A lack of professionalism from all sides!

Benjamin Norris, fanatical Rugby purist

In the age of ‘professional Rugby’, this statement may at first appear to you to be unbelievable, ridiculous and sensationalist. I presently have an image in my mind’s eye of many of you reclining in an armchair, smiling a self-assured smile, and uttering the words ‘preposterous’ and its many synonyms, and dismissing the case. Ok, so perhaps I have ‘exaggerated a little’, ‘stretched reality’, or, if you will, ‘fallen prey to generalisation’. However, ‘warped’ or not, it remains the truth that, certainly to me, a worrying trend is starting to appear in our game, especially over the events of the last few weeks.
Yes, you guessed it, this column has indeed been triggered by the recent ‘Williams-gate’, but it has also been influenced by other events, both on the field, like the recent Parisse and Burger gouging incidents, although I hesitate to open that particular worm-filled can again, and off the field, like the present climate at Bath RFC.
‘Burger-gate’ overshadowed what was, in my opinion, a fantastically run Lions tour, one that is an exception to the rule of this column. I do not intend to lay blame for this at the hands of the officials, especially not referee Christophe Berdos, who I feel has tremendous potential, but at the sport’s governing bodies. This event is one of a number recently to expose hitherto undiscovered grey areas in the rules. These inconsistencies, not just the gouging laws, for example one might compare Burger’s sentence (coupled with just a sin-binning), with those preceding it, for example in 1999 Richard Nones (interestingly many, like the player John Daniell) have stated that gouging is more common in French domestic rugby than anywhere else, with many citing the players’ culture of ‘self-policing’) received two years, in 2007 Dylan Hartley received 26 weeks, in 2008 Neil Best received 18 weeks, a year later Alan Quinlan is being given 12 weeks, I’m sure I need not point out the trend to you, are threatening our sport, you can see that the offence is becoming more frequent for yourself with both Burger and Parisse committing said act in the same week. Even though I despise eye-gouging and all gratuitous violence on the pitch, and personally feel the harsh line of a lengthy ban must be enforced, I feel that what is more important than the length is that the IRB impose a consistent punishment, that must be applied to all cases, and get rid of these farcical variables. We must all know where we stand or these grey-ish laws will be abused further and even more so, and, as is the basic psyche for all sport, it must be a fair competition (i.e. with the same rules for all). For this reason when the result IRB’s review of the ‘sanction structure’ returns, I hope it takes a harsh line, and doesn’t discriminate between attempted gouging and actual gouging, or the many other variants that presently exist.
Off the field things don’t look much rosier either, for the same reasons. A few months ago, the world of rugby was shocked when Bath and England prop Matt Stevens was found guilty of drug use. But ok, one case, that was decisively dealt with. Couple that with bans like that given to Wendell Sailor for Cocaine use and the fact that Rugby has a very proud history of few cases of drug usage (recreational and performance enhancing), and you can be forgiven for optimism. However the recent developments at the once proud Bath RFC, with strong accusations being thrown at no fewer than four players, including 2 internationals and 2 club captains, and their resulting resignation, hints at serious misconduct within the club that has gone hitherto unnoticed. Again, should this ‘drug culture’ prove to be widespread, the game’s reputation would be at stake, as a result, the RFU must seize the initiative and get the players back under control again by delivering harsh sentences with no variables in terms of sentence. Harrison’s ban for 3 drug charges is farcical. It must be made clear exactly where everyone stands!
Finally we come to the despicable ‘fake injury’ incident, in a Heineken Cup knock-out stage no less. If true, I will have no sympathy or respect left for that proud old club, or anyone involved with it, apart from the fans, which must feel humiliated. To even consider it to me is mind-boggling. There is no room in the game for cheating, and I approve the harsh line the IRB has taken, although I agree with Damian Hopley in feeling that Williams has been made a scapegoat, and how no punishment could be given out to anyone more senior I don’t know, as it is plain that he didn’t act on his own. The IRB again must nip this in the bud, and any other kind of despicable cheating must hold the same variable-less ban. If widespread it will ruin the reputation of the game, finding its way down to the grass roots of the sport, like ‘diving’ in football. The moral high-ground we like to hold over other sports, especially football, of fair play and so on will be a laughing stock. A ‘thug’s game played by gentleman’…..no chance!
In conclusion, this immensely worrying trend is threatening our sport. It must not be allowed to go further and it is down to the sport’s governing bodies to act as one and to take a decisive, consistent and clear line, no grey areas, variables or leniency, that will tell everyone exactly where they stand and stop our great sport becoming a farce and a laughing stock, because if left much longer, that is the direction in which it is stumbling blindly, and with increasing speed. Ok, I’m overreacting now, but give it a year and see what state the sport will be in then if it continues as it has begun over the last few years. The governing bodies must reign it back in and put everyone back in their place, assert their authority and re-establish themselves as the leaders of the sport, because at present, the sport is leaderless. Talk of excessive ‘player-power’ getting rid of coaches, like England and Andy Robinson, shows the hierarchy is becoming unbalanced. The IRB, especially, must act now, to get the sport back on track, before the sport becomes less professional than in the eras of amateruism, and, following on from Mr Morgan’s previous column, they can start by firmly disciplining the Springboks on account on their ‘JUSTICE 4′ protest in the final Lions test.