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Sent To Coventry

Given I studied history in college, I certainly should have been more alert.

Had I been, my mind would have wandered back to 1642 and the English Civil War. Because disagreements between the Cavaliers, royalists loyal to King Charles I, and the Roundheads, troops supporting Oliver Cromwell and Parliament, were hotting up.

Just prior to the Battle of Edgehill that year, a number of Birmingham based Royalists were captured. They were bundled down the road to Coventry, a home base of the Roundheads. For their troubles, the vanquished were jeered at, then ignored. Then jailed.

And the two towns became implacable foes.

Given this fact, when on a refereeing tour in the UK, alarm bells should have been ringing when my game assignment arrived by post.

March 10, 2001. National League 1. Birmingham at Coventry. 2.30pm KO.

A force in British rugby in the 1960s and 70s, led by stalwarts such as Duckham, Fairbrother and Rossborough, Coventry now faces leaner times. Financial woes and a slow adjustment to the professional era wreak havoc. The Coundon Road ground looks worn and tired, the Main stand and Cowshed terrace badly in need of a coat of paint. The field, muddy and slippery, is much the worse for wear after weeks of rain.

Nonetheless, a capacity crowd of 2200 attends the local derby. Birmingham, newly promoted from National 2, is very keen to leave its mark.

I introduce myself to the teams in their respective changing sheds. I am happy to come across Mike, a veteran Samoan prop now plying his trade for Coventry. I have refereed him on several occasions in the Pacific Rim tournament. He is a fine player and a strong character. He tells his coach and teammates not to worry, that the visiting Canadian is a competent official.

If only. The game gets underway and things soon go badly awry. In the tenth minute, Mike breaks his arm attempting a tackle and has to leave the field. The weather turns ugly, then uglier. Two teams low on skill are even lower on ambition. Passes are fumbled, kicks sliced. The scrums and lineouts are a shambles, often reduced to unsightly pileups. And the niggle is ever present, players seeking retribution for slights real or imagined.

I try to encourage some flow to the proceedings. Bad decision. Regardless, the teams are having none of it, happy to engage in the stoush. Tempers flare, ill-discipline reigns.

The 80 minutes last a lifetime. Every call I make is contested. Coventry sneaks a win, but the crowd still boos vociferously. I trudge back to the changing area, the object of a barrage of criticism. Some of it really stings. It has been an awkward game to handle, but I know I have not refereed well.

After a shower, I slowly make my way to the clubhouse. The brickbats continue. The coaches are peeved. Both sets of supporters let fly. I am blind, rubbish, pretty much useless. Ruined the day, they conclude.

Then silence. Complete and utter silence. I am left all alone in the corner of the bar. For nearly an hour, no one talks to me. Not a single soul. I have been ostracized.

Finally, an elderly man approaches. Little tufts of hair sprout from big ears. He sports a flat cap, is wearing a scarf, raincoat, heavy corduroy trousers and stout shoes.

I brace myself for one final round of vitriol. But the gent says nothing. Instead, he removes his thick spectacles. With a sad shake of his head, he offers them to me.

I should have seen it coming. Like those Royalist soldiers some 350 years before, I too had been "sent to Coventry".

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