Meddling IRB give Wallabies higher ground before crucial third Test

Home side retain their captain James Horwill for a second time after a judicial hearing

Australian captain James Horwill (top right) laughs with his team mates at a training session in Sydney.

Australian captain James Horwill (top right) laughs with his team mates at a training session in Sydney.


Moving on to the final, decisive third Test of the 2013 series in Sydney on Saturday, and the home side have retained their captain James Horwill for a second time after a judicial hearing, whereas the Lions have lost both his counterpart as lock, Paul O’Connell, and now his counterpart as captain, Sam Warburton. But that’s not all. Compounding this double/double whammy, as it were, the Wallabies have also assumed the moral high ground thanks to the meddling interference of the IRB.

On top of all this, Robbie Deans has been able to retain a largely settled side in comparison to a radically re-altered Lions’ line-up, with the tourists set to make changes in the frontrow, backrow, scrumhalf and midfield as well as unveiling a new captain for the decider.

Horwill himself, his coach Deans, the ARU and the Australian media have all been incensed by the IRB’s decision to appeal the findings of the original Judicial Hearing. The Australian captain had initially been cleared by Judicial Officer Nigel Hampton QC, who found that on the balance of probabilities he could not find an intentional or deliberate action of stamping or trampling on Alun Wyn Jones in the third minute of the first Test.

The IRB may understandably have had misgivings about this verdict, but they would have been better off leaving well enough alone rather than appeal what amounted to their own ruling after independent appeal officer Graeme Mew, from Canada, declined to uphold the IRB’s appeal.

Following a two-and-a-half-hour appeal hearing, conducted by video conference on Monday, which was adjourned to allow Horwill, his legal counsel and Deans to retire to bed at 10.30pm, and extensive deliberation, Mr Mew yesterday concluded that “it could not be said that the Judicial Offer was manifestly wrong or that the interests of justice otherwise required his decision be overturned”.

Governing body
The game’s governing body has left itself open to charges of undue influence from representatives of the four Home Unions in deciding to appeal its own, if independent, Judicial hearing.

An IRB statement sheepishly accepted Mew’s decision, maintained it was right to “further examine the case” and lodge an appeal in the interests of player welfare, acknowledged “the professional manner in which the Australian Rugby Union managed the process” and said it would be making no further comment on the case. That would be its best contribution to date.

“Idiotic Rugby Board” screamed a headline in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, while Fox Sports generated a “Justice for Horwill” campaign.

The IRB appointed Hampton in the first place and aside from being a well-respected QC, he was the first disciplinary commissioner for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and the chief justice of Tonga. In effect Horwill was tried for the same crime twice, without any new evidence, and there was scant reason for questioning Hampton’s competence.

Some figures in the IRB were perhaps mindful of previous disciplinary controversies on Lions’ tours, be it Speargate in 2005 or Schalk Burger’s mere eight-week ban for gouging Luke Fitzgerald in 2009. But they picked the wrong case and the whole farrago will not have helped the divide between the hemispheres in the powers that be,

So angered were they by the IRB’s appeal that the ARU hired Steve Cottrell, formerly the general counsel of the NZRU, with whom he is still contracted as a strategic advisor, and Horwill pointedly thanked him yesterday in revealing he hadn’t slept at all on Monday night pending the outcome of the IRB’s appeal.

“Other than not getting any sleep last night there has not been any disruption for me throughout the process,” he said. “It is the reality of what we do. I have just had to get on with it. I wouldn’t like to see another player go through it, but it was incredibly fair and thorough,” he added before revealing he had been informed of the verdict in the middle of training.

“I am excited about playing and I’d like to put this behind me now and just focus on the game.”

Deans admitted: “We had to contemplate not having James available for the weekend. We were always hopeful, but you can never be sure. We had plans in place, but we are happy not to have to implement them. We are delighted to have him back.”

Having attended both hearings, the Wallabies’ head coach maintained the process “was thorough, fair and just and that’s all you seek on these occasions. The fact it was thorough and fair meant it reflected well on rugby. I have no doubt they (the IRB) will routinely review what they do”.

As to the notion that, ala the Lions’ over the top PR campaign in the week after Speargate, the whole saga might serve to galvanise his side more, Deans maintained: “It won’t give us an edge – it is how you use your group. From our group’s perspective they will be stoked to have James back. He is right at the heart of what we do and you see what it means to him and that flows onto the group.”