Connacht's cutting of Sevu Reece shows social media sets the agenda
Sevu Reece case show Twitter and Instagram are final judges of a player’s moral standing
Sevu Reece: the Fijian winger was fined but discharged without conviction after a domestic violence incident in which he left his girlfriend with injuries to her face. Photograph: Kerry Marshall/Getty Images
With Connacht slamming the door on Sevu Reece, the IRFU have shown how they are not about to make the same mistake again in a shrinking world.
Their statement on Thursday was spare and to the point.
“Connacht Rugby and the IRFU have taken the decision, following contact with Sevu Reece in relation to the circumstances of a recent court appearance, not to proceed with a contract to play with the province.”
The 21-year-old was signed in May, but not due to arrive in Ireland from the Waikato until next month.
Since then the Fijian winger was fined but discharged without conviction after a domestic violence incident in which he left his girlfriend with injuries to her face as well as bruising to the left side of her waist and left knee.
In cutting Reece loose, the IRFU have taken up a favourite rugby phrase of “learnings” from Munster, Ulster and Australia in recent months, where the swirl of controversy has consumed clubs and careers.
Munster’s signing of Gerbrandt Grobler seemed safe enough. The South African lock had received and served a two-year ban after testing positive for the anabolic steroid drostanolone. They were wrong. It was not over.
Munster coach Johann van Graan, an unusually civil man, was running threadbare as he answered questions on anti-doping and ethics. It got nasty. Why were Munster employing drug cheats?
Social media tsunami
The trial of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding became a social media tsunami, entirely sweeping over Ulster Rugby. They were paralysed into silence before it went all snafu. Nothing any longer is containable.
The IRFU understand their business model and their stakeholders. They know they cannot make mistakes. They cannot misjudge. They cannot hope things pass unnoticed or ignore the intense scrutiny that governs decisions taken on Reece, Grobler or Olding.
Young lads who made mistakes no longer cuts it in a world where social media sets agendas and judges people, where the consequences for a violation are more severe and enduring than the sanctions handed down by a federation.
Reece being discharged without conviction is no longer the final outcome. Jackson and Olding’s not-guilty verdict is no longer where it ends for them. Grobler serving out his doping violation suspension does not clean his slate, cannot hold his Munster job. The message has become more important than the offence.
Players’ behaviour, moral code and ethics face a far stiffer examination in the court of public opinion
Rugby has had to learn to its cost over the last year that the worlds of Twitter, Snapchat or Facebook insist on bringing new behavioural codes to the table.
The laws that govern the World Anti-Doping Agency or the British and New Zealand courts are no longer the measure the IRFU use to exercise their judgement. Otherwise Grobler would still be a Munster lock.
High moral ground
Reece has been cut loose not because the IRFU are taking the high moral ground or making a stand against the physical abuse of women. They are avoiding an outcry from groups prepared to demand answers about male on female violence.
They are sidestepping confusion in the ranks, or having to explain why women should pay for tickets to go and watch a man play for Connacht who was caught violently beating his girlfriend.
No longer does the investigation end on the steps of the court. Players’ behaviour, moral code and ethics face a far stiffer examination in the court of public opinion. And that is a cold, cruel and unforgiving place.
None of it is ever straightforward. Last April Australian fullback and evangelical Christian Israel Folau made a post on Instagram. He said God’s plan for gay people was “hell” if they failed to “repent”.
Far from making a public act of contrition, Folau doubled down.
“I’ve said what I said in recent weeks,” Folau told reporters. “I stand firm in what I believe in and that’s from something personal with who I am. That’s something that comes truly from the bottom of my heart.”
Folau escaped sanction from Rugby Australia. But not the backlash on social media.
Australian rugby, weakened by poor form and struggling for profile among other Australian sports, proclaimed their star player wasn’t homophobic. The world didn’t believe them. Toulon said the same when Mathieu Bastareaud called Benetton flanker Sebastian Negri Da Oleggio a “f**king faggot”.
The cameras caught him full flow. We all watched. European Rugby did too. Bastareaud tweeted an apology. But they banned him for three weeks anyway.
Connacht didn’t have to think about the pros and cons of cutting ties with Reece. Just what the reaction would be if they hadn’t.
Because innocent or a paid fine is old hat. Twitter says so. A suspension served is cobwebbed thinking. Facebook will tell you. Not guilty as the final resolution comes from the land that time forgot. Instagram will show you.
The IRFU had no choice because the rugby world has changed. It has shrunk. We keep it in our pockets. It vibrates to let us know of new transgressions. We see and hear what we want to see and hear. Then we voice our opinion. Reece didn’t stand a chance. Hard bitten, the IRFU knew that.