Written on: 27. 10. 2011 in the category: news

Rugby powers must tackle dangerous play

Thursday October 27 2011

Deterrence is the most infuriating of virtues: the more successful it is, the more invisible are its consequences. So we should at least acclaim a morally superior act of deterrence whenever we see one, especially when it is done at great risk to the doer.

Which is why the Irish rugby world should this week welcome home the referee Alain Rolland, and celebrate the single bravest deed in the Rugby World Cup: his sending off of the Welsh captain Sam Warburton in the semi-final. If his decision adds to the taboo on dangerous tackling, some young men whose names we’ll never know will be spared a lifetime of total paralysis.

Unfortunately, many commentators within rugby can be really, really thick, and hence the Cro-Magnon denunciations of Alain’s decision. Protestations that Warburton meant no harm, is a nice lad and has a clean record are all irrelevant. His tackle was illegal and potentially lethal. The moment he realised that his opponent Vincent Clerc was upside down in his grasp and heading for the ground, he should have protected the French player and broken his fall. He didn’t. It was not Alain’s decision to send him off that ruined the game, but Warburton’s insane tackle. And that itself would never have happened if every single player knew that the penalty for driving a rival player’s skull into the ground was instant dismissal, a fine and a long suspension.

Now I’m actually an admirer of this Welsh team; they deservedly put Ireland to the sword, and might well have done the same to the French. They didn’t (and not just because they were down to 14 men). So in one sense — the victory of an inferior team — the sport of rugby lost in that match: but it could also stand to gain far more, if a duty to respect the health and welfare of rugby opponents is re-elevated to being the centrepiece of the game.

That this is still not so was made plain in Sunday’s final, in which there were half a dozen neck-high New Zealand tackles on the French, all of which should have led to departure from the pitch. None did. Rugby, as we all know, is a man’s game: but it should not be a mug’s game or a thug’s game, and it certainly is not manly to incapacitate another human being. Not doing anything to damage an opponent’s head or neck should be as central to the game as the 15-men team, the oval ball and the backward pass. It should be a core value, taught and preached and revered by all coaches and players. To violate this underlying principle should be as taboo as thumbscrews in the kindergarten.

Rugby was from the outset the most violent codified football code in the world. This violence was possible because of the Corinthian culture in which rugby grew. The Corinthianism still lives on in the professional era in the handshakes and the applause for opponents at the end of a game. Nonetheless, the game must re-codify conduct in such a fashion as to ensure that certain departures from proper practice are simply unthinkable.

For that to happen, referees must severely punish gratuitously dangerous behaviour, both during and after a match, as videos reveal what the eye missed. Thus the effectively unpunished spear-tackle on Brian O’Driscoll five years ago should have merited jail and life suspensions.

Moreover, language must be moderated. All declarations of hatred, such as those of the French number six, Harindorquy, that he detests the English, must be forbidden. Lore follows law. Credo creates culture. Intent rules.

Otherwise, mothers will simply not allow their sons to play rugby if the deranged culture of protein-enriched violence and incontinent courage obliterates the traditions of care and mutual esteem that once underwrote the game. And the mothers are 100pc right. Not to abolish dangerous practices, root and branch, legally, psychologically, and culturally, is to revere barbarism and celebrate quadriplegia.

However, the chronic failure to have created a total taboo on spine-damaging tackles is just one of the many, many mysteries of that impenetrable phenomenon, the group sub-conscious of rugby. Others abounded in this World Cup.

Had Ireland really wanted to beat a Welsh team that had the awesomely heavy cavalry of Roberts in the back line, we should have had to play the equally awesome Sexton to cope with it. But no: we played O’Gara, presumably for his wondrous points-kicking skills; however, he then chose not to go for points from penalties, but lineouts.

This is pure Aviva logic, the kind of distracted thinking that builds a 50,000-seat stadium for 83,000 spectators. And frankly, the Welsh had a comparable mental failure against France. Their try-scorer Phillips dived spectacularly to score his try, instead of picking a more favourable position for the kicker. And then not merely did Jones miss what was — for him — a nonetheless kickable conversion, he later declined several chances to score a drop-goal. Quite simply, the Welsh lost because sub-consciously they chose not to win.

New Zealand are the deserved winners of the Rugby World Cup 2011. However, there was only one moral victor: Alain Rolland.