By Doug Laing
A Hawke's Bay rugby player has been barred from the game for 12 weeks for referee abuse – effectively ending the player's 2021 season just two games after it started.
The suspension was imposed at a Hawke's Bay Rugby Union judicial hearing on Wednesday night, in line with a referee abuse policy agreed between the union and Hawke's Bay Rugby Referee's Association, because of difficulties retaining some referees and recruiting new officials.
For privacy reasons, the union has not identified the player, the club or the match, but union club rugby ambassador and veteran former club rugby manager Gary Macdonald said it was a "nasty" incident of verbal abuse directed at the referee in a Town and Country match, one step below the top Premier grade of the Nash Cup.
It was regarded as "mid-range" offending on a scale where a life ban was the likely outcome in the advent of an assault on a referee, along with the possibility of police prosecution for assault.
The player was "red-carded" during the game last Saturday, being ordered from the field by the referee whose report was then submitted to the union.
It was the first incident of referee abuse brought to the judiciary's attention this season, but two premier players have each been suspended for three weeks for throwing punches (at the head) during their games.
Player and sideline abuse of referees has been a significant factor in referees' concerns, leaving the RRA unable to guarantee referees for some grades, some referees having to control two or even three games on a Saturday, and the union offering financial inducement to clubs to provide members for refereeing duties.
Clubs were advised of the banishment on Thursday and reminded of the policy and zero tolerance approach which would be taken towards people who abuse match officials.
In the policy accepted by the clubs, action can be taken by the union against players, officials, spectators and clubs, and the union notes the East Coast Rugby Union, based in Ruatoria, has had to cancel club games for two weeks after referees withdrew services for a fortnight because of constant sideline abuse.
Macdonald said some Hawke's Bay referees had expressed their concerns during the off-season, including advising they were also considering withdrawing their services.
It led to the policy which, he said, had been widely publicised among the clubs, and he hoped the messages was "getting down" to the coaches, players and supporters.
Referees had been asked to report on player and crowd behaviour and clubs' performance of ground control responsibilities.
Macdonald said he was pleased that "100 per cent compliance" by clubs had been reported.
The union currently has 54 teams entered in its three senior grades, colts and women's competitions, an increase of six on the same stage of last year.
After several years of lower numbers and occasional decline, the union is now being seen as "the shining light" in comparison with some other areas.
The union believes a factor is a shorter club season, staged last year of necessity because of the Covid-19 lockdown, which stopped all sport for close to two months.
A survey of players led to a shorter season this year also.