As a player, starting a fight in rugby is pretty easy. You can throw a boot or two at the opposition in the ruck. You can time your tackle just right to punish a ball carrier just after he passes. Or maybe just pull down the opposition jumper in the line-out.
As a full-contact game that attracts passionate participants, rugby lends itself to fighting and skirmishes, especially since so many of us players accept incidental shoves and hits as just a normal part of game play. Even at the elite levels, this ‘hand-bagging’ is very common and usually overlooked by match officials.
However, one of the most important jobs of a rugby referee is to keep the players on the pitch safe and manage what is usually boils down blowhards trying to slow down the game.
Keeping these minor incidents in check is what prevents and all-out brawl.
To control fighting in a match, a referee has to use his best judgement to decide when hand-bagging becomes something more sinister and dangerous. Ejecting a player for 10 minutes (yellow card) or the entire match (red card, with likely disciplinary action after the match) is usually sufficient to keep players from both teams in check.
For example, by giving Schalk Burger a yellow card just 30 seconds into the 2nd Lions test match last week, Christophe Berdos set an important precedent for the rest of the match. Burger should have been red-carded, and received an 8-week ban afterwards, but importantly the players knew what was expected of them from the referee.
In the 3rd Lions test match, referee Stuart Dickinson tried to control the match with a yellow card to Simon Shaw late in the first half. This card was warranted, despite the rather unintentional and incidental nature of the infraction.
However, as South Africa slipped further behind on the score board, their frustration with an invigorated Lions side showed through on many occasions with a similar pattern: after a stoppage in play, a South African player would grab a Lion and throw them to the pitch. Heinrich Brüssow showed this in poor fashion at least twice by slamming Martyn Williams to the ground (after picking him up from a prone position) and throwing Mike Phillips to the ground, from behind, by his shirt-collar (see video above).
These acts should have been sorted immediately with yellow and red cards, but Dickinson failed to act forcefully. In the case of slamming Williams to the turf, nothing was done. For Phillips, only a penalty.
This lack of appropriate disciplinary action on the pitch by the referee endangers the players and sets a terrible example for a sport that is trying to break into the mainstream in many countries including Canada and the USA.
Considering the world stage on which this match was played, such low-class behavior and is sure to steer parents of prospective new rugby players towards safer sports.
For once, I guess I am happy that less than 1% of North Americans will ever see that match.