First person prosecuted for harassing Rugby World Cup referees online. WR

World Rugby has hailed as "historic" the prosecution of a man in Australia for sending threatening messages to the referee and his family. He has been identified, pleaded guilty and was granted bail of AU$1,000 Australian dollars (€609). He will also be banned from all World Rugby events.

"A milestone". That's how World Rugby (WR) described events in Australia, where a man identified by the Australian media as Aaron Isai, 22, from Brisbane, was charged with online harassment after sending threatening messages to the referee and to his family at a match at the 2023 World Cup in France. He pleaded guilty and was fined AU$1,000 Australian dollars .

Rugby's governing body said it was the first prosecution for online hate crime at the 2023 World Cup. "Further cases are pending in five jurisdictions. WR welcomes this historic outcome," CEO Alan Gilpin said. The man will be banned from all World Rugby events.

"For many athletes, and public figures, vile and toxic abuse is very common. We hope is that this sends a very strong message to online trolls that such behaviour is completely unacceptable and that sport and the authorities are prepared to take action."

Online threats during the 2023 World Cup were numerous. GETTY IMAGES
Online threats during the 2023 World Cup were numerous. GETTY IMAGES

Isai, 22, was born in New Zealand and lives in Brisbane. During the World Cup he sent threatening and abusive messages via Facebook to a Television Match Official (TMO) and his wife.

He was identified by World Rugby's Online Abuse Programme, which supports referees and their families. His behaviour was reported to the authorities. The AI-based system identified and investigated threats and dishonest behaviour against referees and all World Cup officials. The system focused on social media, particularly 'X' and Instagram.

Isaia's case is just one of many that have come to light. It is estimated that there are many more. Hundreds of accounts have been investigated, and many have been closed due to behaviour outside the norms and breaches of established policy. In cases of excessive abuse, the accounts themselves have removed users. Wayne Barnes, who refereed the World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand in Paris, reportedly received death threats after the match, as did TMO Tom Foley. Referees have been the target of those wishing to send threatening messages.

They received more online abuse during the 2023 World Cup than the players and teams themselves. Almost half of the messages tracked and identified were directed at referees, with final referee Barnes the most targeted.