Rugby people have always prided themselves in how the game is played and its supporters behave. The modern game is different from the amateur era and it is time to question whether the behavior of rugby crowds has deteriorated and if supporters realise or even care.
The RFU established a task force in 2007 to articulate rugby’s core values. They identified five principles which lie at the heart of the game in England; namely teamwork, discipline, enjoyment, sportsmanship and respect. They developed each of these principles and in the case of respect made the following comments:
“Mutual respect forms the basis of our sport. We hold in high esteem our sport, its values and traditions and earn the respect of others in the way we behave. We respect our match officials and accept our decisions. We respect opposition players and supporters. We value our coaches and those who run our clubs and treat clubhouses with consideration.”
Thankfully, referees are still afforded the respect they deserve by players. The captain is allowed to seek clarification of decisions from the referee and request that closer attention is paid to certain aspects of opponents play. It is argued that supporters have no means of expressing their frustration with the referee other than by booing. This has become the accepted reaction to referee decisions (questionable or otherwise).
The manner in which fans demonstrate support for their team during a game can vary from country to country but generally includes cheering, clapping, singing, whistling, wearing team colours, waving flags and so on. It can make for a colourful and atmospheric occasion. What detracts from the occasion, however, is the bad-mannered booing of opponents which now dominates so many games. It is rare for a player to take a kick at goal without a cacophony of boos from opposing supporters. The motivation for booing is questionable as it generally does not distract kickers. The silence during kicks at Thomond Park or Lansdowne Road may indeed be more off-putting for kickers.
At moments of high controversy even the best behaved supporters have been known to vent their frustration in uncharacteristic fashion. In 1978, JPR Williams famously late-tackled Mike Gibson at Lansdowne Road and was incessantly booed for the remainder of his career by Irish supporters – supposedly the role models in crowd behavior.
In South Africa, New Zealand and Australia goal-kicks can no longer be taken in silence and in fact an undesirable boorish element has crept into the game. Quade Cooper was guilty of a number of cheap shots on Richie McCaw during 2011 which resulted in him being vilified by the New Zealand rugby public during the world cup. Cooper was booed throughout the tournament until he was carried from the field with a serious knee injury in the 3rd / 4th place playoff. Cooper had a shocking world cup and his behaviour was exemplary throughout. There was no excuse for the abuse he was subjected to.
There appears to be a reluctant acceptance of this unsporting behaviour on the part of administrators. Children who are learning about rugby probably believe that booing at games is acceptable. They will grow up knowing no better and the spirit of the game will have changed for ever. Is it not time for clubs, franchises and unions to insist on an improvement in the behaviour of their supporters? Or are we prepared to watch the game we love suffer a similar fate to other professional sports?