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Security brought in to prevent abuse at children’s rugby games in New Zealand

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2/08/2016 Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

Out-of-control sideline abuse at children’s rugby games in New Zealand has forced one club to introduce security, and community police officers may soon be in regular attendance at games in Auckland.

Last year 25% of referees quit in Northland, a North Island district, after being subject to rising torrents of sideline abuse.

One referee was threatened with being knifed after a parent disagreed with his call, and explicit language was routinely thrown around by parents, coaches and young players.

Threats and incidences of violence are also not uncommon, and last year five senior Northland rugby teams refused to compete against the Whangaruru second division team, claiming a number of their players were patched Head Hunters [gang members], who were threatening them after games.

“Sideline behaviour is the worst it’s ever been, so we’ve got to tackle it,” said Gavin Benney, a former officer who has been employed by Whangarei junior rugby to ‘police’ matches.

“I think the abuse stems from a lack of respect for authority, just a sign of the times.”

Benney spends his Saturdays policing junior rugby matches in the Northland city of Whangarei, which embarked on a wave of reforms last year after one quarter of it’s referees quit - and no-one was game enough to replace them.

Measures included fencing off pitches to keep spectators and coaches further from the action, and making team coaches stand by themselves behind the goal posts.

Whangarei junior rugby board members believe coaches can often be the instigators of aggressive behaviour, and Benney - a small-town cop for 30 years - agrees.

“I have the power to evict someone from the field. I haven’t done that yet but it’s an option because agro behaviour spreads quickly, and then it gets harder to control.”

In July, NZME reported New Zealand Police were planning to send community police officers to patrol children’s rugby matches in Auckland.

The pilot-program, called “Operation Footy Cops” would involve officers hosting free barbecues at Saturday games to diffuse tension, and keep an eye on sideline behaviour.

New Zealand Police were contacted for comment.

Vice president of Whangarei junior rugby Gary Younger said since the club’s crackdown on sideline behaviour children’s rugby games were “much calmer”.

He thought the club’s measures were so successful they should be rolled out New Zealand-wide.

“People take it for granted that abuse and aggression are a normal part of rugby culture and no-one can change that,” he said.

“That’s a weak excuse. We’ve shown how quickly an entrenched culture can be turned around.”

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