Owen Doyle: Violence making rugby more nightmare than dream

Uncontrolled levels of brutal force and uncontrolled aggression is not attractive

Eben Etzebeth and Alun Wyn Jones clash during the second Test between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions. Photograph: EJ Langner/Getty Images

Eben Etzebeth and Alun Wyn Jones clash during the second Test between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions. Photograph: EJ Langner/Getty Images

 

Foul play, and foul rugby – if this sport is hell bent on self destruction, then it is going about things in precisely the right way. If it all remains in existence, 12 years hence the Lions will head back to South Africa, and young schoolboys of today will be dreaming of being on that plane, or will they? If the sort of violence we’ve just witnessed is what they will have to endure and to inflict, then rather than a dream, it will be nothing more than another nightmare.

And, if World Rugby think that parents will continue to be thrilled to put their kids on a so-called ‘sporting’ pathway which seems determined to increase uncontrolled levels of brutal force and uncontrolled aggression, they’d better have a serious re-appraisal.

As early as the second minute there was a general fracas. Alan Wyn Jones and Eben Etzebeth squared up to each other, eyeball to eyeball, the latter sneering in contempt. Referee Ben O’Keefe took the captains aside and told them that there could be no more, it was a clear warning. However, 20 minutes later, after Cheslin Kolbe upended Conor Murray another fight broke out, there were plenty of card candidates.

It would have been easy to pick one from each team to go to the sin-bin, it would have been the right thing to do, strong, authoritative officiating which delivered on the previous warning.

Stuart Hogg and Willie le Roux, or Maro Itoje and Etzebeth, could have joined Kolbe, binned for his charge on Murray who was in the air at the time. The colour of Kolbe’s card should have been red; and he has been much more than lucky not to be cited. Itoje was equally fortunate to avoid a citing, and it beggars belief that he escaped any on-field sanction for very mean, nasty, knee ‘work’ on Damian de Allende who was lying on the ground at the time.

O’Keefe remained calm throughout and never lost control, but there were times when his tone of voice should have been firmer, not as soft, and conveyed to the players that he was displeased, annoyed even, with their behaviour.

The match was peppered with other foul play incidents such Duhan van der Merwe’s binning for a wild trip which actually looked more like a kick, and the yellow card was inevitable following video review. Further, van der Merwe’s late tackle, early in the match, put paid to the involvement of Pieter-Steph du Toit who was a big loss to SA, so two yellows might well have equalled a red, but he got away with this one.

The British & Irish Lions

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Very strangely, there was no review of Faf de Klerk’s hit on Murray which was high and hard with a leading shoulder, but this did not seem to be of any great interest to the officials who must have decided that it didn’t matter, but it did. For there to be only one citing after all that went on is astounding. Lion’s prop Kyle Sinckler is the only player in the dock, for an alleged bite – a bite, no less – if that is proven then the whole library must be thrown at him.

It was all very, very ugly

What we saw in the first half was nothing to do with rugby, none was played. In between the dirty play, and TMO reviews, the leather was kicked off the ball, and not one piece of inventive play was attempted, it was all very, very ugly. Most of us were told from an early age that rugby is a game for players on their feet, but this simple fundamental lesson is being replaced by boring, incessant aerial combat which is nothing but more ruination.

The first half, ridiculously, lasted just over sixty minutes, ironically pretty much the same time Rassie Erasmus spoke for when he took to the airwaves early in the week. The Lions led 9-6 at the break, and I’ll bet none of us guessed that they wouldn’t trouble the scoreboard again. They lost the second half 0-21, and, while there has been some debate about Lukhanyo Am’s try, but since he didn’t knock-on the ball there was no reason to disallow it.

Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks director of rugby acting as a water carrier talks to his team. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks director of rugby acting as a water carrier talks to his team. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Gatland, who would have been anticipating a good improvement from the first test, instead got quite the reverse. He has a mighty job on his hands now.

Erasmus, whose detailed on-pitch coaching, must give a decided advantage to the ’Boks, went a massive step further with his solo-effort video presentation. He has no problems thwarting the spirit of the laws with his intrusions, but, this time, it was so much worse. He tore at the very heart of the game.

This was not an irate coach talking irrationally, spontaneously, in the immediate aftermath of a match, it was a very considered, planned, detailed public attack on the performance of Nic Berry, designed to exert enormous pressure on O’Keefe and the other officials for Saturday’s match, which it undoubtedly did. It broke every convention in the book, and World Rugby have now finally announcing disciplinary proceedings against him for misconduct.

WR’s Regulation 20, in very exact detail and very strong wording, covers precisely this type of verbal assault on match officials.

Unprecedented

Without bothering you with all the fine print, it defines “Misconduct” as any conduct, behaviour, statements that are unsporting, insulting, or have the potential to bring the game or match officials into disrepute.

And, of acting in an abusive, intimidating or offensive way to match officials; or making comments that are an attack on match officials. Erasmus may not have been aware of this regulation or the powers it holds, but he does now.

It is probably wise for World Rugby to let the tour play out now, finish the series.

But the issue is unprecedented, and has caused great damage to the sport, and it has the potential to spread like wildfire unless it is stamped out hard and fast. Exemplary action is needed here.

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