When Peter Wheeler, then the chief executive of Leicester, used a newspaper column to criticise the referee Steve Lander for some of his decisions in the match against Bristol in 2002, he was summoned to appear before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel and, after being found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, relieved of £3,000.

“The RFU will not condone public criticism of match officials through the media, because it will damage the game by undermining confidence and creating divisions,” said the panel’s chairman, Jeff Blackett, who was then in charge of discipline at Twickenham. “This sentence, therefore, is designed not only to penalise Peter Wheeler for his actions but also to send a clear message to the game that those who criticise match officials in public in the future will be dealt with severely.”

It was a long time ago, and it was only in the previous year that the first case of someone being summoned to account for disparaging remarks made post-match about a referee was held: Dean Ryan, then Bristol’s director of rugby, was given a month’s touchline ban and fined for saying after a match against London Irish the referee Tim Miller was “out of his depth” and “inadequate”.

“We have taken a strong line because there is a big concern that potential referees are put off by aspects such as public criticism,” said Blackett then. Sale’s director of rugby, Steve Diamond, has been dealt with in recent years for abuse of match officials during or after a match, but to their faces while they were getting showered rather than in the media. But the RFU’s stance seems to have shifted given the inaction after the England head coach, Eddie Jones, laid into the New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe following the victory against Wales at Twickenham last weekend.

“At the end, it is hard when you are playing with 13 against 16,” said Jones in his post-match media conference. He was talking about the final four minutes when Ellis Genge was in the sin-bin and Manu Tuilagi had been sent off for a high, no-arms tackle on George North. “I do not usually comment on decisions, but I do not see how you can tackle a guy now,” said Jones. “It’s absolute rubbish. There is no common sense shown.”

Three of his players were summoned to appear before a disciplinary panel in Dublin on Thursday, Genge, Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes, but no action has been taken against Jones yet. The RFU, which on its website says rugby’s core values are teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship, has said nothing, nor has the Six Nations. World Rugby is waiting to see what may or may not happen before deciding whether to intervene: it has history, charging Joe Marler after he called the Wales prop Samson Lee “gypsy boy” during the 2016 Six Nations match at Twickenham and the Six Nations decided it did not merit a hearing.

It may be that both the Six Nations and the RFU are waiting for the outcome of Tuilagi’s hearing before deciding whether to charge Jones; to do so before, unless it specifically referred to the 13 against 16 comment, could be deemed to prejudice the hearing, even if any action would be based on the view that the game had been brought into disrepute by his remarks rather than their veracity or otherwise.

World Rugby would rather the matter be dealt with by the Six Nations or the RFU, but would not be afraid to intervene. The issue highlights the inconsistency in the game when it comes to discipline. Had Jones made similar remarks during the World Cup, a tournament when he had nothing to say about the no-tolerance threshold on head-high tackles, even when it benefited England who saw opponents sent off when they played USA and Argentina, he would almost certainly have been charged.

Different tournaments come under different jurisdictions with World Rugby the court of last resort. The RFU did investigate post-match comments made by the then England head coach Andy Robinson in 2005 after a defeat by Ireland when a newspaper quoted him as saying, in reference to Jonathan Kaplan: “I think only one side was refereed.” The Union paid more attention to his television interview after the match when he criticised a late decision without mentioning the referee.


It appeared to hold back from action because Robinson’s reference to one-sided refereeing only appeared in one newspaper, but Jones was holding court and had two goes: about a specific decision and the objectivity of the referee. If the RFU does nothing, what moral authority will it have in the future if a club coach makes disparaging remarks about a match official to the media?

The Six Nations, which makes all six unions sign participation agreements that make reference to the game’s values and the consequences of bringing it into disrepute, may be biding its time, but past precedent suggests that is unlikely. The interests of consistency demand that World Rugby oversees the disciplinary process of every major international tournament.

Why has Jones suddenly found his tongue? Because he knows the consequences, or lack of them, or because he was trying to deflect from the fact that for the second successive home match England had failed to secure a bonus point despite scoring their third try after 62 and 60 minutes respectively? Whatever, what is the point of spouting on about the game’s values if a blind eye is turned when they are, at the highest level anyway, spat on?

Marler must be punished for demeaning treatment of Wyn Jones

Joe Marler is set for a ban after being cited for making contact with the genitals of the Wales captain, Alun Wyn Jones, during the first half of the victory against Wales.



The England prop Joe Marler (centre left) and the Wales second-row Alun Wyn Jones during the match at Twickenham on Saturday. Photograph: Michael Mayhew/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Marler is a maverick character who appeared to act on impulse, although the way he turned his head away as he made contact suggested he may have been out to get a reaction out of Jones. A punch thrown in retaliation would have resulted in a red card, as Mohamed Haouas was to find at Murrayfield the following afternoon.

But would any action have been taken against Marler? The fact that the television match official at Twickenham, Marius Jonker, one of the most meddlesome on the circuit, did not deem the incident worthy of bringing to the attention of the referee, assuming he saw it along with millions of others watching on a screen, would suggest not and retaliation is not a mitigating factor, but surely?

Marler faces a 12-week ban if found guilty, which would be long for an act that was provocative rather than violent, although it was demeaning. Will Carling said there had been an over-reaction and called for perspective on the ground that Jones did not feel any pain from an act that was a “humorous wind-up”.

If it is possible to see where Carling is coming from and that the charge could have been one of bringing the game into disrepute, international players are meant to set an example to young players as role models – and what sort of message would be sent out if the authorities laughed off what happened?

Failing to set an example means being made an example of.

Still want more?

The Six Nations sliding doors could improbably favour Ireland, writes Robert Kitson.

Talking points from a Six Nations tournament striving for an outcome.

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