What a poor advert for modern-day rugby union. An eagerly-awaited, top-of-the-table clash between the first and second-placed clubs in RaboDirect Pro12 descended into something of an ugly and unsavoury spat. More reminiscent of a bickering squabble of schoolboys than professional athletes, the matchup between Glasgow Warriors and Munster failed to deliver the spectacle anticipated by many of the five-thousand-plus fans at Scotstoun.
With the fixture marred by errors, imprecision and stoppages, referee Ian Davies aggrieved plenty among the home crowd with a string of decisions that went against their side. Most of the contentious calls Mr Davies made in open play could be argued both for and against, and the anguish of the Scotstoun faithful could largely be attributed to the scoreboard and their team’s inability to break through a resolute Munster rearguard. At the set piece, however, the Welshman seemed to flounder in an all-too familiar manner.
In a game that lasted in the region of two whole hours, the number of reset scrums and unconvincing sanctions awarded in between did nothing to add to the spectacle or fluidity of the gameplay. In fact, it rather flew in the face of the IRB’s latest scrum directive, and only served to up the seedy and unpleasant atmosphere building both in the stands and on the pitch.
It must be said that officials and unions invest a tremendous amount of time into educating themselves on the ins and outs of the scrummage. Despite that, it seems that there are rather glaring disparities in the quality and consistency of refereeing in this complex area of the game at test-match and domestic levels.
For example, under the new directive, referees are encouraged to be more vigilant on packs pushing before the ball is put into the tunnel. Mr Davies, however, appeared to fall foul of Munster’s “shirking” of the hit on engagement. By that, I mean that the visiting forwards were not meeting the force of their opposition as the two packs came together, and stepping back so that it appeared Glasgow were trying to shove early. It is quite easy and quite common for referees to interpret this as an early push, and I have spoken at length to several elite front-row players who claim to have been on the receiving end in recent fixtures.
Scotland fans will recall similar set-piece suffering in last season’s Six Nations clash with Wales at Murrayfield. This was prior to the new directive, and under the watchful eye of Craig Joubert – one of the world’s top officials – but the Scottish eight were blighted by a flurry of free-kicks dished out by the South African for early engagements. While engaging early and driving early are two different infringements, parallels can be drawn between the manner in which both the Welsh and Munster front-rows delayed their respective shunts.
With the match nearing its conclusion and a host of replacements lining up to do battle, the scrum rather predictably crashed to the floor once again. Mr Davies remained no closer to identifying either side’s set-piece misdemeanours, grew frustrated with the lack of stability at the scrum, and brought all six front-row players in for some words of warning.
“Let me make it absolutely clear at this scrum,” he told them.
“The next person to take the scrum down, two of you will go. I can’t be clearer.”
This puzzling address seemed to serve almost as an admission that the Welshman was flummoxed by the goings on between the two packs. It also occurred in the seventy-fourth minute of the match. The scrum was less than five metres from the touchline, and it was from the side nearest the whitewash – and a watchful assistant referee – that it kept giving way. When it subsequently crumbled anew, Mr Davies showed bemused pair Jon Welsh and Dave Kilcoyne a yellow card each.
So, the referee failed to emerge from Scotstoun a terribly popular man. Though he certainly did not enjoy his finest display of officiating in a luminous pink jersey, the Welshman did not deserve the barrage of whingeing and complaints directed his way from both sides.
So often in the modern era, we see players standing with arms spread wide in soccer-esque protestation, gesticulating wildly at the match officials. This behaviour is neither acceptable, a great use of the player’s attention, nor in keeping with the sound moral values on which rugby prides itself. It is particularly out of keeping with the sport’s current focus on respect for the men in the middle.
As the game wore on, tempers continued to flare. Several scuffles broke out, with well-respected internationals Donncha O’Callaghan, Peter O’Mahony and DTH Van der Merwe failing to cover themselves in glory. O’Callaghan, in the game’s dying seconds, claimed he was bitten by a Glasgow player, revealing to Mr Davies what he alleged were teeth-marks in his forearm. There were unconfirmed reports emanating from those at the ground of further scraps between players after the final whistle.
It all combined to sour what should have been an impressive occasion, and instead left a decidedly bitter taste in the mouths of many who had braved a cold Glasgow evening to watch it. Rather than whet the appetite of those supporters, it served as a timely reminder that, even in the professional age, rugby must not lose sight of the principles that make it so special.