the areas that lead to abuse at source. Some of these aspects will play into our Shape of the Game conversations in February.”

More than 900 social media accounts, including those belonging to all match officials with public-facing social accounts, were monitored by Signify Group during the seven weeks of the World Cup last September and October.

The accounts monitored also included the families of match officials and World Rugby’s bona fide channels.

The impact of the work comes on the eve of ‘Whistleblowers’, an access-all-areas film following the match officials’ journey to and through the 2023 tournament, which also highlights the scale of online abuse they faced, being broadcast.

World Rugby said that in the case of more extreme abusive accounts flagged to platforms, takedown rates are running at approximately 90 per cent.

We hope that prosecutions will send a clear message that such behaviour is not tolerated and even if a person hides behind an alias on a social media network, they will be identified and can be charged.

World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin

Barnes said: “Those who abuse or threaten players, match officials or their families must realise there will be consequences for their actions.

“It is great to see World Rugby leading the way and seeing the first charges being made against those individuals who send such appalling messages.

“There is simply no place for that behaviour in rugby, in sport or in society.”

Match officials, including TMOs, received 49 per cent of the total abuse during the tournament.

Three match officials were in the top 10 most targeted individuals and Barnes was the most targeted person, receiving one third of all abuse.

The England team received the largest volume of abuse, followed by South Africa and France.

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