You may call me sad if you wish, but – in classic ‘busman’s holiday’ mode – at 3.00pm yesterday afternoon I settled down to watch BT Sport’s ‘live’ coverage of the Premiership match between Gloucester and Bath. I could have gone shopping, prepared the family evening meal, done the hovering or simply taken a leisurely bath instead, but I decided to settle on the rugby purely for my own personal pleasure.
The match ended as a 17-18 victory for the visitors (Bath), but the fact is almost incidental. This was a simultaneously a most ordinary and extraordinary rugby occasion that will – or should – require an inquiry by Premiership Rugby and if necessary the RFU.
Let us be blunt. It was a dire mediocre game. Undoubted passion and intent was overwhelmed by too much whistle and too little flair and invention. We could dispute whether, technically, defensive systems are throttling the sport with their efficiency – surely the answer is affirmative whenever, as here, both attacking endeavours were limited and insipid – or whether yesterday was just a case of two teams having a common ‘bad day at the office’.
However, to the headline point.
For all its ‘holier than thou’ condescension towards soccer and its claim to be true, honest, fair, grounded in respect for the referee and life-positive self-discipline, there is a core element of visceral dominance and brutality in rugby culture.
Calling the referee ‘Sir’ does not excuse or cancel out acts of thuggery that, in other circumstances might land the participants in court. BT’s presenters epitomised rugby’s dilemma with their advance references to the special spice associated with this ‘unique West Country derby’ (months of bragging rights to be gained, scores to be settled etc.) and their seeming delight at the first instance – to be fair, not until nearly fifteen minutes in – of the forward packs exchanging ‘pleasantries and handbags’.
The outcome mattered to both sides beyond the derby aspect – Gloucester were looking for a top six spot to qualify for European rugby next season, Bath for a top four (playoff) finish – but before half-time both players and onlookers had been distracted by officiating issues. One or two dire/illegal tackles began the rot, but in his refereeing Tim Wigglesworth veered too much towards technicalities and away from letting the game flow by use of a light but firm hand upon the tiller.
He also made some strange decisions, e.g. at one stage sin-binning Mike Tindall in a case of apparent mistaken identity and disallowing what appeared to be a perfectly straightforward Bath try for alleged ‘crossing’.
Players and coaching staff became frustrated and the last ten minutes of the match verged upon the farcical.
A tally of two Gloucester players sent off (plus two yellow-carded) and three Bath players yellow-carded … and then a last-minute, game-winning, penalty try to Bath … left us with the unedifying spectacle of Gloucester finishing with just 11 men on the field after a prolonged thirty-man brawl which would not have been out of place in Cardiff City centre on a Saturday night.
A case of ‘the beautiful game’ this was not. My guilty secret is that the final scenes certainly made for compelling, if difficult to credit, viewing.