When Joe Marler wandered over to Samson Lee during the first half of Saturday’s game, it’s doubtful that anybody could have foreseen the knots into which the game would tie itself. That he yelled ‘oi, gypsy boy’ at Lee is not disputed. It was picked up by referee Craig Joubert’s mic and broadcast during the match coverage (and anybody who missed it at the time can find it in one of a hundred online articles which carry the clip). According to England Head Coach Eddie Jones, Marler sought out Lee at half-time and apologised, so Marler himself clearly recognised that he had said what he had said, and that it was unacceptable.
Gypsies and Irish Travellers are identified as ethnic groups under the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination on grounds of ethnicity – and colour, nationality and national origin – is defined as race discrimination by the same Act.
When Marler walked over to Lee, it is unarguable that Lee was racially abused. Lee’s immediate reaction – for a normally pretty quiet player – was to square up to Marler. To Lee’s enormous credit, he controlled his emotions and extricated himself from the situation without retaliating.
So how would the game of rugby union respond? World Rugby Regulation 17 10.4(m) deals with verbal abuse of players based on religion, race, colour or national or ethnic origin. Players found guilty of engaging in such verbal abuse face a minimum four-week ban, with the upper range running from 11 to 52 weeks for more serious offences. So it’s clear – Marler must be cited and banned from rugby for a minimum 4 weeks.
Or is it so clear? While Wales Assistant Coach Rob Howley expressed his shock at Marler’s language, England Head Coach Eddie Jones immediately sought to minimise the offence, describing it as nothing more than a ‘sledge’.
Now Wales Head Coach Warren Gatland has waded in – when he really had no need to – with his opinion that Marler’s comments were ‘just banter’. In fact, Gatland even suggested that Marler’s apology wasn’t really an apology
“Joe said to him at half-time it was just a bit of fun and Samson has no issue. It’s just banter on the rugby field. Fifteen or 20 years ago, those things were sorted out with fists and stuff.
I wonder what the traveller community makes of it. Mike Doherty, editor of the Travellers Times, wrote earlier this year of ‘the last acceptable racism’, that 9 out of 10 traveller children had experienced racist abuse, and outlined the serious consequences of allowing racist attitudes towards gypsies and travellers to go unpunished.
Rugby Union can sometimes, as a sport, assume a position of superiority around the conduct of its participants. That players automatically respect referees’ decisions is often compared favourably to the way professional footballers routinely aggressively surround referees. English football, however, has recognised that it has an issue with racism and has punished high-profile figures – such as John Terry and Luis Suarez – found guilty of racist remarks with long bans and substantial fines.
World Rugby is under the microscope. Marler’s comments were unacceptable in law and by the regulations of the game’s governing body. The comments made by Jones and Gatland suggest that the game has a serious issue with racist abuse. World Rugby, as custodians of the game, and both relevant Unions (the WRU and RFU) needs to send out a clear signal to all participants – from the likes of Jones and Gatland right down to your local Under-7s – that racist abuse has no place in the game.