In the press room in Twickenham a few weeks ago, a representative of World Rugby appeared shortly before the England versus Ireland game, as if by magic, and promptly was greeted by a mini chorus: “Player welfare is at the forefront of our game!”
t was a lighthearted moment, reflecting World Rugby’s mantra, which surely will be piped into your phone while you’re on hold at the switchboard. A lighthearted moment, that is, in a deadly serious pursuit.
That was March 12th. The fortnight that followed has been like a slalom through assaults on player welfare that came in different shapes and sizes and at varying speeds.
The day following the Twickenham Test, Cardiff were in Johannesburg to take on the Emirates Lions in the URC. A difficult prospect in high summer on the Highveld, it was rendered harder still by the loss of utility back Aled Summerhill in a collision that left him out cold.
The first time we had heard the expression “he was asleep before he hit the floor” was interviewing John Fogarty, now Ireland scrum coach, on his retirement forced by concussion. He wrapped up that chat with the line: “I’m sure there are others gone before me who we just don’t know about. And there will be others to follow. This isn’t going away. At least not quietly.”
That was in November 2010. Some 12 years later the genius at the controls of URC’s twitter account thought it a good idea to add a few ‘zzzz’s to the footage of Summerhill entering the land of nod before he reached the deck. It beggared belief, and URC came out with their hands up.
Less than a week later, it had to move over in the bed to accommodate another shocker – the discarding of Munster back rower Alex Kendellen over the shoulder of former Springbok Bismarck du Plessis. It lacked venom only because Du Plessis couldn’t have been bothered what happened to his victim once he dropped him out the back. It was like emptying a refuse sack.
The third contender on this podium came from last weekend’s Australia Super Rugby tie between The Force and The Brumbies. Force winger Toni Pulu was poleaxed going over in the corner by a high shot from Brumbies full back Tom Banks, who started his approach upright and never deviated. He was like a plane skipping the runway, not bothering with the landing gear and ploughing into the terminal building. After a bit of toing and froing between the refereeing team and the TMO, they reached the sensible conclusion of a penalty try with a red card for Banks, who was already off the field with a fracture, from the force of the collision, by the time the decision was handed down.
Lo and behold, the same decision was rescinded subsequently on mitigating circumstances: the initial contact was shoulder to shoulder, there was an attempt by Banks to wrap in the tackle and there was a late change in direction by Pulu.
There are a couple of issues here: first World Rugby need to decide that ‘shoulder to shoulder’ is ok for songs but not as a tackle policy, and then go postal on players who are ignoring the requirement to drop their tackle height to avoid head collisions – Connacht’s Tom Daly being the most recent offender. Secondly, they need to ditch the idea of disciplinary panels comprised of a one-man (or woman) band.
For example, the decision to categorise the Du Plessis offence as low range was a jaw-dropper. You wondered how that destination was reached. Then you discovered there was only one pilot flying the plane, so no discussion.
You might consider this a reasonable compromise when the defendant is not contesting the issue, so it’s solely about the sentence. In those circumstances, why bother with three on the panel if the player is coming in with his hands up? Because getting the entry point right is a huge criterion in justice being seen to be done.
In this case – “a player must not lift an opponent off the ground and drop or drive that player so that their head and or upper body make contact with the ground” – the low entry point is six weeks; mid-range is 10 weeks and top-end is 14. So, low-end with a few weeks off for previous good behaviour, pleasant demeanor and a tip of the cap sir, and you’re back before anyone’s missed you. Mid-range and suddenly you’re a liability.
Seemingly, the solo flight was first given clearance to take off in Super Rugby, and URC say World Rugby have no issue with its use. Interestingly, neither Six Nations nor EPCR have opted for it. Clearly it’s easier to convene a one-person gig than a panel of three, and surely more cost effective – even in zoom times – but the club has the option of opting for the latter at the outset.
If however they accept guilt straight away, and then agree to the less cumbersome one-person disciplinary process, it takes the spotlight away from the crime and onto their compliance in getting it all put to bed. Not quite what’s required, is it? And not if you’re in the business of making the game safer. If player welfare is your mantra then you have to back it up with all the tools of the trade.