Ospreys Director of rugby Scott Johnson has criticised Welsh referee Nigel Owens for his use of Twitter, which has re-opened the debate of the role of the social media website in modern rugby.
Owens, who is described on his Twitter page as a "Welsh International rugby union referee, TV presenter,and do a bit of stand up comedy too", was the victim of some harsh abuse from the controversial Johnson who is not at all impressed with the fact that Owens interacts with players and fans on his Twitter feed.
"He is on social networks talking to opposition players. He posted the last time we played them apologising to the Scarlets supporters for forward passes. When you start that, you open up a can of worms," the Ospreys boss fumed at a recent press conference.
This may have been an attempt at gamesmanship from Johnson as Owens takes control of his side's clash with Scarlets on Boxing Day, but public sentiment seems to be siding with Owens, if the torrent of well wishes on his Twitter page are anything to go by. One observer even pointed out that the referee enjoys better support than the Ospreys.
"The irony is Nigel Owens has 16 600 followers. Scott Johnson can barely attract 7000 followers for a home game in the H-Cup," tweeted thepaulwilliams.
Owens is no stranger to Twitter-based controversy as he was the victim of an attack from Gloucester's Samoan centre Eliota Sapolu who accused him of racism and bias after the referee oversaw Samoa's loss to the Springboks in their fierce World Cup pool stage encounter.
However, one of the most important qualities a referee can possess is the ability to take criticism in his stride, which Owens proved when he responded to Sapolu.
"@Eliota_Sapolu i hold no grudges whatsoever> I wouldn't be a referee if I did," the tweet read.
This raises the question of how the potential minefield that Twitter represents should be handled by those involved in professional rugby.
Sapolu is probably the most infamous tweeter in world rugby and in the last few months has provided a few textbook examples of how not to use Twitter if you are a professional rugby player, often reacting after the conclusion of a match once he had had a couple of drinks.
Apart from his rant at Owens, Sapolu also saw fit to attack the IRB over the playing schedule at the World Cup, comparing it to apartheid and slavery. All of this eventually resulted in a short-term ban from the game but that did not seem to discourage him and he proceeded to take aim at Saracens flyhalf Owen Farrell who he accused of being "arrogant".
Former All Blacks coach Graham Henry famously banned his players from using Twitter during the World Cup, which had addicts such as wing Corey Jane experiencing withdrawal symptoms, but some believe that as the players are adults they should be treated as such and that means 'trusting' them to use Twitter responsibly.
The reality is that the public are interested in the lives and views of high profile personalities like rugby players, which means that thousands of people worldwide (former Springbok captain John Smit has over 72 000 followers) are exposed to whatever banter the players decide to engage in, whether that is plugging a sponsor or describing what they had for breakfast.
At the end of the day players are professionals who represent a brand, and the people who pay their hefty paycheques surely have some right to regulate which thoughts get posted for all the world to see.
Jane found himself in the thick of the action on Twitter in 2009 when he and All Blacks teammate Neemia Tialata revealed that they would not be part of the All Blacks team to take on England before the squad had been officially announced.
Jane and Digby Ioane were both in hot water during the 2011 Super Rugby season for criticising match officials on Twitter, and both escaped disciplinary action although the incidents did expose the fact that anything on Twitter is treated as public comment which could result in a ban if the tweet is offensive enough.
Another obvious concern is the fact that Twitter could distract players from their rugby, with rumours that Wallabies playmaker Quade Cooper (possibly the most prolific tweeter in world rugby) sent a tweet out seconds before kick-off in a Test match, lending more weight to the suggestion that players should be restricted in their use of the micro-blog.
It is not just the players and officials who have to watch their step on Twitter. Richie McCaw's girlfriend Nicola Grigg found herself at the centre of controversy when she voiced her opinion on the All Blacks' World Cup jersey which was being sold for exorbitant prices by the supplier in New Zealand.
The marketing executive, who has reportedly been seeing the All Blacks skipper since April, swiftly deactivated her account after it created some unwanted bad press for the New Zealand captain who does not have a Twitter account himself.
It is something that media managers will have to take a good hard look at in the future, as finding a balance between completely gagging players and allowing them to post whatever pops into their head must be struck.
A middle ground would surely be in the interests of all concerned, as Twitter can provide positive exposure but by the same token can be harmful in an era in which public opinion is key to getting bums on seats in the stadiums.
Although Twitter may be causing a few ripples in the rugby world, a little perspective is perhaps needed as well. England's South African-born cricket star Kevin Pietersen has over 400 000 followers on Twitter while "model, actress, singer, brand, business woman, fashion designer, author, philanthropist and empire," Paris Hilton has clocked up 5 673 373.
This shows that rugby has a way to go before its Twitter presence starts causing serious waves, but it does not detract from the point that players need to think before they tweet, or in Sapolu's case think before you drink before you tweet.
By Michael de Vries
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