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Martin Williamson | Columnist Index
Martin Williamson, who grew up in the era of when Wales ruled and England were perennial whipping boys, became managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group in 2007 after spells with Sky Sports, Sportal and Cricinfo
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Zero tolerance of abuse vital
Martin Williamson
May 3, 2014
Referee Wayne Barnes shows Dylan Hartley a red card, Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints, Aviva Premiership Final, Twickenham, May 25, 2013
Fortunately the kind of abuse that led to Wayne Barnes showing Dylan Hartley a red card at last year's Premiership final is rare ... but rugby needs to make sure it stays that way © PA Photos
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The apparent abuse aimed from spectators at referee Matthew Carley as he left the field after last night's Bath-Northampton match is just the latest incident in what has been a depressing month for those who believe that rugby is played in a different spirit to football.

Yes, it was a tiny minority involved, as is almost always quickly pointed out, and passions run high when sport is involved. But that does not excuse such behaviour. And when treated in context with other incidents, it is hard not to start thinking something is going wrong at all levels.

In recent weeks we have had several open displays of dissent against referees from players in the Premiership. Still rare, but scenes that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Coaches, under more pressure in the professional era, are more likely than ever to slam officials when their sides lose.

In both instances, it leads to an erosion of authority and respect towards referees and touch judges. If players and management can be seen mouthing off, then some spectators will start to think it's fine for them to do so.

And it spreads. The Newbury chairman was forced to publish a letter warning spectators such conduct would not be tolerated any more after what he saw as a decline in respect. A father was pictured tripping up a young player as he ran down the touchline in a match. A schoolboy saw nothing wrong in throwing a plastic bottle at a referee at Kingsholm.

Despite all this, rugby still has a deserved reputation for good behaviour in the stands and a high degree of respect towards officials. But it has a fight on its hands to preserve that and the authorities must act immediately to reinforce the powers available to officials and then back them to the hilt when people transgress.

The clubs as well must play their part and give no quarter those who abuse officials and opponents.

Last week I took my teenage daughters to a Championship football match and a Premiership game. They were amazed at the difference in behaviour by the crowd and players at the different sports, commenting how much respect and how little dissent there was at the rugby. They also noted the lack of segregation in the stands and the greater number of families at the Premiership clash.

That is a great selling point for rugby. It needs to do whatever is necessary to make sure that does not change.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Managing Editor, ESPN EMEA Digital Media

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