Rugby’s Controversial Upsets

Controversial moments in rugby are many and cover a wide range of topics on and off the field of play. There has always been present the so called ‘mind games’ or one upmanship between adversaries but sometimes certain situations hit the headlines in a big way and influence the game enormously. The glorious sport of rugby maintains its core values and those in charge seek to improve the sport to further protect players serious career finishing injuries. The most recent new rugby law concerns head injuries with a compulsory 15 minute check for concussions. Also the way a player must use the wrapping of arms when tackling has produced controversial decisions by referees interpreting and implementing these latest regulations, rugby enthusiasts, fans and club representatives vehemently discuss the pros and cons of how rugby is played today, yes, and controversy continues to follow the modern game.

One Man & His Whistle - One referee that has been embroiled in high level controversy is Craig Joubert. He refereed the RWC Final in 2011 between N. Zealand v France. His blatant refusal to award obvious penalties to France in the dying minutes of the game denied France the chance win their first world cup victory and lose by 1 point. Everyone in the game and the media described Joubert’s conduct as disgraceful and shameful for this level of match. N. Zealand claimed this controversial victory with the lowest ever world cup final score, 8-7 in fact. Mr. Joubert then popped up again in 2015 in the quarter final match of Scotland v Australia. Joubert made a massive and glaring error of judgement in awarding an off-side penalty to Australia when it should have been a scrum down. Even with the giant screen replays shown Joubert did not change his decision even though the entire rugby world saw that he was wrong to not award the scrum for a knock on. Only 2 minutes remained when Australia successfully converted the penalty to win the game 35-34 and destroying Scotland’s heroic display against the Wallabies. At the end of the match Joubert raced off the field making gestures to say he did not want to speak to anyone and later he admitted his mistake with the RWC officials also declaring that the controversial decision made by the referee was incorrect. Needless to say that Joubert was side-lined by the RWC after this very alarming and poor decision which saw an excellent Scottish side denied a victory that it deserved.

Pull My Chicken Leg - The controversy surrounding the N. Zealand camp in 1995 with a mysterious waitress called Suzie who allegedly poisoned the Kiwis with a chicken meal that made way for S. Africa to win the RWC final. This is just one version of the story behind the dramatic fall in form of the New Zealanders in the final, however, the aftermath of these highly suspect claims have never been proven but provoked an outrageous outcry of sabotage so much so that a private investigator was hired to get to the bottom of it. It still remains a mystery today and many S. African supporters say it is a case of sour grapes or as the Springboks wing described it as a load of bullshit on the preposterous remarks made by the All Blacks team members.

Green Is Go! – In 2007 the Irish Bookies, Paddy Power sponsored the Tongan team with some peculiar advertising ploys during the RWC. They convinced the team to dye their hair green representing Ireland’s colour and the huge forward Epi Taione to officially change his name to Paddy Power! The Tongans accepted all the conditions and were ready to play England with green hair when the RWC officials declared the controversial stunt against the rules on advertising and their normal hair colour had to be restored before the game could go ahead plus the player now known as Paddy Power or amiably called The Jolly Green Giant was fined with his birth name inserted on the team sheet. However, not to be out done the bookmaker provided all the Tongan supporters with bright green wigs to advertise legally who sponsored them. Unfortunately, Tonga lost the match which was far from being controversial unlike their sponsor.

Big Money, Big Chaos – Rugby Union was always classed as an amateur sport since 1871 although players wanted to be paid to play full time they had to maintain jobs to survive financially. This no salary policy caused controversy and a rift ensued that saw Northern England Union teams break away to form the Rugby League which allowed players to be compensated for loss of earnings when training and playing matches. In a positive sense the controversial decision by the RFU to turn professional in 1995 posed even greater problems in hindsight as big money entered the game from entrepreneurs buying clubs outright in order to turn a profit and the RFU offering the TV rights for England’s home games to the highest bidder for the then 5 Nations to which France objected over their share of the sponsorship deal and resulted in England being banned from playing in the tournament. The controversy continued as the big money club owners had conditions in the player’s contracts which barred them from playing for their respective nations. The pro-rugby world in the UK was in turmoil as English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish national team players were contractually restricted to play for the national teams due to club match dates and clashing cup competition dates. This highly conflicting situation produced another unforeseen controversy when one big money financier cut his ties with immediate effect to the club he bought plunging the club and players into financial ruin which could spread to other clubs and therefore rendering pro-rugby defunct. Today, the big money and professional player arrangement still has problems but at least club ownership is a more complex but safer issue. The English Premiership has an earnings cap for players to be respected to safeguard financial issues for clubs. The most recent controversy over player salaries involved the successful Saracens Club who in 2019 broke the player payment rules for 3 seasons. This resulted in a 70 points reduction and relegation to 2nd tier RFU Championship division and a hefty fine of £5.3 million.

Homophobic Controversy – Australia’s national team player, Israel Folau, the 32 year old star had his $4 million contract rescinded and sacked for his controversial statements published on Twitter. He remarked that gay players will go to hell unless they repent along with same sex-marriage couples who he blamed for the massive bush fires in Australia adding that abortion contributed to it too. He has since moved to rugby league in France but controversy was not far behind him when he was the only player who refused to take ‘the knee’ in support of victims of police brutality and racism. A controversial settlement agreement between Folau and Australia Rugby in 2019 where both parties apologised and emphasised that no real harm was intended by either party.

Controversy is the spice of life at times, and when you arrive at Krakow Rugby Festival you can be sure there will be some controversy... but only on the bride side of life ;)