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Mark Reason: I have never known a time when there was so much sly cheating in rugby

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A week or two ago I questioned the behaviour of Aaron Smith, which has not shown much sign of improvement, writes MARK REASON for stuff.co.nz

The Lions face a hell of a job getting into New Zealand.

They will be obstructed by photographers, held back by officials and yellow-carded for lifting their luggage past the horizontal. Well-wishers will come in at the side. Reporters will question their every move.

But that’s the modern game for you. Once upon a time the Lions would have sailed through the airport on a tide of goodwill. But in 2017 rugby is coming dangerously close to anarchy.

Referee Angus Gardner will be in charge of the first match of the Lions tour in Whangarei.

 Angus Gardner may prove to be just about the most important man on this tour. The Australian is in charge of the Lions first match against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians at Toll Stadium on Saturday night. It is vital he sets the standards.

It is vital that Gardner comes down hard on all the back-chatting and cheating that is plaguing our game.

 Some of the stuff that went on last weekend in Super Rugby was simply unacceptable and I am afraid to say that most of the really bad behaviour came from the New Zealand sides.

Let’s start with dissent. Not so long ago players were marched back 10 metres for back-chatting referees. Officials wouldn’t have a bar of it.

Rugby used to pride itself on its zero tolerance of the loudmouths. It is what distinguished the game from football, a game which swirls with abusive obscenity.

 A week or two ago I questioned the behaviour of Aaron Smith, which has not shown much sign of improvement.

But at the weekend the worst culprit was TJ Perenara. When the South African referee Egon Seconds correctly penalised the Canes on their own line, Perenara went off on one.

He began haranguing the referee who he appeared to address as “bro”.

He jabbed his finger at him three times and complained about the penalty count, telling the ref, “You’ve got to even it up bro.”

He whinged and he heckled. It was appalling.

Seconds should have told Perenara that he was not prepared to be spoken to like that and shown him a yellow card. Instead he meekly said, “Can you just manage the offside line?”

Seconds is a young referee. He is also a trailblazer, which is fairly apt for a former player who once clocked 10.3 seconds for the 100m.

Seconds is black, which is a rare sight in South African refereeing. It is about as rare as seeing a Maori or Pacific ref at the top level in New Zealand.

That is something which needs to change, not for the sake of quotas or political fairness, but for the sake of equity on the rugby pitch.

I wonder if there is sometimes some unconscious racial bias to some of New Zealand’s refereeing.

It is something that would benefit from some statistical research.

But there is no doubt that levels of dissent are on the rise at the top level.

Former international referee Bob Francis said to me, “The current levels of dissent are unacceptable.”

Romain Poite and Jerome Garces (who are in charge of the Lions matches against the Canes and the Chiefs and the second and third tests) will be firm around that stuff.

“Smith was disgraceful in that match you highlighted. Players need to be marched (back 10 metres). They need to be given a real serve. But a lot of the refs are accepting it as part of the game. They have to take action.”

They need to take action around many areas of the game. The constant holding and obstruction is a plague on rugby.

How can it be that a Crusaders try was allowed to stand the other weekend when Owen Franks was holding back a would-be tackler.

If you freeze the action at the moment when Nathan Harris was held and ask if he had a chance of getting to Jack Goodhue, the answer is clearly yes.

Yet Franks received no punishment.

Even if the try had stood, which it should not have done, Franks should have been shown the yellow card for cheating.

At the weekend, Malakai Fekitoa tackled Rob Horne after a clear out. Another yellow card, please.

All the chisellers and panhandlers and obstructors and holders and blockers should be yellow-carded.

They are all cheating. It is as simple as that.

And little has been said about the behaviour of Elliot Dixon at the weekend. He was the player who was illegally cleared out of a maul.

The officials judged that Dixon was tipped past the horizontal, which is questionable if you look at the line of his legs from feet to hips.

It was a borderline call for which Dean Mumm received a yellow card.

Incidentally TMO Shane McDermott had a shocker in what was a one-man advert for neutral officials.

He cost the Waratahs 14 points at least and arguably another 12.

But to go back to Dixon. When he came down out of the maul, Dixon landed on his hands elbows and knees. His head took no significant impact.

Yet Dixon immediately rolled over and put his hand to his head. We then had the pantomime of the trainer coming on and putting Dixon through a series of checks.

We went down this route when Sam Warburton was correctly sent off at the 2011 World Cup for a tip tackle.

Vincent Clerc made an absolute meal of it and Warburton subsequently said how unimpressed he had been by the Frenchman’s writhing antics.

I fear Dixon’s behaviour was in the same category, exaggerated to exact maximum punishment for the opposition.

We could do without any of this stuff during the Lions series.

When Perenara kicked a ball away after a penalty on Saturday, three other Canes had a dab at it.

Aaron Smith also ran off with the ball after a penalty and went to ground like he had been shot when a Tahs player tried to get it back. Mumm was deeply unimpressed.

But we should all be, especially the refs.

So let’s hope the players from both the Lions and New Zealand get what Francis would call an early “serve” during this tour.

I have never known a time when there was so much sly cheating in rugby. It is time for the refs to get a grip.

 Thanks to Stuff

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