Since turning professional in 1994, rugby union has developed hugely as both a sport and a global brand. The technical abilities of the players, the quality of the equipment, and the level of coaching have all improved immeasurably. It has become, in effect, an entirely new game.
In Ireland, the amount of registered players is growing by ten per cent a year, an incredible increase in popularity. These increased numbers of players also mean increased responsibility for the IRB. Rugby is a physical sport, so its governing body must take steps and introduce rules in order to make it as safe as possible. The IRB not only has to introduce these rules, but also enforce them.
One of the most frustrating things for supporters of the game is the disciplinary process. When a player commits an act of foul play that is missed by the referee, a citing commissioner can highlight the incident and a disciplinary committee can choose to retroactively punish them. This method should be applauded, and many fans of other sports have called for its implementation in their own. However, there are still problems that come from this system, mainly through how the process is carried out.
Too often it is the case that we see players commit an offence, but see them have their bans reduced for things such as an“entirely exemplary demeanour at the hearing” or due to the “glowing testimony” of the player’s coaches. One would assume that such things are a pre-requisite for appearing in front of a disciplinary committee.
The above quotes are taken directly from the RBS Six Nations’ press release concerning Dylan Hartley’s recent ban for biting Stephen Ferris in a Six Nations game. Hartley received the standard twelve-week ban for the lower end of biting offences, which was then reduced to eight weeks, in part because of the reasons stated above.
The most upsetting factor in the Hartley case was the way in which the committee chose to ignore his history as an offender. In 2007, Hartley was banned for six months for eye-gouging two different players in one match. The committee’s explanation for this was baffling. They claimed that “the easiest course for the committee to follow was to ignore what they had heard and take the player’s previous suspension into account. However to do that would have been to rely on the anecdotal baggage surrounding the player and not on the facts before them.
“It would also fail to acknowledge that the purpose of sanction is also to cause an offender to think again about his behaviour and that, the committee felt compelled to conclude, was what the player had done.”
How the committee was able to decide that the player had learned his lesson about committing foul play by committing more foul play is confusing to say the least. This is not an issue about Hartley as an individual; this is about player safety.
For some reason, these disciplinary committees put more weight on player co-operation with the committee than the player’s history. Last November, Delon Armitage appeared in front of a disciplinary committee for his fourth and fifth offences that year. His previous three consisted of pushing a doping officer, a dangerous high tackle, and striking an opponent. He was found guilty of all three.
This time around, Armitage was found guilty of both striking an opponent with his knee and another high tackle. He was given three weeks for striking and six weeks for the tackle. Shockingly, the committee decided to allow these two suspensions to run concurrently, meaning that Armitage would serve both suspensions at the same time, effectively making the smaller ban non-existent. The committee added two weeks for his history, but then reduced the ban by three weeks because of “his guilty plea, his contrition, and the impressive way he conducted himself at the hearing.”
It is, quite simply, disgraceful that these committees give such little weight to the fact that the player before them has just committed his fifth offence of the year. Five offences in one year does not tell the story of a remorseful player, or of one whom can be trusted to take the field and not cause serious harm to his fellow professionals.
The IRB have already shown that they are concerned about player safety, although they do not always get it right, with the scrum being the most obvious example of this. The laws surrounding the scrum were recently altered in an attempt to make the game safer. In a nutshell, the distance between the two teams before engagement was reduced while the time it took to engage was increased.
The logic in these changes was clear and simple: if you give the players less distance in which to build up an initial drive, the scrum will be sturdier and less likely to collapse. In practice, however, things have proven to be slightly different.
During this year’s Six Nations tournament, forty-nine per cent of all set scrums collapsed. When Ireland played Scotland in the Aviva Stadium, more than a quarter of the entire game was spent on scrums, with just over twenty-one minutes on the setting and resetting of scrums. These figures clearly show a problem in the way the scrum is currently being dealt with. Instead of reducing the chance of serious injury, the new rules appear to be increasing it.
Some have gone so far as to say that the scrum should be removed from the game completely. They believe that it is an outdated component of the game and ruins it as a spectacle. Although few offer any alternative, and none seem to offer a sensible solution, they are sure that the scrum needs to go the way of the dodo.
Yet with all the negative comments being made about the scrum, one can often forget its beauty. When executed correctly, the scrum is the best attacking platform a team can ask for. It is effectively man-on-man, with a fullback creating an overlap on either side. When a scrum is set properly and the ball comes out cleanly, we finally see the attacking style of rugby that we all so desperately crave.
The scrum is an integral part of the game. Without it, the positions of prop and hooker become useless. The scrum is a highly technical battle that takes place primarily between the front rows. The loosehead prop, with the help of his hooker, tries to get under the opposing tighthead prop, drive forward, and lead the charge for his team, while the tighthead will try to prevent this by driving forward while applying downward pressure to the loosehead.
Obviously a change needs to be made to the scrum for the sake of the sport as both a source of entertainment and, most importantly, for the health of the players. Whether the rules should be changed back to what they were previously, or a whole new set of rules be introduced is difficult to answer. One thing is for sure however; if the game of rugby is to keep growing at its current rate, the safety of its players must be paramount.
by Kevin Beirne