The issue of respect of match officials was a hot topic at World Rugby’s general assembly this week and results of Laporte’s review are expected to be announced before the Six Nations. In a statement, World Rugby said: “Rugby is a sport that operates on trust and respect, and recent events have unfortunately placed the confidential, trust-based coach-match officials communication and feedback process under pressure.
“World Rugby, with the full support of its Executive Committee and the wider game, is fully committed to reinforcing an environment that supports and protects match officials, while providing an appropriate feedback process. To that end, a review of the process is already underway, consulting with match officials, coaches and unions. In addition, the protocols and behaviours relating to team support staff, including water carriers, will be reviewed at the same time.
“Match officials are the backbone of the sport, and without them there is no game. World Rugby condemns any public criticism of their selection, performance or integrity which undermines or threatens their role, the trust-based coach-officials feedback process, and more importantly, the values that are at the heart of the sport and must be upheld.”
Meanwhile, Rennie has apologised for calling the officiating of his side’s defeat to Wales “horrendous”. Rennie was critical of Kurtley Beale’s yellow card for a deliberate knock-on, arguing Wales centre Nick Tompkins committed the same offence in the build-up to his try. Both Rugby Australia and Rennie have accepted their warnings.
“The choice of language and its timing did not meet the standards required from a coach or official in upholding Rugby’s core values of discipline, integrity and respect. Rugby Australia and Dave Rennie accept the formal warning issued by World Rugby,” the statement added.
Comment: ‘Water-carriers’ should carry water only – not instructions
The collective noun for water-carriers has yet to be determined but while the doyens at Merriam-Webster ponder this eternal question may I propose a ”blight of water-carriers’? Or failing that an ‘irritation of water-carriers’?
There are countless more pressing issues sitting atop of the to-do lists of rugby’s decision-makers but as personal vexations go the sight of six water-boys entering the field of play approximately every 30 seconds is right up there with the public address affliction that is Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. To be clear: players have a right to water. Whether they need it before the very first scrum in a mid-winter match is another matter.
Regardless, their designated purpose is not the problem. It is how their role has evolved, whereby hydration is merely a cover for relaying every tactical whim of the coaching box, to acting as an intimidating presence around the officials. And even though this is now accepted as established practice, the water-carriers are now stepping past those already stretched boundaries.
A far more egregious example than what happened at Exeter’s victory at Wasps last month came in the Rugby Championship match between New Zealand and South Africa when a Springbok water-boy ran up the touchline screaming at the assistant referee claiming his side had won a 50-22. English referee Matthew Carley had to warn the water-carrier that he would be sent off if he continued in that vein.
After the match, South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber revealed the water-carrier had been carrying out his personal instructions. This tacit admission by the head coach of the world champions, that he uses water-carriers to intimidate and influence the officials, received remarkably little comment at the time, which probably shows how bad a state of affairs we have reached. Of course, during the Lions series, it was Rassie Erasmus who had been carrying out this hired goon role. Bye the bye, Carley was perfectly correct in his decision as the Springbok kicker had taken the ball back inside his own half before kicking to the 22.
We saw this once again last weekend during the Springboks’ narrow defeat by England at Twickenham, where water-carrier Rene Naylor encroached onto the pitch during live play in order to celebrate a try, only for the ball to come her way and have to take evasive action not to trip South African full-back Frans Steyn.
The good news is that action is finally being taken by brave referees such as Wayne Barnes and Carley while we report on these pages that World Rugby intend to reexamine the laws around this area. As with much else in rugby, if there is a small opening, expect coaches to drive a tank through it. So the Springboks navigated the ban on the head coach fulfilling the water-carrier role by sending Erasmus, their director of rugby, on to the field – only for his 10-month match-day ban for his ill-advised referee rant video to prevent him from doing so again until October next year. As a leading referee told Telegraph Sport, even without saying anything, the 6ft 4in Erasmus is an intimidating physical presence when he’s standing in your eyeline while you are making a key decision.
Perhaps the cleanest solution would be to ban players or coaches filling this role. What is to stop water-carriers being teenage volunteers or academy players like ball boys in football or tennis? At a stroke, this would stop the bullying of officials. Whether they admit it or not, the players would also probably welcome the end of the constant flow of messages from the stands. And being allowed to play the game how they see it on the pitch rather than being controlled like a NFL quarterback through a headpiece.
While commentating on the Wasps incident on BT Sport, Lawrence Dallaglio noted: “Water-carriers and their role within the game is an ongoing debate.”
There should be no debate. Their role should be to carry water. Nothing more.