There were times gone by when a cheap dig at the bottom of a ruck, or a late hit here and there were seen as nothing more than ‘part of the game’.
Such actions still go on every weekend across amateur games in every part of the world on any given Saturday. The problem however is that with the introduction of technology to the professional game, every such action is scrutinised and over-analysed to the nth degree. This has led to a culture of sanctioning, and often banning players for something that would have been considered nothing more than a friendly scuffle a few years ago.
Obviously these cheap digs aren’t something we want to be teaching younger followers of the game, who may then look to reenact them themselves, however context is important here. In most adult games, a late hit or bout of handbags is quickly laughed off and opponents laugh it off over a beer in the bar after a game. Unfortunately though, the professional game is bending to the will of a minority of individuals who want to see sport so harshly sanitised that there is a world cotton wool shortage.
Ask any real rugby player, and unless an opponent has gone out with the explicit intention of doing them harm, then they are happy to brush it off as part of the game and move on. The reality is that we play a contact sport, late hits and flailing arms are par for the course, which inevitable leads to tempers flaring and individuals resorting to stupid acts that they would never normally stoop to with a level head.
The problem we have is that because of idiots like Alyson Pollock, rugby’s governing bodies have felt the need to intervene in every minor incident and make a show of offenders. Whilst acts of deliberate violence, such as when Calum Clark hyper-extended Rob Hawkins arm deserve the maximum punishment available, acts of stupidity, or accidental contact with whatever body part must be considered in a completely different manner.
Let’s take Tomas Francis’ ban for making contact with Dan Cole’s eye. Was it stupid? Of course! Was it malicious? I would argue not. The problem we have here is that players are making contact with one another on a regular basis, arms and legs end up flailing as more bodies pile in and often players have little to no knowledge and or control as to where their extremities are heading. This can often lead to accidental contact such as in the case of Francis.
Now obviously he should have been more careful in this incident, but how can the governing bodies seriously justify an eight week ban for this incident? At least they showed some common sense when Mike Brown’s boot made accidental contact with Conor Murray’s head. Yes it was a potentially dangerous moment, but at the end of the day Brown is a competitor trying to win the ball back in a game that could potentially decide his team’s Six Nations fate.
There was no malicious intention from Brown in this instance, and Murray went into the game knowing full well there was a significant risk of him finishing the game with an injury. In the eyes of the law he did nothing wrong and therefore was rightly allowed to continue playing in the next game. The problem we have is that when we start punishing players for outcomes rather than intent then where does it stop? Does this mean we have to ban every player who causes an injury for not taking adequate care?
At the end of the day, player safety has to be paramount in the game, however there must also be a common sense approach taken to the way such incidents are dealt with. Instead of letting outsiders dictate how the game is governed in order to appease a small minority, authorities must bear in mind that injuries do happen and therefore weigh up the actual circumstances in which they occurred, rather than the outcome of a player’s actions – deliberate or not.