New guidelines for unsportsmanlike behaviour on the pitch – Cov already fallen foul of the referees

Warwickshire RFU’s decision to stamp out any behaviour this season deemed to be in breach of the game’s 5 core values might well have real implications for local sides, including Coventry Rugby Club, according to an article by Paul Smith in a recent edition of the Coventry Telegraph.

Following concerns expressed by both the RFU and the National Referees panel regarding the behaviour of players across all the national leagues from Premiership through to National 3, the Warwickshire RFU has decided to take the lead in eradicating all instances of ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’  on the pitch.

And whilst that is one of those fairly subjective terms that is so hard to define, in essence it is any behaviour outside of that embodied in the RFU’s 5 core values of Respect, Discipline, Sportsmanship, Enjoyment and Teamwork. 

In the aforementioned article, Paul S details the background to Warwickshire’s decision to enforce a zero tolerance policy towards all forms of behaviour on the pitch which go against the spirit of the game.

Indeed, in the game against Sale the weekend before last, two of the penalties conceded by Coventry were apparently for excessive appealing to the referee – something I certainly wasn’t aware of at the time and helps explain what appeared then to be some odd decisions. Interestingly, Paul S goes on to mention that:

… and it was accepted. Rowland Winter held his hands up and said ‘yeah that’s fine, we’ll stop then don’t worry’ (sic)

Presumably RW was cautioned for the raising of the arm at the same time… 😉

I haven’t seen any mention of this new initiative from the WRFU elsewhere, other than in Paul Smith’s article, so I thought it might be appropriate to draw attention to it here as we might well be seeing the effects of the RFU’s concerns in National One this season, and not just amongst Warwickshire referees.

If the initial concerns were raised by the RFU, in conjunction with the National Referees’ Panel, then it seems more than likely it won’t just be the WRFU that is asking its members to take a tough stance on such behaviour; all referees officiating in National One games this season will be looking at implementing a similar policy.

So what sort of antics will referees be particularly harsh on this season, over and above the norms?

Well, in a video clip accompanying Paul Smith’s piece Ian Roberts, who is from the Warwickshire Society of referees and a member of the RFU panel of referees, suggests that it’s a range of behaviours including shouting at the referee, foul or abusive language and generally winding up the opposition.

Examples of the above might include the scrum half calling out to the referee that a player is offside or has gone over the top, the raising of hands in the air to remonstrate, the use of foul or abusive language, the sarcastic applauding of the opposition and the ruffling of a player’s hair on the opposing team in a manner designed to cause a reaction.

The RFU have told the National Panel to brief the captains pre-match, then if there’s anything like throwing arms out, appealing, shouting and using foul language, to stop the game, call the captain over and warn them again.. After that they get penalised, then if necessary yellow and red cards are available should transgressions still arise.

Ian Roberts

Roberts suggests that referees who take action on such behaviour will receive the full backing of the Warwickshire RFU, even if it might result in a red card.

Ian Roberts goes on to suggest that such is the determination of the WRFU to stamp out unsportsmanlike behaviour, it is even prepared to have ‘people removed from the game’, although presumably only  in the most extreme of circumstances. 

Apparently, clubs have been asked to  ‘recognise there is a problem’ and ‘educate their players in the core values’…but when there is so much pressure on players to win and games are won and lost sometimes on the narrowest of margins, it’s hardly surprising that players put pressure on the referee.

It’s not a question of educating the players as such, they are already well versed in what is and what is not acceptable out there on the pitch…the real issue is ensure that a team’s discipline is such that, even in the tightest of contests, players don’t exceed what is appropriate – knowing the boundaries and staying inside them are two very different things.

Whilst sportsmanship is one of the cornerstones on which the game has been built, I’m not altogether sure that some of the types of behaviour mentioned as being unacceptable are really that reprehensible.

For sure, foul and abusive language should be eliminated – few would argue with that.

But ruffling the hair of the opposition to goad them a little?  Really…?

There’s no finer sight than the Coventry scrum causing the opposition to stand and then Jimmy Litchfield patting the head of the opposition prop, just to remind him who’s in charge – and if the player reacts, well more fool him.

Or Pete White, arms outstretched appealing to the referee because he can’t get quick ball…the crowd love it, just as they love to hate the villain of the peace in the opposition who does something similar. Sometimes sport can be a form of theatre as well, and what makes it so entertaining is the all the players have a part to play. Rugby is very much a spectator sport and part of the enjoyment in watching a game is to witness the human drama too, the gamut of emotions players go through during the course of a game.  If players are penalised for simple expressions of feelings, manifested in the odd wave of the hand or gesture of defiance, then the game will be all the poorer for it.

And if you are going to penalise the players for occasional exhibitions of petulance that really aren’t anything more than the release of frustration which might otherwise manifest itself in far more unfortunate ways, then penalise the coaches and support staff as well.

Some of the antics from the officials of opposing teams can be pretty near the knuckle at times – inappropriate language to show complete disbelief or disrespect for a decision, or gestures that under the new WRFU initiative would be seen as completely against the spirit of the game.  You can’t look to address such behaviour on the pitch but allow it to happen with probably greater frequency on the touchline.

It’s a tough game.

Don’t take the toughness out of it.

If the worry is that referees are being intimidated by such behaviour, then it’s just as incumbent of the Referees’ Association (?) to better prepare referees to cope with minor instances of such behaviour, than it is to remove such behaviour entirely from the game. As a spectator, I want to see players react to the intensity and physicality of a game within acceptable limits. Appealing to the referee, tousling the opposition’s hair or applauding opponents errors are all part and parcel of what is acceptable to me – rather like sledging in cricket. Effing and jeffing, no…but some common sense needs to be applied.

Desensitise the game and the game becomes sterile and when that happens you lose that sense of theatre. Ensure players respect the referee yes, play within the laws and spirit of the game, but also let individuals be just that. Individuals. Not emotionless automatons.

However, I can remonstrate all I like, but it’s already happening.

Roberts has indicated, according to the Telegraph article, that

The Warwickshire RFU will back officials should disciplinary hearings result and is confident this joined up approach will greatly improve the situation

Maybe it will, for the referees anyway. But for the supporters, and even the players, well I’m not so sure. Referees need protection from the antics of the odd player which go well beyond what is seen as sportsmanlike – but, as I understand, the present interpretations of the laws provide plenty of options as they currently stand.

Good referees, referees that show a degree of sensitivity to the occasion, don’t have a problem with interpreting the current laws in ways that allow them to control the game, and the players, without potentially killing the contest as a spectacle.

So maybe that’s where the real focus should have been…

Warwickshire club rugby players face disciplinary crackdown – (Coventry Telegraph – Paul Smith)


A big thank you to everyone who has already entered their selections for a Select XV to start the game against Hull on Saturday. It was always going to be a popular poll given the recent recruitment and the relative success of the pre-season, and so it has proved.

If you haven’t yet entered, then you only have until the end of today to do so. I’ll post the results tomorrow morning…

Some of the positions are going to be decided on the narrowest of margins, so your vote really will count and at the moment I think there could be a couple of surprises, depending on how the votes are cast today.

It only takes a couple of minutes and you’ll be able to see how your decision compares with that of the coaches…

I seem to be well out of kilter with the majority at this point…

Thanks in advance,



Author: Tim

9 thoughts on “New guidelines for unsportsmanlike behaviour on the pitch – Cov already fallen foul of the referees

  1. Might be the end of a good few players if the RFU insist on following them though to the Premiership and above! I’d agree about Cov, and National One in general – plenty of scope for referees to use common sense without being directed…

  2. With these rules in place it looks like the end of Rhys Webb’s rugby career!! Never seen much of a problem at Cov though.

  3. In the four or five years that i have been attending the BPA and various away games, I feel I have certianly noticed an increase in supporters shouting out for yellow and red cards when certain fouls have been judged to be committed, i must admit it is not something that i like, but it does seem to be on the increase.

  4. Tim, you see more of the game in our division than I do and I’m pleased to hear that things appear to be under control. I think the game at the top level, where there is more at stake, is maybe a different matter.
    Hope your hair remains unruffled this Saturday…!

  5. Truly great ref but becoming guilty of enjoying the limelight a little too much now for me…becoming just as famous for his ability to put down a player than for his ability to ref a game.

  6. Hi Martin/Rob – always happy to be in the minority and I knew I was being a bit controversial when I wrote it. I still maintain though at the BPA in recent seasons where there has been what I would call obvious unsportsmanlike behaviour it has nearly always been dealt with by the referee, and if it hasn’t it’s been the result of the weakness of the referee to respond. I can’t argue with the comment about only the captain being the one to talk to the referee, but part of the theatre that is rugby is watching players get animated…the scrum half who points at a player lying off-side shouldn’t really be a problem and it something that crowds respond to…and when a crowd gets involved the game is so much better. Constant sniping at the ref a la Steve Thomas in the late 70s, well that is different…can understand the ref losing his cool in that situation! I just think that there are more important issues in the game at the moment than tackling players who applaud the opposition sarcastically or ruffle an opponents hair. Rob, totally agree about wanting to stop any football-like behaviours, and there are elements of that creeping in. I guess I was reflecting on what I see at the BPA or on my travels around other Nat 1 grounds – and at the moment the game is in a pretty healthy state in that respect…?

  7. I’m usually right with you with your observations Tim but have to say I’m with the WRFU on this.
    To be fair, I stand pitch side and don’t see a huge issue with Cov’s behaviour, apart from the upsurge in foul language. That being said, it’s very noticeable in televised matches that incidents appealing for cards, goading the oponent, haranguing the ref etc are now becoming the norm.
    Anything that stops our game becoming like football and now, unfortunately, boxing is ok with me.
    As you know I work in a school and see how our little darlings are influenced by the landslide of bad behaviour they’re subjected to on TV and I like to think that Rugby is still able to set an example where fair play is concerned.

  8. “But ruffling the hair of the opposition to goad them a little? Really…?”
    OK I’ll bite.
    Presumably if you ruffle my hair, it’s going to be OK for me to push you away to stop this happening? So, if I push you, can you push me? And if you’re bigger than me, can one of my bigger mates push you instead?

    Think I’ll have to disagree with you on this one.

    With regards to appealing, I was under the impression that it was only the captain that was allowed to talk to the referee?

Any thoughts:

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