Andy McGeady: Referees need firm protection on the field of play
The case of Viktor Kolelishvili shows the importance of upholding the rules
Clermont’s Viktor Kolelishvili in action against the Ospreys. The Georgian backrow has been suspended for 14 weeks for pushing referee Wayne Barnes. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
‘You don’t ever, ever f****** touch a referee, ever. You’re done here.” So said Ultimate Fighting Championship supremo Dana White in June 2014 after one of his fighters shoved a referee. It was no mere sound bite; he released Jason High from the UFC. When a physical act is frowned upon even amid the brutality that can be mixed martial arts, it should resound.
Mujati, a half-time substitute, was involved in a brief scuffle after a scrum. Mas marched over to Mujati, delivering a firm push. Nothing nasty, just a message. They jogged to the next breakdown. Referee Nigel Owens found himself firmly shoved in the back. The culprit? Mujati. There had seemed to be no reason for it. It was all very odd.
A minute later during a break in play, Owens had a stern word. “There’s plenty of room on the field for the 31 of us. You push me like that in the back again and you will go off. Do you understand?”
Mujati gave a brief nod before walking away. Subsequently, Mujati would be cited and banned for six weeks.
On Friday night Clermont’s Viktor Kolelishvili shoved referee Wayne Barnes. The Georgian flanker was cited and the case heard yesterday in Paris.
At the time Barnes had channelled his inner diplomat, awarding a penalty. Kolelishvili apologised repeatedly, offering a handshake after the referee’s firm admonishment.
The full written Mujati judgment, like so many lawyerly aspects of rugby’s off-field disciplinary process, is a lengthy read. There were semantic disputes by the defence as to how the exact wording of the rugby lawbook should be interpreted and contrary semantic assertions by the prosecution as to the intention of that wording (including a statement from the IRB’s legal counsel). Dictionary definitions of the words “physical” and “abuse” were submitted in evidence.
Why? Consider that in the GAA lawbook there is a clear distinction between “minor physical interference (eg laying a hand on, pushing, pulling or jostling)” and “striking or attempting to strike, or any type of assault” on an official. They are categorised differently with minimum suspensions of 12 week and 48 weeks respectively.
It had been accepted that Mujati had no previous disciplinary record. Kolelishvili could hardly boast such a thing; you might remember him from his starring role in a 2014 mass brawl against Canada. The judicial officer also accepted that Mujati had been concussed at the time and “the existence of the concussion constitutes an exceptional circumstance”. The above led to a 75 per cent reduction in the minimum ban for Mujati from 24 weeks down to six.
Being without concussion or clean disciplinary record, Kolelishvili yesterday received a 14-week ban; half of the entry point but with two weeks added given his poor track record.
This might put rugby’s judiciary at odds to the comments of various former players and media praising Barnes for his patience. And maybe there is something in that – nobody likes an early red card. But when it comes to shoving an official there is a very slippery slope.
Something let go in a televised game and unpunished afterwards could filter to a back pitch at the local club. Large, angry humans shoving smaller ones on pitches without cameras or crowds. Sport needs to protect the referee. Let him or her do their job in peace.