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Cain column: Theatrics have no place on the great stage in Japan

Yoann Huget - France

YOANN Huget is one of the best attacking talents in Rugby Union, and yet he could become one of its greatest liabilities.

The French wing/full-back is not just big, fast and elusive, he is one of those players who, given a couple of inches of space, will take 75 metres and touch down between the posts.

The problem with Huget is that he doesn’t just take liberties with opposition defences, he takes liberties with the spirit of the game.

The French wing is prone to shamming injury, and gesticulating or appealing to match officials when he does not get his own way on the pitch. This type of conduct has already infected pro football.

One of the first instances of Huget pushing the boundaries came when he was playing in a European Cup match for Toulouse against Bath at the Rec in 2015.

His outrageous dive to ground, clutching his face as if he had been punched – when he had been shoved lightly on his shoulder by Bath wing Horatio Agulla – was a disgrace, and luckily it was detected by replay footage.

It earned Huget a formal warning from the match citing commissioner for feigning injury in “an act contrary to good sportsmanship” which was designed to at least gain a penalty, or at worst get an opposition player yellow-carded or sent-off.

However, there were clear signs during France’s victory over Italy at the Stade de France last weekend that he is up to his old tricks again.

It happened when Huget reacted quickest to his chip-and chase into the Italian 22 as his Italian opposite number, Mattia Bellini, was forced to turn before racing back. Bellini was level with Huget as they homed-in on the bounce but, when it jagged sideways, he was wrong-footed. 

As the Frenchman crossed in front of him and nudged the ball into the in-goal area Bellini’s reflex was to momentarily grab at Huget’s waist and release – but not before the play-actor had thrown his hands in the air and throttled back rather than chase full-pelt to ground the ball.

When Bellini beat him to it, Huget followed his dive by rolling over, raising both arms theatrically and yelling for a penalty try.

Huget had been impeded, albeit for a split second, so referee Matthew Carley,  had no option but to award a penalty try. However, he also felt compelled to sin-bin Bellini. In the interests of natural justice and punishing Huget’s histrionics, it would have been a far better outcome if he had let the Italian stay on the pitch.

Either that, or he should also have yellow-carded the French wing for another act contrary to good sportsmanship.

However, while Huget may be one of the worst offenders, unfortunately he is not the only one. 

After last season’s European Cup quarter-final Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill was fiercely critical of Munster’s Tadhg Beirne for a theatrical hop-skip-and-jump dive after a relatively innocuous shoulder ‘nudge’ by Edinburgh loosehead Pierre Schoeman.

When the incident led to the TMO advising that a kickable penalty to Edinburgh be over-turned for foul play by Schoeman it was Cockerill’s contention that, with his side leading 13-10 at that point – but eventually losing 17-13 – the decision changed the shape of the game.

Referees’ top priority: Play-acting needs to be stamped out of rugby. Getty Images

Cockerill compared Beirne’s shamming with Edinburgh scrum-half Henry Pyrgos’ refusal to take the same route when he was dumped on his back by a Conor Murray off-the-ball tackle before a Munster try.

He argued that if feigning injury and play-acting is tolerated and becomes widespread it will mean that rugby union will “end up on a slippery slope’ in which it would lose its soul.

Cockerill said: “Without sounding too old, if that happened 15 years ago you would be embarrassed, wouldn’t you? Even your own team-mates would be laughing at you telling you to get up. It’s happening all the time now.”

He added: “If you’re injured stay down. If you’re not, get up and get on with the game. The respect for the game starts to fall away if you don’t.” 

Nor is the lack of a combatants’ code of honour confined to play-acting. Players haranguing or appealing to assistant referees on the touchlines in order to influence their decisions has almost reached epidemic proportions in the pro game.

There is also a rise in cheap gamesmanship, such as scrum-halves deliberately passing the ball into an opposition player who, while moving back into an onside position, is not interfering with or obstructing play.

When Ben Youngs did this recently during England’s win over Ireland, referee Nigel Owens waved play on rather than be duped into giving a penalty.

There is also an increase in the far more dangerous business of a defending player dropping knees, feet, elbows or forearms onto a try-scorer who has dived over to ground the ball with the deliberate intention of injuring them.         

Referees and their assistants have been told to be ultra vigilant during the World Cup in punishing in-goal attempts to injure try-scorers, and it is right for it to be a priority.

However, play-acting is an insidious import that must also be at the top of their hit-list during rugby’s showcase  event. The tendrils it has put down have to be rooted out now.

NICK CAIN

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