The rugby authorities have an important decision to make because I look at the outcomes of this week’s various disciplinary hearings and it leads me to one key question: What is more important – the health and safety of the players or the game’s image? In the past few days we’ve seen a three-week ban for a punch to the face, four weeks for nearly taking someone’s head off, nothing for a coach calling the referee a cheat and 10 weeks for Joe Marler – an incident that looks bad but contained no malice at all.
It is just one of many paradoxes that exist in rugby. As someone who is entrenched in the sport, I can look at the Mohamed Haouas punch and understand how the disciplinary hearing reached a verdict of three weeks because I know how these things work and I’ve seen plenty of similar cases.
The same goes for Manu Tuilagi’s red card and I understand that once Marler had been cited in the way that he was, he was facing a long ban if found guilty. But that level of inconsistency is alarming and your average “Rugby Flirt”, someone who watches a few England matches a year, will not get it at all. I remember after England beat Ireland last year, trying to explain how a pass from Henry Slade that travelled forward three metres was actually legal in a sport where the laws state you have to pass backwards.
Part of the problem is that common sense just is not very common when it comes to disciplinary issues. The laws can be so rigid that there just isn’t any breathing space for anyone trying to make sense of what has happened and it is important to remember that if players, fans and referees can all be influenced by social media then so can disciplinary officers.
Indeed, social media means that players effectively have two trials and the social media hearing effectively determines whether an actual one takes place. Let’s take the Marler incident, I can almost guarantee that 10 years ago that would not go to a hearing because it would not be clipped up and all over Twitter immediately. I also believe that the TMO would have seen it at the time but I think that sometimes the referees protect themselves from making decisions.
In the Marler case, it was such a unique situation, imagine Ben O’Keeffe being in the middle of Twickenham with 80,000 around him and trying to make sense of what has happened. You could argue that referees are paid to make those decisions but I think a fundamental point in this is just how many people’s attitudes will have changed in the days since the incident happened. I would ask anyone who watched the game, what decision would they have made on the spot and has that changed over the last few days?
It’s important for me to acknowledge that I’ve known Joe for nearly 20 years, but my overriding view of the matter is that I don’t have a strong opinion on it one way or the other. In this day and age it seems that you either have to be outraged by what Joe did or laud him. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground any more. The social media age that we live in means you have to be at one extreme or another but with regards to this incident I’m somewhere in between. I’m not applauding Joe and I’m not patting him on the back for it.
He’s terrific bloke, a unique character and a hugely unique sense of humour. Loads of people have appreciated that and lauded him for it but times he can overstep the mark and get it wrong. In that situation he’s got it wrong but was there any malice? Any intent to hurt or harm Alun Wyn Jones? Absolutely not. In his mind he’s being playful, childish, petulant – whatever you want to call it. He’s brought a spark to a rugby world that is forever getting sanitised but that’s not to condone in any way what he did.
I’ve heard the argument that “these things happen” a lot but if we want to grow the game, get to new audiences, new territories and have more eyeballs there’s a greater responsibility among players. I think to say, “these things happen” is a bit amateur. Those days are gone. There are a lot of things that used to happen on the rugby pitch which we would just accept but they just can’t happen any more. And the authorities have decided that these things need to be in the past now. We just can’t have it because we want a global reach and a diverse demographic. With the extra revenue there is an extra responsibility for your actions.
The final point on the subject I need to make is that I find some of the abuse directed at Joe on social media has been disgraceful. Unfortunately, we live in 2020 and it does not surprise me in the slightest. But it was only a matter of weeks ago that #BeKind was trending and to me it feels like those who were outraged and disgusted then are guilty of behaving in that manner now. In Joe’s case #BeKind has undoubtedly gone out the window.