There must be one hell of a view from just behind where I like to stand on the Anglesea Terrace in the RDS. I say this because week-in, week-out, the same guy screams for an offside decision at every single ruck, regardless of where on the field the action is. That he can unequivocally state that opposing players are half a metre offside while play is 70 metres away from us and at such an angle that I can’t tell if the player I’m focussing on is Devin Toner or just much closer to me than anyone else. That he invariably stands behind me each home game is nothing more than an annoyance, albeit an annoyance of admirable consistency.
Shouting for decisions from the sidelines has, for fans, become part and parcel of the professional game. In truth, my only issue with Offside Man is that he clearly hasn’t a clue about the rule and continues to scream for imaginary offsides while Eoin Reddan stands with ball in hand, looking for options. What I do have a serious issue with, however, is the growing acceptance of outright abuse directed towards the officials in every single game. I wasn’t in Cardiff for Leinster’s latest victory in the RaboDirect Pro12, so I dutifully tuned in to TG4 and flicked on the Twitter machine, as Vincent Browne would put it, to see what those at the game thought of such relevant factors such as atmosphere, weather, temperature and how frustrated Brian O’Driscoll looks to be carrying water for a living. What I got, much to my disappointment, was constant complaints about the overall standard of refereeing in the Celtic League, embodied in the match referee. The level of abuse against Marius Mitrea and his team was bordering on the hysterical. Mr Mitrea didn’t have a fantastic game, but when abuse flies from all corners and even gets to a personal level, that becomes irrelevant.
The growing acceptance of blaming referees for one’s own team’s inadequacies has become a serious issue in Rugby Union. Long a habit football fans revelled in, and even managers and pundits happily partook of, it was deemed ungentlemanly in the amateur game and seemed absent from the first few heady days of professionalism. If you need convincing of the epidemic of referee-blaming in round-ball sports, just watch the Sunday Game or any Sky Sports broadcast of football and wait for the losing manager to offer his two cents. Certainly, sometimes a referee’s decision late in a game can absolutely turn a result on its head and affect a game beyond remedy. Anyone from County Louth can easily attest to that fact. But in the vast majority of cases, when a manager or pundit attaches blame to the officials, the incidents in question are usually indicators of a malaise in the team’s performance and are not the gamebreaking calamities they’re made out to be. In a high-risk game like football management, it’s inevitably going to be a case of ‘blame anyone’. Likewise the pundits, many of whom yearn for a return to the game. They can’t be seen to criticise a coach, player or chairman/county board, so both barrels are fired at the referee. Long may we have the happy occurrence of a pundit who just doesn’t care, a la Giles or even, God help us, Spillane.
Rugby, however, was always that happy island between soccer’s enjoyment and grace and cricket’s decorum. It had all the pace and passion of hurling, with the respect afforded to officials lending it an air of propriety. It wasn’t, seemingly, to last. Look, for example at Brendan Venter, whose erstwhile Saracens side couldn’t score – couldn’t even cross the 10m line – in over 30 phases. That, of course, was down to Leinster committing offences and the officials being too incompetent to see it. Dr Venter, thankfully, has been the exception to the rule among coaches. The fans however seem to feel a need to attribute any failing in their team to the officials. It’s getting monotonous.
I rounded off my weekend by watching the Denver Broncos play the Pittsburgh Steelers with the season on the line. Ben Roethlisberger threw a lateral pass that was slapped out of his receiver’s hands. As the ball went backwards, it should have been a live ball, giving Denver a chance to recover the football. An official made a mistake and whistled the play dead as an incomplete pass. It was a balls-up of gargantuan proportions by the officiating crew. When the Broncos were told that the error couldn’t be rectified, they played on. The coaches coached on. Back in the studio the pundits pegged it as an error and said that Denver needed to get on with the game and not dwell on that one play. Most importantly of all, the fans just cheered on. It put me in mind of a Heineken Cup tie from October 2009. London Irish had just beaten Leinster 12-9. Referee Romain Poite had an appalling game, even by his standards, and was booed off the pitch. Some of the abuse hurled at the hapless Frenchman was of such a personal nature it was galling. Yet not once did anyone ask why Leinster, with possession 25 metres out in injury time and only trailing by three points, decided to opt for a box kick off the base of a ruck into replacement Ryan Lamb’s hands for a mark and an easy boot out of play to end the game. It seemed that night that everyone else was spitting vitriol at the referee and his touch judges, while I was asking myself why we hadn’t taken an obvious overlap for the win or a drop-goal for the draw. It seems that it’s all too easy, and acceptable, these days to offset a hard beat by a better team by questioning a referee’s sexuality, nationality or parentage.
Nigel Owens reminded Treviso’s Tobias Botes that the game we love and that he has the good fortune to play for a living is not soccer and that appealing by players for non-existent penalties is not part and parcel of the game. If M. Owens has a weekend off any time soon, perhaps he’d like to set the record straight with Offside Man and his pals.
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