The season officially starts this weekend, both at a professional level and at schools level, and it is fair to say that there has been a fair bit of excitement here.
Thank goodness, really. The weekend and the start of the week was dominated not so much by excitement about is to come but by a huge amount of argument and bitterness over the decision not to cite New Zealand’s Owen Franks for an allegedly making contact with the eye area of Australia’s Kane Douglas in Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup encounter.
To my mind there are two issues that pop up, one is that the law needs to be cleared up. It is not strictly relevant here as there was no citing, but ‘making contact with the eye area’ is plainly not a sensible law. If you gouge or attempt to gouge someone you should rightly be severely punished. If you catch someone in the eye through sheer recklessness, then you also deserve punishment. However there have been incidents in the past (Chris Ashton springs to mind) where a player is neither being reckless nor violent, simply that they have slipped up in contact, it happens, and their hand or finger has caught the eye area. Not even necessarily the eye.
Now I have never been gouged, but I have had plenty of accidental pokes in the eye on the rugby field, and while they hurt and could potentially be very serious, it would have disappointed me to see a clear non-reckless accident be punished.
Why not simply have a law that says gouging, attempted gouging, and contact with the eyes through recklessness will be punished?
The other point, which is definitely relevant in this particular case, is that World Rugby needs to amend its own disciplinary constitution. As the governing body it, or an independent foul play body, needs to be able to step in when it feels there is a case to be heard. Essentially as a prosecutionary body of appeal.
It is clear that different Unions and different governing bodies such as the Six Nations Committee and SANZAAR have different disciplinary standards, as do different citing commissioners. In an ideal world they would all behave near enough the same, however that is rather unrealistic, human nature dictates that people will have differing opinions.
So in order to get that consistency of decision making and to be able to cite players where there has clearly been a glaring omission, as there was at the weekend, World Rugby need to amend their rules so that they can intervene.
Nobody is saying that Owen Franks had to be found guilty, but clearly there was a case to be answered, which is what a citing is. When no citing was forthcoming World Rugby’s own rules prevented them from intervening – that is what needs to change. (It is different, by the way, to the Joe Marler case earlier in the year because in that case according to World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper: “Independent judicial process was required but not undertaken for on field misconduct with JM. (Joe Marler)”, hence the intervention.)
It is all a bit of a mess, and there is no doubt that more has been made of it than there needs to be. As for the one set of rules for the rest of us and another for the All Blacks theory, well that is a bit daft too. Yes, off the field the All Blacks are probably given a bit too much leeway because their brand is simply too valuable to rugby as a whole. As for on field discipline, that is a bit of an insult to independent and professional referees and citing commissioners.
Thank goodness then that attention can turn to the new season, which is underway this evening (Friday)! Schools rugby looks in fine shape as it gears up and you can see our preview for the opening weekend elsewhere in this week’s newsletter, while the Aviva Premiership really looks exciting. Having seen the teamsheets for this opening round, the immediate sense is that there is a real step up in quality across the board this year. The headline signings have made a huge impact to the look of teams, but the shuffling around of the likes Tommy Taylor, Ollie Devoto, and Luke Charteris also gives a feel of subtle strengthening too.
It’s good to be back!