The axing of Jaco Peyper from the referee roster for World Cup semi-finals seems at first glance to suggest that professional Rugby Union is becoming too po-faced for its own good.
However, the key word here is ‘professional’. Peyper is an elite referee on a substantial salary who travels the globe and has all his expenses paid – rather than one from the amateur club scene where there is a long-standing tradition of buying the ref a beer and having a chat in the clubhouse afterwards.
A few hours after sending off Sebastien Vahaamahina, South African whistler Peyper made the mistake of posing for a photograph with a group of Welsh fans outside a bar, and then joined them in mimicking the raised elbow strike on Welsh flanker Aaron Wainwright that led to the French lock’s dismissal.
World Rugby purportedly had Peyper earmarked for the England v New Zealand semi-final, but when the photo appeared on social media on Monday after being taken by a French photographer, the following day they showed the South African a red card for his lack of judgement.
French fans took a dim view of Peyper appearing to mock Vahamaahina’s transgression, and they had a point.
In a pro sport disciplinary issues can easily influence playing careers and therefore livelihoods, and while the Clermont lock can be castigated for losing self-control so blatantly, it is inappropriate and unwise for a match official to joke about it publicly.
Sure, Peyper was being light-hearted rather than vindictive, but consider the context.
Vahaamahina had been part of a French side winning 19-10, when, with 32 minutes remaining, his indiscipline left his side in the lurch with 14-men – and they went on to lose not only the match by a single point, 20-19, but also a place in the semi-finals.
In pro sport that’s not a trivial issue, and nor is the ban that Vahaamahina was served with in Tokyo by a World Rugby disciplinary panel on Thursday which will keep him from playing for his club Clermont for six weeks.
Nor is it trivial that Vahaamahina, 28, announced his retirement from international rugby immediately after the incident – although he claimed he made the decision well in advance of the quarter-final.
Although World Rugby said Peyper “apologised” for being in a photo that was “inappropriate”, a post on the SA Rugby Referees website defended him and and took issue with World Rugby’s decision to appoint Nigel Owens for the England v New Zealand clash in his place.
The post continued: “In effect he was suspended, not allowed to perform for a match. That is what would happen to a player guilty of foul play on the field. Peyper’s involvement in the picture hardly qualified as foul play. It also is highly unlikely that he would have posed for the picture with the intention of publishing it for the world to see.
“It seemed merely a bit of fun, and most people would be happy to see a referee acting as a normal person. It would certainly not have endeared referees to that group of Welsh supporters if he had rebuffed their friendly joy.”
What the SA Rugby Referees missive did not mention is that pro players have to adhere to social media guidelines when they are playing for country or club, and that it is reasonable to expect the same to apply to pro match officials.
Various commentators have also had their say, with Sir Clive Woodward joining the SA refs in the “leave Jaco alone” lobby.
However, that concept runs into trouble when you consider that Red Rose locks Danny Grewcock (1998) and Simon Shaw (2004) – two of only five England players sent off – were both dismissed against New Zealand during Woodward’s tenure as coach.
In both instances I wrote that Grewcock and Shaw were the victims of rough justice, because neither offence was close to being a stone-cold sending-off like Vahaamahina’s.
However, the idea that Woodward would have stood by and called it “a bit of fun” if the two refs concerned, Wayne Erickson (Australia) and Nigel Williams (Wales), had posed with Kiwi fans while mimicking the two English forwards “shoeing” the opposition is a hoot.
Woodward would have been spitting tacks – and had the team lawyer onto it in a flash.