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Gordon D’Arcy: Joe Marler has damaged rugby’s already lambasted reputation

Punishments for Marler, Tuilagi or Haouas must fit their respective crimes

I remember a game in southern France during the late 1990s. No need to print the opposing club. First tackle, first ruck, I got up in agony, half-blinded by handball wax mixed with deep heat. I was smeared by the stuff.

Second tackle, second ruck, caught under a big torso, I curled up to avoid studs stabbing down from above, but the true danger was a hand viciously grabbing at my scrotum.

In the old days we had to protect our eyes with one hand while covering our privates with the other. This was the sport I was sprung into from a privileged schoolboy upbringing. It was a scary and very real threat as thugs were cloaked by the almost endearing term of “enforcers”.

For 20 years such behaviour has been identified, isolated and removed from the game. Law 10 prohibits “testicle grabbing, twisting or squeezing” as a means to protect the modern player.


Funny man that Joe Marler may well be, he shouldn’t get away with bringing this sort of behaviour back into rugby by masking it with a cheeky chappy grin. The veteran England prop doesn’t get to fondle the opposition captain in a Test match watched by millions of people and then swat it off by tweeting: “Bollocks. Complete bollocks.”

It took the first generation of professionalism to eradicate the “dark arts” from rugby, so Marler cannot expect to defend touching up Alun Wyn Jones by claiming a “bit of banter”.

It’s not funny. Not in a schoolyard. Not in the middle of a scuffle at Twickenham.

My three-year-old keeps pulling our puppy’s tail. He cannot comprehend that the dog is not enjoying this hilarious joke. I keep on him and eventually it will sink in but, failing that, there could be a nip of the fingers when I’m not around.

Marler was hoping for a nip off Jones. Instead it will come from World Rugby. This idiotic act has damaged the reputation of his sport, a game with unspoken laddish values that already gets lambasted by a large portion of society at the drop of a hat.

And rightly so.

There are more important issues to be writing about, but here we are.

Growing tension

Presumably Marler will say it was an attempt to defrost growing tension, but I suspect he was trying to achieve what Jamie Ritchie pulled off with flying colours when engaging Mohamed Haouas in some mano-a-mano. A clean punch, a red card and so long Grand Slam.

Where possible this will be a coronavirus-free column. I'd prefer to be lavishing praise on Antoine Dupont's lovely kick in rush-hour traffic for Damian Penaud's sublime try or the second French score at Murrayfield, which was the best try of a now shelved Six Nations.

I will get to Haouas clocking Ritchie as much as I will continue discussing Marler’s decision to revisit a time when genital-touching on a rugby pitch was de rigueur.

Both incidents can be discussed in the same breath. The obvious difference being Jones showed restraint, even beyond his 147 caps, by not rearranging Marler’s nose in the same fashion Haouas did to Ritchie.

There are workplace norms and there are rugby field norms. I get that better than most as I have existed in both environments. Accepted verbals in a shed full of half-naked men are unacceptable in the canteen at lunchtime. However, I can confirm with absolutely certainty that Marler grabbing Jones is not acceptable in either. Off the pitch what he did was sexual assault and many people will consider it sexual assault on the pitch as well.

When it happened to me as a young player – granted in a more aggressive context – I was a little traumatised. Clearly it upset Wales’ towering leader.

Jones, admirably, turned it into a larger conversation about his struggles communicating with officials and the need for TMOs to do a more stringent job.

I know Marler is a character, and reaction to his foolish act has been extreme. Occasionally his comic moments are heard on the ref mic but so was a racial slur in 2016. Good fella Marler may well be, he got this one badly wrong.

Disciplinary cases

As did Manu Tuilagi when tucking his arm before smashing into a falling George North. As did Haouas, with that right cross, but we could so easily be adding Jones to this list of disciplinary cases.

I have some sympathy for the Montpellier prop. Ritchie came from 15 metres away to knock Julien Marchand onto the floor in front of him. Haouas deserved to be sent off but the Scottish flanker should have seen yellow for escalating a nothing situation.

Something similar happened to Kyle Sinkler last season. It’s no coincidence they are both young hot-blooded props.

The TMO is watching all of this. That is the core of Jones’ frustration. What he seemed to be saying is – who is making these decisions? Is anybody?

The disciplinary system is under scrutiny now. Which player gets the harshest suspension (if any at all): Marler, Manu or Haouas? Is punching, shoulder to head contact or fondling the most serious offence?

We are struggling to write about actual rugby this week – we’ll get there – but it will take a few more paragraphs.

You see, after England beat Wales at Twickenham a friend of mine – who happens to be a father of young children – said it straight: “If that keeps happening my kids are never playing rugby.”

Have a guess what he was talking about?

Eddie Jones meant something else when he said it best: “Manu killed the tackle.” The red card was the only decision for Tuilagi but, clearly, the message from World Rugby is not getting into player heads; if you want to use your shoulder as a weapon – if you want to “kill the tackle” and save your team from conceding a try – go ahead and launch yourself into a player’s exposed head. But swallow the five-month ban that follows.

Tuilagi, knowing he messed up, apologised straight afterwards, but tucking the arm before contact is a nasty act. It is illegal. It is the greatest threat to rugby and must be punished severely.


The fact that Tuilagi plays with a smile on his face cannot excuse his disciplinary record. This is not the first time he has been reckless in the tackle. This will not be his first disciplinary hearing for an outrageous act on or off the field.

This wasn’t an unlucky or mistimed contact like we saw with Bundee Aki against Samoa at the World Cup. He was “killing the tackle”.

Catch a player’s head and a punchy suspension is the only message that can be sent out to children, coaches and especially to parents.

World Rugby should also note that Eddie Jones’s words regarding the incident were a disgrace.

Ellis Genge – the England prop – called the media “sausages” after failing to understand all the criticism after England lost in Paris. Well, this sort of behaviour by his team-mates is why the scrutiny is so intense. And his coach has made everyone dislike them even more. Just, it seems, like Jones wants it to be.

Ideally this becomes a watershed moment that puts s**t-stirrers in their place.

There should be heavy-handed suspensions. Draw a line: head shots, groping, and punching – in that order of severity – will not be tolerated.


Now follows a brief interlude for some rugby. There was 74 minutes on the screen when Thomas Ramos ran back a Stuart Hogg clearance. France were 28-10 behind, and their first Slam since 2010 was long gone. Ramos strided over halfway and offloaded to Gael Fickou, whose nonchalant pop to Arthur Vincent and his pass to Matthieu Jalibert led to Charles Ollivon’s muscular finish, which almost guarantees Les Bleus are dining at the top table once again.

Ireland must still go to Paris – presumably over Halloween – but by then I imagine an even more daunting prospect awaits. We should be careful not to look too far down the tracks.

The postponement/cancellation of the Six Nations raises a very real concern for the sport.

I’m not sure rugby union is robust enough to handle this economic slow down. The train can stall for a while but it cannot afford to be derailed. This, as Nigel Owens likes to say, is not soccer. It’s a professional game, launched in 1995, that needs to be visible in high season.

Many businesses and sectors, like tourism and transport, are facing into a similar crisis.

Like summer holidays, rugby is nice to have, but it’s not essential to most of its supporters. The game has nowhere near the religious undertones of football.

Nor is rugby a wealthy sport. That’s why CVC are able to enter the northern hemisphere market by purchasing 15 per cent of the Six Nations. Eventually, at this rate, they will control everything.

Pro Rugby is a hollow egg. That’s why the IRFU runs such a tight ship, with primary revenue coming from filling the Aviva stadium five or six times a year. That income is currently under threat.

Many strands

There are so many strands to this. How will Australian rugby cope if the Ireland Test series this summer is cancelled?

What is certain, to my mind, is the club season must end before July. The Six Nations is big enough to reschedule and thereby resist playing games behind closed doors but the Pro14 and Champions Cup need to complete their fixtures on time. A closed Aviva for Leinster versus Saracens on April 4th might become the only option.

The worsening worldwide situation also suggests plenty of Pro14 matches, especially involving Italian sides, will be spiked and called a 0-0 draw.

Unfortunate and unprecedented, on this scale, but the season must end.

Uncertainty is the new norm. Rugby has not expanded into bright new territories like it hoped it might 10 years ago. It is not soccer, and it never will be. Governments are going to have to bail out several industries and I presume that includes sport.

We are about to learn some financial realities about each rugby union.

I hear the Scottish match fees before win bonus is £2,000, which is some way off the £25,000 for English players.

Irish match fees are heavily incentivised in that they are based on where the team finishes in the championship.

We are having a global moment. Sport is about to be shelved. Can rugby cope? I am not so sure. Games are its life blood.

The season is not in tatters, not yet, but it’s getting there. We are braced for news of a provincial squad entering quarantine. All that close contact, scrums and mauls, is hardly ideal.

But this is a rugby column. We’ll endeavour to keep it that way.