I read with interest this week the comments of Tania Cassidy from the School of Physical Education at Otago University about the lack of emphasis placed on moral values by rugby administrators in NZ.

It was in the context of the selection of a new All Black player who had previously been charged with assaulting his partner.

Cassidy claimed that NZ Rugby lacks a clear emphasis on moral values such as honesty and sportsmanship, especially at elite levels.

She claimed there was "little or no evidence or emphasis on moral values such as compassion, fairness or integrity" in the sport.


What has this got to do with a column about the laws of rugby, you may ask?

Well, believe it or not, some of those values appear on several occasions within the pages of the current Laws of Rugby Union.

I say pages, but the laws of the game are no longer published in book form, although they can be found online, like so many other things these days.

The opening introductory page mentions the words "sportsmanship" and "discipline" in the context of rugby embracing a number of social and emotional concepts.

Those two words, and many others related to morals, are used repeatedly throughout the opening pages of the law book, which deals with the playing charter.

Under the page on 'Principles of the Game' it states that "through discipline, control and mutual respect the spirit of the game flourishes and, in a game as physically challenging as rugby, these are the qualities which forge fellowship and a sense of fair play so essential to the game's ongoing success and survival".

For "fair play", we can probably read honesty, and those words appear again in the section on application of the laws by coaches, players, captains and referees, as well as in the conclusion of the playing charter.

This last paragraph includes the sentence "rugby is rightly proud of its ability to retain high standards of sportsmanship, ethical behaviour and fair play".


Not so, according to Ms Cassidy, but then she is drawing a distinction between what happens off the field compared to on the field.

Referees are only concerned with fairly applying the rules to all players on the field.
In this respect, there is a paragraph on the application of the laws which seems to be being observed less rigorously these days than in the past.

According to the paragraph, there is an over-riding obligation on the players to observe the laws and to respect the principles of fair play.

Match officials can achieve this through fairly applying the rules with consistency, sensitivity and when appropriate, management.

In return, it is the responsibility of coaches, captains and players to respect the authority of match officials.

There were more red cards issued for referee abuse during last week's games.

In the days when referees didn't have cards to fall back on if everything else fails, how did referees cope with unruly players?

They had to rely mainly on a good old-fashioned verbal lashing of the player (s) involved.

Or, they could take the ultimate step of sending a player from the field.

Those of us old enough to remember the 1967 All Blacks tour of Britain can recall the shame of Colin Meads being sent from the field for (accidentally) kicking a Scottish player in the test match.

One of the interesting outcomes of that incident is the referee, Irishman Kevin D Kelleher and Meads subsequently spent time together as friends, while exchanging Christmas cards every year.

I don't recall any mention of ethical matters in the old law books.

These were clinical documents devoted to the laws that players were expected to follow.
Ideas of "fair play, sportsmanship and discipline" were left for the referee to interpret in any way he could, based on his own moral and ethical standards.

Society was different in many respects in those days.

A lot of men came from labouring backgrounds, as did a lot of referees.

Disagreements were settled on the spot and out of court.

Women did not play rugby, officially anyway, and women referees were awaiting another Kate Shepherd in the future.

Under the heading of "spirit" the paragraph states that "rugby owes much of its appeal to the fact it is played both to the letter and within the spirit of the laws".

Unfortunately, it does not elaborate on just what this "spirit" means.

Players are allowed to exert extreme physical pressure on an opponent in an attempt to gain possession of the ball, but not wilfully or maliciously inflict injury.

It is up to the referee to determine how much physical pressure is allowed and whether an injury has been maliciously inflicted.

So, in some respects, maybe Ms Cassidy hasn't delved deep enough into the game of rugby and its moral compass.

Certainly, in the law book, there is evidence that ethical and moral issues are mentioned and even highlighted.

How they are interpreted during a game is for the referee to decide.

But the deeper issue of a moral compass being steered from administrators is another matter for another correspondent.